“It took me seven years,” Joan Rivers once told actor and comedian Billy Eichner, referring to the time it took to score her first appearance on The Tonight Show after starting stand-up. “It may take you longer.”
Eichner considered the world’s most famous comedienne, who passed away at age 81 in 2016, to be his personal shero. The native New Yorkers often palled around the city as Rivers championed Eichner’s work. “[Y]ears ago, when I was struggling for work,” which he dates at sometime around 2010, “Joan insisted on dropping off DVDs of my YouTube videos with producers at Late Show with David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” Eichner told Entertainment Weekly.
Those YouTube videos, snippets of his TruTV game show series, earned him the title of Funniest Man on the Internet, as well as secured him with a gaggle of humorous “man-on-the-street” correspondent gigs for television hosts Andy Cohen, Carson Daly, Conan O’Brien, Wendy Williams, and even Joan Rivers.
In his series Billy on the Street, Eichner escorts celebrities outside to converse with the hoi polloi, accosting passersby with random and sometimes salacious questions about the celebrity and offering a single dollar bill to those who answer correctly…or something like that.
“When we started out, the idea was to make a game show,” Eichner told NPR’s Terry Gross in a 2016 radio interview, “but where the questions were subjective. So, a person would ‘win’ if we had the same opinion, if they agreed with me, or even if we just get along, if I simply liked you. Their prize would be a dollar. I just thought that was funny.”
Some of the questions: Can you identify Hollywood actor Chris Pratt? Almost no one could. Do gay people care about This Week Tonight host John Oliver? Almost no one did. Would you have sex with cuddly actor Paul Rudd for a dollar? Almost all yesses. Would you have a threesome with Eichner and Mad Men heartthrob Jon Hamm? That got “hell yeahs,” but mostly because of Hamm. Other special guests included comedienne Amy Poehler, who helped Eichner force people to sing Christmas carols, actress Julianne Moore, who performed memorable scenes from her oeuvre in the middle of Time Square, and former First Lady Michelle Obama with Big Bird and an elderly FLOTUS fan at a Washington, DC, supermarket.
Eichner’s street style eventually caught the eyes of the producers of the hit sitcom Parks and Recreation, who brought him on as a series regular for 17 episodes, and he landed several voice-over gigs, including one as a guest star on the animated television series Bob’s Burgers. It also earned him an Emmy nomination in 2013 for Outstanding Game Show Host. And as Eichner’s profile began to grow, so did audience recognition on the street. “It has gotten harder,” he said, referring to Billy on the Street in a 2017 interview with Entertainment Tonight. “I think it’s a good mix of people who do recognize me and still people who don’t.”
Part of that reduced anonymity is due to Eichner’s critically acclaimed comedy show Difficult People, a joint effort with comedic colleague Julie Klausner that has aired on Hulu since 2015. Eichner and Klausner play a pair of “really fun and mean and bitter” (his words) aspiring comedians in New York who, despite their vile and ruthless natures, keep audiences tuned in and laughing. Like Billy on the Street, Difficult People allows for lots of ad-libbing and pop culture trivia in Eichner’s signature bombastic style that still may be a bit much for more traditional prime-time TV watchers. “I don’t think we’re capable of doing a show that is pandering to the mainstream,” he said. “Hulu is the right place for [Difficult People] because it allowed us to be ourselves. We didn’t have to water it down. It’s not diluted at all—take it or leave it,” Eichner told the Hollywood Reporter.
Lately, there’s been nothing watered down about Eichner’s career. This past year, he flexed his considerable dramatic skills with a recurring role on American Horror Story: Cult, which he described on Late Night with Seth Meyers as having, “…some darkly funny moments, but it’s mostly serious and violent and sexual and all the things people have always wanted to see from me.” Not falling too far out of character, however, he is also voicing friendly meerkat Timon in Disney’s live-action remake of its signature animated feature The Lion King.
It has been about seven years since Eichner complained to Joan Rivers about receiving accolades, but no paid work. “You gotta stick with it,” his friend and mentor said to him. It seems that her advice has stuck.