Since its premiere in December 2011 on niche music television network Fuse, “Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street” has commanded the attention of New York City residents and unsuspecting tourists. The show’s host, Billy Eichner, has even taken many A-list celebrities along for the ride, including Will Ferrell, Pink and most recently, Lindsay Lohan.
Yet few have even heard of the program, which earned Eichner an Emmy nomination last year. This is understandable; it is not easy to find Fuse on the TV guide. Plus, the demographic for an alternative music network seems to be an unlikely fit for this quiz show where a manic comedian pulls a string of references to Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” out of thin air.
The premise of “Billy on the Street” is simple enough; it is a quiz show where Eichner approaches random people around New York City and asks them pop culture questions for money. The twist is that the questions are often completely subjective and so beyond the pale that they are shocking, unless one is the kind of person who thinks about if they would rather be romantically involved with actress Greta Gerwig or “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear.
The consistently bizarre and hilarious writing, contributed to by a number of very funny people like comedian Julie Klausner and “Best Week Ever” alum Jake Fogelnest, is enough to make “Billy on the Street” a must-watch television affair. However, it is only the icing on a terrific comedy cake of which host Billy Eichner waits inside, only to pop out of like a stripper at a birthday party.
Eichner, who many might know from his recurring role as Craig on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” is like the entirety of the annual Running of the Bulls condensed into one person. What truly sets “Billy on the Street” apart is the command Eichner has over his shtick; his on-screen persona is angry, catty and seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Without fail, the 24 episodes of “Billy on the Street” that have aired contain at least one moment where the show practically demands to be paused as to allow viewers to catch their breath and not asphyxiate from laughing. It is extremely tempting to binge watch the program as people tend to do in this day and age, but it seems almost dangerous to try. Eichner brings a temperamental energy to the show that makes the heart begin pounding like one is watching a high-octane thriller.
It is a romantic comedy cliché that New York City is practically its own character in a story, but in the case of “Billy on the Street,” it could not be more true. Eichner’s character on the show is extremely rude and crass, but he often meets his match with the iconic strong-willed personality types for which New York City is known. While Eichner sometimes breaks character, the most fascinating element of the show is the trainwreck that ensues when his unstoppable force collides with the immovable insanity of an unknown stranger.
While Eichner experiments with new segments in most episodes, the show is reliant upon two equally funny segments. “For a Dollar” sends Eichner on the run, approaching random strangers and asking them strange pop culture questions that border on rhetorical. “Does Kristen Chenoweth pee Fruitopia?” “What is scarier: a second Holocaust or Anne Hathaway doing stand-up?” In both cases, the answer Eichner is looking for is certainly different from the truth, yet the fact he even asks makes it abundantly clear what answer he wants.
The other segment is the euphemistically titled “Quizzed in the Face,” where a passerby is targeted for a series of questions that can win them up to $100. These questions are typically fact-based yet obscure enough to befuddle even the most pop culturally literate among us. The questions are amusing, but this segment in particular highlights the show’s true joy — the sparks that fly when two people try to pick each other apart in a strange and uncomfortable situation.
It is no wonder that “Billy on the Street” has developed a bit of a cult following. After all, the show is branded by Funny or Die, the comedy distribution outfit of producers Will Ferrell and “Anchorman” director Adam McKay, which appeals to a very specific kind of comedy viewer. Those who cannot see the hilarity in a man loudly shouting “Name a woman!” at a bubbly college co-ed and trying to keep from laughing when she is too startled to think of a single name probably just will not get “Billy on the Street.” But for everyone else, the show is primed and ready to become their next obsession.
“Billy on the Street” is a confection for pop culture scholars and alternative comedy nerds, but it is so much more than that. At its core, it is a social experiment that explores the comic possibilities of breaking people out of their comfort zone using the information age’s true universal language: popular culture. While the show feels like a well-kept secret, its host literally screams for attention from the city that never sleeps.
Frankly, it deserves all the attention it can get.
The third season of “Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street” airs Wednesday nights at 11 p.m. EST/10 p.m. CST on FUSE. Season 1 and 2 are available on iTunes.
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