Saturday, January 2, 2016

“And Away…We…Go”: The Frantic, Funny Billy on the Street

Billy Eichner interviews Amy Poehler on Billy on the Street.

Celebrity culture is something that many of us would probably rather not admit to following, and yet it’s both hard to avoid and increasingly something that it’s no longer shameful to confess to liking. Liz Lemon, the alter ego created by Tina Fey on her show 30 Rock, was an intelligent, successful woman and a confirmed feminist, but she also had a weakness for reality TV (a genre which the show occasionally parodied, to great comic effect). Comics such as Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling, who have a reputation for creating smart, socially-engaged work, nevertheless present their fictionalized public selves as obsessed with pop culture and largely apathetic towards politics and high art. However, they’re also operating on the implicit assumption that we’ll get the joke, and be able to laugh at their characters’ self-absorption.

Comedian Billy Eichner takes this self-consciousness about pop culture’s paradoxically fascinating and vapid nature and turns it into the centerpiece of his bizarre, oftentimes very funny game show, Billy on the Street. Eichner’s satirizing our obsession with celebrity gossip and the ephemerality of popularity (whether that applies to movie franchises, TV shows, or individual stars), but there’s an undercurrent of sincerity, too, as when he launches into a rant defending the universally-panned Sex and the City 2 in a recent episode. It’s that tension between satire and sincerity, as well as the sheer gonzo bizarreness of the show, that I find so entertaining.

On the face of it, Billy on the Street is the sort of low-budget game show that you might expect to find when surfing the outer reaches of basic cable (the show’s bounced around from one obscure channel to another, and Eichner will frequently poke fun at whichever one the show’s airing on at the moment). Each episode features a celebrity guest star, who plays a trivia game with Eichner (the beginning of which is prefaced by the catchphrase referenced in the title to this piece). In keeping with the show’s name, this all occurs on New York City’s sidewalks, and at some point Eichner will take to the streets to ask trivia questions about pop culture to random passers-by in games such as “For a Dollar” or “Quizzed in the Face.”

However, the way in which Eichner asks his questions diverges sharply from standard quiz show practice. He’ll often ambush people as they walk by, eliciting shrieks and even occasionally sending a would-be contestant running for cover. Sometimes he doesn’t even ask a question, instead loudly yelling a statement or even just the name of a famous person at someone nearby. When he does find a willing victim, he’ll often juxtapose the stereotypical game show host’s fake enthusiasm for the minutiae of pop culture with a callous disinterest in the person he’s quizzing, for instance by asking them for a personal detail and then interrupting them before they can finish answering. He’ll often treat his celebrity guests the same way, in between making them play games that require them to guess whether a given thing might scare pop star Beyonce, or, in a recent Christmas-themed episode, whether the names he’s reading to them belong to Santa’s reindeer or to an app designed to facilitate sexual liaisons. The prizes for winning are strange to the point of absurdity: one contestant won gummy candy in the shape of Claire Danes’ head, while another won a poorly-constructed diorama of a scene from the CBS drama The Good Wife

"Quizzed in the Face" with Elena, on Billy on the Street.

The show’s overarching point, insofar as it has one, is to ridicule the self-absorption of the entertainment industry. Eichner will sometimes make this point by dragging around his celebrity guest to see if pedestrians will recognize them; one episode this season featured a montage of people failing to recognize Chris Pratt, who’s lately become near-ubiquitous due to his starring roles in multiple blockbuster movie franchises. The joke isn’t on the befuddled bystanders, but rather on the notion that people focused on living their lives have the time and interest to learn every tiny detail about every celebrity of the moment. That also seems to be the idea behind the recurring appearances by Elena, an eccentric older woman and one-time contestant whose ignorance of and disinterest in pop culture, as well as her eye-rolling impatience with Eichner’s antics, has caused him to bring her back on the show on a regular basis to serve as his foil.

Eichner’s abrasive or bizarre interactions with normal people also represent a reductio ad absurdum of big-budget marketing campaigns, which seem hell-bent on getting in all of our faces and yelling at us to go see the latest two-and-a-half hour montage of explosions and chase scenes. However, when this is done by an individual maniac on a random sidewalk, rather than via billboards and TV ads, the assaultive nature of this sort of campaign becomes clear.

As this brief description of the show may indicate, there are limits to Billy on the Street’s appeal. The loud, frenetic nature of Eichner’s routines make for a show that’s best in small doses, while the heavy reliance on pop culture references (also a feature of Difficult People, the show on which Eichner co-stars with Julie Klausner) may make the show off-putting or simply incomprehensible to those who don’t get those references. For those who do, however, Billy on the Street is a strange but often hilarious skewering of the vapidity and fake cheerfulness of celebrity culture – and, at least some of the time, a sincere celebration of it as well.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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