Billy Eichner, on turning “Man on the Street” interview into game show as performance art, in FUSE’s “Billy on the Street”

Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street with Billy Eichner — say that three times fast and you, too, may win a crisp dollar bill from Billy! — returns tonight for a third season on Fuse.

This season includes more celebrity guest stars, with Paul Rudd, Neil Patrick Harris, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Lindsay Lohan, Patton Oswalt, Nick Offerman, Joel McHale and Lena Dunham among them. “That’s not a bad lineup! And me,” Eichner told attendees at a sneak preview screening at SXSW. “But of course, the heart of the show is, as always, the real New Yorkers that I run into on the street. And we have lots of crazies for you this season.” In one episode, Eichner found an energetic fan in Dunham, who was more than eager to compete head-to-head with Elena, the first “random” pedestrian to be invited back to the game show that’s a surprise to all of its non-celebrity contestants.

And that’s the thing.

As I told Eichner Monday at SXSW after the preview, most newspaper reporters outright detested and tried to get out of man-on-the-street assignments from the editors. Myself included. The idea of standing on a sidewalk with a photographer, asking passersby to stop for a moment, tell us what they think of Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine, for a topical example of today, then asking them to have their photo taken and identified along with their answer? Most people didn’t want to talk to us, making it a thankless task.

Eichner turns the tables on the whole thing, subverting it into a game show that doubles as performance art the way he hosts it, barking at pedestrians who don’t or won’t play by his rules.

He told The Comic’s Comic about bringing this persona to the streets to interact with other random persons:

“I was doing stand-up shows in New York, and I would take on this very over-the-top aggressive, pop-culture-obsessed persona, and one day, I just thought it would be funny to take that out and shove it in people’s faces. As something that everyone should comment on, these ridiculous pop culture questions. And so I started showing the videos in my live show and they took off immediately. People really loved them. I put them online and they went viral. And etc., etc.”

How did they react initially when it wasn’t for a cable TV series, but just you and a cameraperson?

“Not that much different than they do now!” he said. “I mean, the people who want to talk to me, talk to me. The people that get angry, get angry. The people that don’t want to talk to me just run away. It’s actually pretty similar! Except I have a lot more people following me now.”

You have more people who know you, sure.

“And just in terms of my crew, I have a much larger crew, too.”

Do you find just having a video camera makes people more self-aware, both good and bad, in interacting with you?

“I think even people who are not in show business, if you stick a camera in their face, they kind of assume a persona of some sort. Or they go into performance mode. The people who want to play along. I don’t know exactly what happens, but you can sort of sense people like gearing up for it, you know?”

The notion that there cannot be “reality” TV because the TV camera alters the behavior so it’s not entirely real.

“Well, our show is real. I mean, it’s completely spontaneous. We’re literally walking down the street and I start talking to people. There’s no preparation. We don’t pre-cast anyone. What you see is what you get.”

I remember seeing the Christmas segment that went online with Amy Poehler.

“Yeah, you can’t plan that.”

Even with someone as famous as Amy, people’s reactions are sometimes, like, what?!

“Or ‘Who cares?’ ‘Is that really her?’ That’s why it’s so great doing it in New York. Because people have some weird attitudes.”

Aside from the plethora of celebrity guests, did shooting for the third season change at all from past seasons?

“In terms of how we shot, not exactly. But what we shot: I mean, I think we take some chances this season, doing…we kind of let ourselves be a little even more absurd this season. And we’re not scared to censor ourselves – not that I’ve ever been scared to censor myself – but we gain confidence as we’ve gone, in terms of how far can we push this. I’m interested to see what people think about that.”

Here’s Billy Eichner Tuesday night going into The Tonight Show audience to ask them trivia:

Billy on the Street’s third season premieres tonight on Fuse.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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