What do Billy Eichner and Oprah have in common?
Well, not much really, but that doesn’t mean a person who channels a lovably manic personality can’t dream. The 37-year-old comedian spends many of his days editing his show “Billy on the Street” at the Funny or Die office in West Hollywood — which is adjacent to Oprah’s OWN network headquarters.
“The fact that Oprah is next door is like a beacon,” Eichner said. “It’s just showing me the way, you know. Like should I yell at this old lady in this episode or should I save that for another episode? I do whatever I think she [Oprah] would do.”
If channeling Oprah is truly the key to Eichner’s success, clearly something is working. In the last few years, Eichner has quickly become something of a pop-culture phenomenon.
In addition to his well-received time on NBC’s sitcom “Parks and Recreation” and his recent original series on Hulu, “Difficult People,” the New York native also appeared in this year’s Emmys Awards’ opening number. Beginning Thursday, his show “Billy on the Street” moves from Fuse to truTV, part of the Turner networks, where it will reach a much broader audience.
The show chronicles the adventures of Eichner’s Billy character, an eccentric, loud and passionate guy who runs around the streets of New York City surprising pedestrians with quick-witted, rapid-fire questions on pop-culture. Topics have included “Dead or Boring?” and “Name 20 White People in 30 Seconds.”
Celebrities also frequently tag along for the ride. A clip of Paul Rudd running with Eichner as he asks New Yorkers “Would you have sex with Paul Rudd for a dollar?” has racked up more than 1.3 million YouTube views.
Jokes may come easy to Eichner, but fame didn’t.
“It’s been a really long road,” he said. “It sounds like a cliche, but not in my wildest imagination did I think I would get here.”
After graduating Northwestern University with a degree in theater, he moved back to New York City to pursue an entertainment career. He soon decided to take classes at Upright Citizens Brigade. But with no real desire to perform on an improv team, Eichner created his own live show, “Creation Nation,” which helped shape his persona for “Billy on the Street.”
He continued to perform and make videos, and after several years they eventually caught the attention of Mike Farah, president of production at Funny or Die, a popular comedy website founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy in 2007.
“A few people sent me his videos, and I loved them,” said Farah, who serves as executive producer of “Billy on the Street.” “We exchanged a few emails in June of 2010, and then he said he would be in L.A. in August, and that’s when we met.”
Eichner has a slightly different memory of their first exchange.
“Mike said if I was ever in L.A. to come and meet him. and I played it all cool, but like literally the next day I bought a plane ticket,” he recalled.
Soon, Fuse offered Eichner 10 episodes right off the bat after seeing a sizzle reel of “Billy on the Street.”
“They really believed in my vision for the show and allowed me to keep the voice that I had already been discovering,” Eichner said of Fuse. “My comedic voice, my strange perspective on pop culture and the world in general. That’s how my TV career started essentially.”
But after three seasons, Eichner and Funny or Die decided it was time to move to another network. Fuse had new ownership, and the show wanted to expand its viewership. That’s when Turner-owned truTV began courting the comedian.
“We started stalking him basically,” said Marissa Ronca, senior vice president of development and original programming at truTV.
“TruTV wants to work with creators who have visions,” added Chris Linn, president and head of programming for truTV. “Billy is 100% committed and all in. Nobody puts in greater effort than him. These types of authentic creators are hard to find.”
In addition to airing on truTV, sister network TBS will present encores of each episode after initial airings. Even Eichner, who has almost 400,000 followers on Twitter, is surprised by how big the show has gotten.
“I got more confident in doing different varieties of segments,” he said of the show’s evolution. “The games have a hint of social commentary they might not have had our first season. And obviously the roster of guests has gone off the charts in a way that I don’t even understand.”
The upcoming season has a roster of A-list guests, including Eichner’s “Parks and Recreation” costar Chris Pratt and “Sex and the City” star and fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker.
“I love the show — it’s one of the shows that I manage to capture on my DVR, and I’m a proper true fan,” Parker said in a phone interview. “When he asked me to be on it, I was thrilled and said yes, of course. People’s reactions and responses to him are everything you could imagine. It’s just always really funny to witness in person versus as an audience at home. The highlight was being yelled at and watching him yell at people.”
Still, the newfound fame can be exhausting for Eichner. He’s promoting “Billy on the Street” and goes back to shooting “Difficult People” in January. He also scored a smaller role alongside Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in the upcoming comedy “Neighbors 2.”
“I think there’s a fear once things start to blow up — as the people say — that if you stop for a second, it will all go away,” Eichner said. “I think that I am working to remind myself that it’s still my life … you have to enjoy yourself. And that’s why I’m about to go to Africa to adopt seven children. My assistant will raise them … but I’m going to pay for the adoption.”
Take that, Oprah.
Follow me on Twitter @saba_h
‘Billy on the Street’
When: 10:30 p.m. Thursday