Comfort Viewing: 3 Reasons I Love ‘Billy on the Street’

To live in New York City right now is to feel constantly nostalgic for the place it used to be. Back when everything was open and the s...


To live in New York City right now is to feel constantly nostalgic for the place it used to be.

Back when everything was open and the sidewalks churned with people, many day-to-day moments might be spurred by random interactions and spontaneous whims. You grab a drink with friends after running into them on the street; you decide to catch a movie — or sometimes even a play or concert — minutes before showtime. Walking down those same sidewalks now, the shuttered storefronts, empty bars and darkened theaters are poignant reminders of how much the city lost during the pandemic.

So as the seemingly endless winter stretched on and on, and I found myself acutely missing the company of other people, friends and strangers alike, I turned to “Billy on the Street” when I needed a lighthearted escape.

Filmed almost entirely outdoors in Manhattan, the game show followed the comedian Billy Eichner as he prowled the streets with a camera crew, accosting people with hyper-specific questions about celebrities and pop culture.

The episodes all feature most of the same games and gimmicks. In “For a Dollar,” Eichner runs around rewarding pedestrians with a dollar bill if he likes how they respond to his idiosyncratic questions. (“Do you think Leonardo DiCaprio can be alone with his thoughts?”) “Quizzed in the Face” is a trivia game in which a contestant has to guess the right answer between two unlikely options, such as “Kris Jenner or Geppetto?” (They have more in common than you’d think.) Many episodes include celebrity cameos.

The show’s most defining feature, however, is Eichner’s faux-belligerent act. He yells at pretty much everyone — Oscar winners, college students and confused tourists, as well as his recurring foil, an eccentric New Yorker named Elena.

“Billy on the Street” aired off and on from 2011 to 2017, first on Fuse before moving to truTV for its final two seasons. (There have since been some online episodes produced by Funny or Die.) Seasons 2-5 are available on Netflix, and the entire series can be viewed on truTV’s website and app.

Eichner himself has moved on to high-profile roles in television and movies including “American Horror Story” and the live-action version of “The Lion King.” Eichner will also star in and is co-writing the Universal Pictures film “Bros,” which is scheduled for release next year — among the rare gay rom-coms to come from a major studio.

So we may never get another episode of “Billy on the Street,” but I’m content to watch the ones we do have. Here are three reasons the show warmed my heart during the long, cold days spent inside my apartment.

Because “Billy on the Street” was often filmed in pedestrian-heavy locations like Union Square, Herald Square and Madison Square Park, it serves as a time capsule of the city before the pandemic. (Back when the series was filming, it was not uncommon to witness Eichner repeatedly circling the Flatiron Building with a camera crew and a celebrity like Will Ferrell or Debra Messing in tow.)

With tourism down and many people working remotely, the series is a welcome reminder of how busy and bustling the city used to be, particularly midtown Manhattan, teeming with locals and tourists alike. Sometimes I watch just to be reminded of certain neighborhoods or to try to catch glimpses of places that have since closed. Every episode can feel like a wistful trip down memory lane.

When you’re being vigilant about wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from other people, it’s hard to have moments of spontaneity with anyone outside your pandemic bubble. That’s why I derive vicarious joy from watching Eichner startle unsuspecting people with random questions. (“How does Lake Bell stay so grounded?”) It’s also bittersweet to watch strangers stand so close together, hugging and even yelling into each other’s faces.

The celebrities are a big part of the fun, too, as they cavort with Eichner and confront stunned pedestrians on the streets of Manhattan. Memorable moments include when Julianne Moore performs dramatic monologues from her films to agog tourists in Times Square (you will agree with Eichner’s righteous indignation that Moore has won only one Oscar); when Eichner asks pedestrians if they would have sex with Paul Rudd, as the actor stands right beside him; and when Tina Fey takes a bite of a stranger’s sandwich after asking if he has a “mouth disease” — a moment which has new resonance in 2021.

Most of the show ran during the Obama era, and as a pop culture obsessive, I enjoy being reminded that Deflategate, Harrison Ford’s plane crashes and Jennifer Lawrence’s falls at various award shows once loomed so large in the public consciousness.

Besides being tickled by the specificity of Eichner’s jokes and asides, I find a lot of these references comforting because they are so particular to that time period but also remind me that these episodes weren’t filmed that long ago.

As the vaccination effort progresses, we are glimpsing the possibility of a post-pandemic era. But while the Manhattan of “Billy on the Street” doesn’t feel as remote as it did a few months ago, the city still doesn’t feel quite as safe as it did before the pandemic, which has inspired racist attacks against people of Asian descent. For many of us, just walking outside can be an unnerving proposition.

Which is all the more reason I find solace in watching “Billy on the Street.” It provides an optimistic window into what I hope New York City can eventually be, when the scariest thing that could happen is having a very tall man with a microphone demand my opinion about Jennifer Garner’s performance in “Juno” and then scurry away.

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