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His cranked-up, aggressive persona, flickering from ebullient to belligerent and always enthusiastic, gives Eichner an instantly recognizable comedic voice.
Billy Eichner is having a good year. The 35-year-old comedian has a recurring role on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and his game show Billy on the Street is entering its third season on the cable network Fuse. Eichner and his friend/sometimes-creative-partner Julie Klausner just landed a scripted TV pilot for USA executive produced by Amy Poehler. He’s also the voice of Ambrose on Bob’s Burgers.
Clips from his show regularly go viral, and his biggest problem getting people to play along isn’t his ambush-and-yell interviewing style anymore—it’s the fact that too many people are starting to recognize him when he pelts them with bizarrely intricate questions about celebrity culture (sample question: “Do you think Prince puts down ‘the moon’ as an emergency contact?”).
A clip showing Eichner destroying a car with Lindsay Lohan was just one of his viral hits this year. The comedian also dressed Amy Poehler up like rapper Pitbull, and ran around the streets of New York City accosting passersby and celebrities alike for his show, which has received a Daytime Emmy nomination and garnered plenty of famous supporters. And his cranked-up, aggressive persona, flickering from ebullient to belligerent and always enthusiastic, gives Eichner an instantly recognizable comedic voice.
Eichner is becoming as high-profile as the celebrities he references in his rapid-fire, pop-culture-fueled quizzes. And, as he is first to acknowledge, he owes his success to the social Web.
“I would not have a career without Facebook and Twitter,” Eichner told Backstage last year. “That’s the truth. Because it was my videos getting circulated on social media that brought me to the attention of all these blogs, and that’s what led to this TV show, which completely brought my career to a different level and just made so many more people aware of me.” And he’s right. Eichner’s success at nearly every turn of his career has been propelled by the way he’s used social media to share and self-promote.
Eichner’s early career wasn’t nearly as plugged in. In the 1990s, he gained a real life cult following based on a theater show in New York he put up called Creation Nation after graduating from Northwestern University. Perhaps if he’d been born 15 years earlier, Eichner would still be a little-known but much-loved gem in the theater world. But Eichner’s career jump from underground New York experimental theater kid to kinetic pop culture star happened because he had a new set of tools at his disposal: social media. After she saw one of his performances, Rachel Dratch signed on to co-star in an “Empire State of Mind” spoof called “Forest Hill State of Mind,” about Eichner’s experience growing up as a middle-class gay Jewish kid in Queens. The video was one of his most popular earlier clips.
Like his music spoof, Eichner’s manic, guerrilla, man-on-the-street game show first saw the light of day on YouTube. After he’d grown a cult following, Eichner enter into a partnership with Funny or Die, which led to his show getting picked up by Fuse. But you can still see some of his early clips on YouTube, where he began posting material seven years ago. Looking at older clips, viewers can see the evolution of Eichner’s gonzo interviewing style; his first uploads show Eichner far more toned down than he is now:
While his career gained momentum and his comedic voice grew more amped-up, Eichner connected with his growing fan base by staying engaged on Twitter and Facebook, regularly replying to tweets and responding to posts from supporters. He’s still quick to respond to tweets from fans, though he took his Facebook from a private account to a public page as his fame grew.
The rise from the social Web to the small screen is becoming an increasingly common path for up-and-coming comedians. Look at Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City, now a well-received show on Comedy Central. Glazer and Jacobson started Broad City as a low-budget webseries, posting their short videos on YouTube and using social media to promote their project. Amy Poehler (who may well be considered the patron saint of webseries at this point) helped the comedians secure a deal with Comedy Central and serves as the show’s executive producer. Saturday Night Live’s recent recruits like Noël Wells, Kyle Mooney, and Beck Bennett all honed their impersonation and sketch skills by posting videos on YouTube, reaffirming that the online video hub is a major place to spot new talent nearly 10 years after the Lonely Island comedians made the jump from YouTube to SNL.
Struggling would-be stars no longer need to hope against hope that Lorne Michaels will pop into their improv showcase. It’s never been easier to self-promote and network from the outside in. And with platforms like Vine emerging as alternative entries into the comedy world, stories like Eichner’s will go from a remarkable DIY victory to the understood way of tweeting, posting, and uploading your way to recognition and success. It’s already happening: Vine stars Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas have already nabbed a movie deal based on their six-second clips.
But the Internet-based path to comedy is evolving, too. The Lonely Island guys jumped from Internet straight into SNL, which is a comedy institution. Eichner aligned himself with a larger online comedy hub, Funny or Die, before breaking off into Fuse, but his fame is more dependent on the virality of his video clips than on how many people are tuning into the entire Fuse show.
What’s next for Eichner? There’s no official confirmation yet, but his character Craig is expected to return to Parks and Recreation next season, and as long as Billy on the Street keeps churning out viral hits, a fourth season seems inevitable.
But, as always, check social media for updates.
Screenshot via Billy on the Street/YouTube
Kate Knibbs is a notable tech reporter and pop culture essayist. A former staff writer for the Daily Dot, her work has appeared in Gizmodo, the Ringer, AV Club, Digital Trends, Popular Mechanics, and Time.