Billy On The Street

Satirizing the breathless ways in which entertainment journalists often place themselves ahead of their subjects isn’t terribly difficult. There are certainly far more subtle aspects of culture to target. But Billy Eichner’s exaggerated persona, which started in his stand-up act and soon moved to popular segments on Funny or Die, manages to capture that frenzy in specific, funny, and often profane ways. He prowls the streets in guerilla fashion, not so much surprising ordinary people walking down the street of New York so much as verbally attacking them. His fictionalized self loves talking people about pop culture, but also has no time for anyone that disagrees with him. As such, his interviews are really attempts to seek reinforcement for views that he already holds. When the interviewees don’t, they are often met with a violent torrent of swears as he tears off to find his next victim. With his online success, Fuse greenlit the series Billy on the Street, which premiered tonight.

Now, if don’t know where Fuse is on your dial, don’t worry: no one does. It’s one of the things that bonds us together as human beings. We may all come from different geographical, cultural, and economic areas. But none of us know off the top of our heads which channel Fuse is on the dial. Ostensibly, Billy on the Street is the network’s attempt to change that, which is why they are airing the premiere at 11 pm three days before Christmas. Or…something. It’s curious, to say the least. It could be “crazy like a fox” programming, in which the network tries to create an Adult Swim like audience for its content late at night. Or it could be Fuse got sick of airing Juwanna Man and just threw this on to break the monotony. Your guess is as good as mine. 

Billy on the Street takes the premise of Cash Cab, removes the cab, and adds about 400% more bitchiness to the proceedings. Most of the show is dedicated to iterations of “Quizzed In The Face,” and no, before you ask, that isn’t my attempt at humor. That’s the name of the segment, and should give you a decent approximation for the level of humor attempted in the show. The stakes are super low, and the game itself is fairly short. There are two initial rounds of three questions each, in which the contestant has two answer two multiple-choice questions correctly. Most are fairly easy, and all have at least one obviously fake answer. (Example: Lisa Lampanelli is a choice for “Which pop star started as a Fly Girl on In Living Color?”) After that, they get to the final round, in which the contestant has to match Eichner’s own opinion on hot topics such as “Which of the following is just a terrible name?”

As I feared heading into this show, “Quizzed In The Face” is comic death due to its extended length. The Funny or Die segments work not only for Eichner’s persona, but also the way in which the segments are edited. They are quick-cut affairs designed for short-attention spans, and work due to their brevity and the sheer amount of content packed into a short time. A “Quizzed” game might only last 3 minutes, but that’s an interminable time to spend with a single contestant. A great example of how these segments are padded: even though contestants need only answer two questions per round to move on, Eichner kept asking the third question anyway even if they got the first two correct. It’s a silly thing to argue in terms of gameplay, but it’s a legitimate gripe in terms of entertainment.

More successful are the rapid-fire segments that start and close the episodes. These closely hew to the rhythms of the web clips, and as such can survive less successful encounters due to the sheer number that Billy On The Street throws at you. About a third of the humor stems from Eichner himself, and the rest from those he meets on the streets. Some are terrified of him, some are indifferent to him, and some are such characters in and of themselves that they raise the bar for the entire endeavor. The way in which one grizzled man confidently agrees that “Zac Efron looks like he WANTS to be molested by an older person” is infinitely more interesting than the actual question itself. When Eichner forces people to accidentally reveal their own prejudices, he briefly touches upon the same nerves that Sacha Baron Cohen does. But even comparing the two does Cohen, and probably Eichner himself, a disservice: Eichner’s persona doesn’t seek to accomplish the same thing as Borat would, as he usually seeks to put the spotlight upon himself rather those with whom he comes into contact.

Whether or not any of this is actually funny is of course a subjective thing. Having a Harlem-based segment in which the African-American contestant has to answer true/false statements about Bon Jovi as “Sho’ nuff” or “Oh no he didn’t” might sound racist. But watching it, it’s so over the top that it somehow ends up simply turning into toothless material. Eichner isn’t commenting upon or challenging any preconceived notions about race with those phrases. And the contestant certainly isn’t offended by the choices offered her. Is a game show on Fuse the place for provocative discussions on race, gender, and sexuality? Maybe. Maybe not. It would certainly be a more interesting show if the Bon Jovi segment invoked some of the cultural concerns that something like the Chappelle’s Show sketch “I Know Black People” did. Sneaking in such dialogue onto a game show would be a relatively subversive move that could attract viewers to the show via word-of-mouth.

That Billy On The Street didn’t do so isn’t an inherent failing. But it’s certainly the safer option when the host’s rage is aimed at a contestant’s indifference towards pop star Pink rather than at actual social injustice. Without that edge, all that is left are the segments themselves, which will no doubt rise and fall in quality with each episode based on the quality of contestant. There’s no mandate that says this show had to be socially relevant in order to succeed. But Fuse needs more than what the show currently is in order to have more viewers finding them on the ever-expanding number of channels available to the consumer. As it stands now, Billy On The Street is just disposable entertainment. And there’s already plenty of that on the internet already.

Random observations:

  • One of the show’s version of a lifeline is “Beg A Stranger,” in which another denizen of New York City gets unwittingly drawn into the game against their will. Unfortunately, not one stranger left the contestant hanging. C’mon, New York: you’re ruining my stereotype of you.
  • The biggest cash prize one can win on this show? $100. Like I said, low stakes. But still higher than the ones in Pocket Money, a show that runs here on Boston on the NESN network and barely cashes out enough coin to get the player a large coffee at Dunkin Donuts.
  • It’s apparently very difficult to remember the names of Anne Hathaway films when Billy Eichner is yelling at you.
  • “Natalie Portman, that little Israeli soldier, took some time to make some vegan shoes.”
  • “Beth? Beth is always fat.”
  • “Buy yourself a cookie!” “You’re damn right!”

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