DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The holidays are a stressful time for everyone, but especially people trying to quit drinking. FRESH AIR contributor Sarah Hepola remembers how hard her first year without alcohol was. She's the author of the memoir "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget."
SARAH HEPOLA: Back when I was drinking, I loved the holiday season because it was a time of year when getting blasted was perfectly acceptable. Eat, drink and be merry. Hey, I'm just following the rules here. Between open bars, champagne toasts and office parties, the month of December was one long pub crawl for me. And if I drank too much - and I always drank too much - I could absolve myself on January 1. When I swore to a bunch of resolutions, I would inevitably break about two weeks later. I've made so many false promises on New Year's Day, you'd think I was running for office.
But six years ago, my party wagon came to a halt. I was tired of embarrassing myself, tired of hangovers. I was 35 years old when I got sober, and though I knew a few things, one question completely flummoxed me. How do you get through the holidays without drinking? I had no idea how to be around people, cheery people, people with toothy smiles who asked annoying questions like how's it going without drinking. Alcohol was the way I quieted my social anxiety which basically came down to two issues - my problems with me and my problems with you. Drinking was like a quick phone booth change into the charming extrovert the party demanded. Although as time dragged on, the transformation became a little less heroic and a little more Jekyll to Hyde which is why I had to give it up. I'm showing up to the party as me, cranky me, awkward me - made me feel so wrong and exposed. In those first shaky months, I would stand at a party piling my plate with cheese cubes and wondering what to say if someone asked why I wasn't drinking or worse tried to twist my arm. Come on, one drink won't kill you. Don't be a buzzkill.
I knew a woman who said she was pregnant just to avoid that entire conversation. It's kind of messed up, but we do what we have to do. I crammed my face with squares of medium cheddar and some people invent hysterical pregnancies.
Our culture doesn't make it easy on non-drinkers. Alcohol is the socially accepted way of bonding and easing the stress of our lives. We respond to both depression and jubilation by reaching for a drink, especially in these dark, winter months. What nobody mentions about all the holiday spirit is how much booze it requires. Stepping out of that social script can leave you feeling exiled and lonely, like you haven't just lost your crutch, but you've also lost your cool card.
Even people who pride themselves on their tolerance can be dismissive of people who don't drink, like they're no fun to have around as if they're the ones peeing in the potted plants at 2 a.m. I've been surprised over the years by how little consideration is given to the non-drinking guests. They're often a total afterthought. It's like here we have an artisanal cocktail with muddled mint and cinnamon-infused bourbon. Oh, wait, you don't drink? I think there's some Diet Coke in the fridge, and you can just grab a red solo cup. To be a good host means to consider the needs of your guests. It's normal these days to offer dinner options that are gluten-free or dairy-free or meat-free. I don't see why drinks should be any different. A simple Google search will take you to about a hundred different recipes for mocktails. And if that's too much effort, some sparkling water will go a long way. And it's nice to offer those drinks in the same glasses you use for other guests. Downgrading the sober folk to plasticware while everyone else gets crystal goblets is such a weird punishment. As if not drinking weren't difficult enough, now I have to use a cup that announces my difference.
What I wanted more than anything was to belong. That's what I wanted from alcohol in the first place, and it's what I was desperate for in the months after I quit. I also wanted to believe that people still liked my company which was tough at first because I really didn't like my own. But in time, I got used to this new world and more accepting of myself. I still go to holiday parties, although I tend to arrive early and leave when everyone starts talking really loudly. But I don't struggle with that sense of radioactive weirdness anymore. I feel at home in my body and in the world in a way I did not for many years. So if you're struggling to stay sober, hang in there because that feeling of comfort, of no longer being wracked by shame for who you are or what you did is a gift the bottle can never give you, but it is a gift you can give yourself.
DAVIES: Sarah Hepola is the author of the memoir "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget." She lives in Dallas. On tomorrow's show Joel Grey. He was just awarded the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement. He originated the role of the emcee in the 1966 original Broadway production of "Cabaret." After years of being gay and closeted, he recently came out. He writes about that and his career in a new memoir. Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Sam Briger. Audrey Bentham is our engineer and technical director. Molly Seavy-Nesper is our associate producer for online media. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's out sick today.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLY ON THE STREET")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) New York street, New York street, he's making dreams come true, New York street.
DAVIES: Billy Eichner's unlikely to make your dreams come true, despite his theme song's promise, but he will make you laugh. Eichner's obsessed with pop culture and has turned that obsession into a very funny series called "Billy On The Street" that's now on Tru TV. It's like a crazy quiz show in which he's the host, the streets of Manhattan are the studio and the contestants are strangers he runs up to to ask a question like name a celebrity that's redefining Hollywood's beauty standards. He often asks the question is if it's one of the most important questions of our time. Sometimes he takes a famous actor with him, like Jon Hamm, Chris Pratt or Seth Rogen, and part of the joke is how few people recognize them or care. He also co-stars with Julie Klausner in her hooly hulala (ph) - or care. He also co-stars with Julie Klausner in her Hulu series "Difficult People" in which they play two friends obsessed with pop culture who've been unable to translate that into careers.
Eichner played Craig in "Parks And Recreation," does the voice of Mr. Ambros in "Bob's Burgers," is in "Neighbors 2" and had a small part in last week's live production of the musical "Hairspray" on NBC. We're going to listen to the interview Terry recorded last week with Billy Eichner. They began with a clip from this season of "Billy On The Street." He's giving a pop quiz to a man on the streets of Manhattan.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLY ON THE STREET")
BILLY EICHNER: OK. Here we go, Kevin - immigrant or real American. If you get enough right, you have a price to take home to Alex. Here we go. Immigrant or real American - and away we go - Mila Kunis.
EICHNER: That's correct - Jeffrey Dahmer.
KEVIN: Real American.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Pierce Brosnan.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Charles Manson.
KEVIN: A real American.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Salma Hayek.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Gloria Estefan.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Ted Bundy.
KEVIN: (Laughter) Real American.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Charlize Theron.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Antonio Banderas.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. The Unabomber.
KEVIN: Real American.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Craig Ferguson.
KEVIN: (Laughter) He's an immigrant.
EICHNER: Yes, he is. Lee Harvey Oswald.
KEVIN: Real American.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. The Boston Strangler
KEVIN: Oh, God, real American.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer.
KEVIN: He's an immigrant.
EICHNER: Yes, he is. Timothy McVeigh.
KEVIN: Real (laughter) American.
EICHNER: Yes, he is. Natalie Portman.
KEVIN: She's an immigrant.
EICHNER: Yes, she is. Jackie Chan.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Casey Anthony.
KEVIN: She's a real American.
EICHNER: Yes, she is. Carlos Santana.
KEVIN: He's an immigrant.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Albert Einstein.
KEVIN: He is an immigrant.
EICHNER: Yes, he was. O.J. Simpson
KEVIN: A real American.
EICHNER: Yes, correct. Did he win? Yes, you win. You win, bisexual you win. Let's see what you win. Oh, bisexual, look at this. Look, if you like a cuckoo clock, you'll love a Cuoco clock. It's an alarm clock that wakes you up and tells you what Kaley Cuoco said when they asked her if she's a feminist. Are you ready for this? Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KALEY CUOCO: Is it bad if I say no?
EICHNER: Yes, there you go, Alex.
EICHNER: Oh, Kevin, yes. Alex is your boyfriend.
KEVIN: But I'll give it to Alex.
EICHNER: Of course, you will. Who won't you give it to, Kevin?
KEVIN: Anyone (laughter).
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Billy Eichner, welcome to FRESH AIR.
EICHNER: Hi, Terry. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: My pleasure. I mean, that's really hilarious. And it seems like that has more political implications than your typical "Billy On The Street" does. It seems to me...
EICHNER: Correct, yeah, sure.
GROSS: So what inspired that?
EICHNER: I think that as the show has evolved, we've started to play more with political tones in certain ways. Actually, what's interesting is that the "Billy On The Street" videos started out as a segment in my live shows about 10 years ago - more, actually - in New York that I did. I did a live late-night talk show called "Creation Nation" with friends of mine. I had a sidekick and a band, and I wrote the whole thing. And it had the form of a late-night talk show, but we did it on stage because no one was giving me a TV show at the time. And the segment started out as a video I would show in that live show. And actually, when I introduced the video, I said it was a chance for me to try to break out of my pop culture bubble and that I was hitting the streets to specifically talk to people about politics and real issues, issues that actually mattered to the world and not just pop culture because the rest of the live show was largely about pop culture and the entertainment industry and celebrity.
And the first couple of questions in every video were about politics. And then halfway through the video, I would veer back to pop culture questions, and that's when I would start freaking out and running around. It was the celebrity stuff that got me worked up, and the message of that was that I - no matter how hard I tried this persona because the persona on stage was not exactly like "Billy On The Street" but similar - that no matter how hard I tried, I could not get out of the pop culture bubble, that ultimately what I cared about was the entertainment industry.
GROSS: Well, you know, the early "On The Streets" that you were describing where you'd start off by asking about politics and then it would veer into pop culture and that's where you really get excited, it's kind of like putting on the same level, like, what's the cause of climate change, and name a Hollywood celebrity that's redefining Hollywood's beauty standards? (Laughter) Like, they're...
GROSS: ...Totally equal in importance in the world.
EICHNER: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: And that's one of the things I find really funny about your show is that it gives this, like, huge significance to the more trivial aspects of pop culture.
EICHNER: Yes, yes. I mean, the "Billy On The Street" persona is truly inspired by who I was as a child - obviously not having an adult perspective on the world. I always kept up with current events. That's just - I don't know - I was that kid. But it was pop culture, entertainment, Hollywood, award shows - these are the things that really captivated me as a kid. I would watch the Oscars and every award show with my parents. I would make lists of who was going to win. I'd be doing Oscar predictions months ahead of time, and not only for the Oscars, for the Grammys. This is just what excited me as a kid.
And, you know, I have a very vivid memory. I remember the day I walked to the larger one of our newsstands that we had and found Variety and I didn't know what it was. There was no internet at the time. And I remember reading through Variety and finding out there was a list of not only the top 10 movies that weekend at the box office, which every newspaper would print, but the top 50. And my mind was blown.
GROSS: Well, let's hear another example of you on the street. And unlike the immigrant or real American one, this is truly just about popular culture (laughter). So here you are on the street just, like, stopping people who have no clue what's going on and asking them questions. And this is an excerpt of Billy Eichner's TV show "Billy On The Street."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLY ON THE STREET")
EICHNER: Miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss - did you hear that Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Laughter).
EICHNER: Excuse me. Miss, miss, please, turn around. Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style. She had...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No.
EICHNER: ...A great time.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Nothing to do with me.
EICHNER: I understand. But she celebrated her 40th birthday, and she had a wonderful time. She had a great night.
Sir, do you want to go the full monty.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Full monty?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't know. What are you talking - was is it, a card game?
EICHNER: No, it means we get naked.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Naked. What the [expletive] wrong with you?
EICHNER: Oh, OK, sorry.
Sir, is "New Girl" having a quiet renaissance?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't think so.
Miss, for a dollar, Vince Gilligan, J.J. Abrams, Shonda Rhimes, are you excited to be living in a time when TV creators themselves are known personalities?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I didn't get the question, sorry. I'm, like, in the middle of my...
EICHNER: I'm talking about Vince Gilligan.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Who? I don't know who...
EICHNER: He created "Breaking Bad."
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Oh, OK, I didn't - I know about this TV show, but I didn't watch it.
EICHNER: What shows do you watch?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I - literally, I'm working, like, 14 hours a day.
EICHNER: That leaves 10 hours.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: By the time I get home, like, I'm super tired.
EICHNER: But it doesn't take much. You sit on your couch, fire up the DVR.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I watched the "American Horror Story."
EICHNER: OK, that's good. That's a start.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: OK, so what was the question about? Like...
EICHNER: I was asking about Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, too, though, a great example.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: OK, but what was the question? I didn't get...
EICHNER: Are you excited to be living in a time when TV creators themselves are known personalities?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I really don't care.
GROSS: (Laughter) I don't know. I think that's hilarious.
EICHNER: Well, thank you.
GROSS: 'Cause, I mean, you're using - are these actual headlines? These sound like they really are ripped out of entertainment magazines and, you know, entertainment headlines, the kinds of headlines, though, that, like, hype things, you know? Like, that Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style like...
EICHNER: Yes. Sometimes I do find these things in a magazine or on an entertainment website. And if they're not, it's certainly - it's meant to sound like that, you know, just the idea that someone's going about their day in New York on their way to the job or running to catch the bus to pick their kid up from daycare, but I'm going to stop you and ask about Kate Winslet's Oscar chances.
EICHNER: That's the general idea.
GROSS: Yeah. Like the world is going to hell. You're going to find out about how people feel about living in a world where TV creators themselves are becoming known personalities (laughter).
EICHNER: Exactly, exactly.
GROSS: But I love it because I think people think that you're like insulting people on the street. But I think you're just kind of making fun of a certain type of pop culture writing in a way, a certain type of...
GROSS: ...Fandom and a certain kind of like exaggerated importance to things, even though you are truly passionate about this stuff as am I. I mean, I'm so deep into pop culture, too, but I think it's hilarious to make fun of it in this way.
EICHNER: Exactly. And I think the whole show is about my own personal love-hate relationship with my interest in the entertainment industry. As I've gotten older, I realize it's ridiculous. Award shows are fun, but completely arbitrary and absurd. And yet, I will watch every single one of them. And this is, you know - "Billy On The Street" is inspired by that love-hate relationship.
GROSS: So we heard you saying for a dollar and then you'd ask a question. What's the dollar about? Is that meant to be like the reward for getting it right or a way of paying them for legal reasons so that (laughter) they can't sue you...
EICHNER: Oh, no.
GROSS: ...For being used freely in the video?
EICHNER: (Laughter) No, it's not for legal reasons. The show is also, among other things, a strange type of game show. And when we started out, the idea was to make a game show but where the questions were subjective. So a person would, quote, unquote, "win" if we had the same opinion, if they agreed with me or even if we just get along. If I simply liked you. And their prize would be a dollar. I just thought that was funny. It was also especially when it started out a very low-budget show, and so we're giving away as little as humanly possible.
EICHNER: You'd be surprised though. People really want that dollar.
GROSS: So in keeping with the game show concept, you actually give absurd prizes to people. We heard one example, the cuckoo clock one. But tell us about some of the other prizes you've given when people get the answers right to your quizzes.
EICHNER: We make prizes. We have a whole art department on "Billy On The Street." We give away dioramas that we've made. Last year, we gave a diorama to Julianne Moore of Claire Danes signing her contract with Latisse.
EICHNER: Oh, we gave Tina Fey marionettes of the cast of transparent...
GROSS: I saw (unintelligible).
EICHNER: ...Which we had created.
EICHNER: Yeah. There's - every episode has something.
GROSS: Oh, oh, what about the "Brokeback Mountain" potholders?
EICHNER: Oh, I loved those. Yes. We gave - what do you call them like oven mitts? - featuring quotes from "Brokeback Mountain" to Tina Fey. So one of them said you don't come up here to fish.
EICHNER: And another one said I ain't no queer, which is lovely on an oven mitt.
GROSS: So I keep thinking as although I think what you do on the street is hilarious, if I saw - if I didn't know who you were and I saw you coming at me with a mic, I would turn and run in the other direction because (laughter)...
EICHNER: Right. Most people do.
GROSS: Do they really?
EICHNER: Yeah. I would say 9 out of 10 people simply walk past me and don't engage at all. And that's fine. You know, I certainly won't - I won't - I rarely will - if someone's just clearly uninterested, they're not going to be fun anyway. They're clearly in a rush. They probably won't stop to sign the release after which means we can't use the footage so I certainly won't give anyone a hard time about that. And, yeah, people are - we don't script this show. We don't pre-cast the show. We go out there. I go up to people. I don't even know who I'm going to go up to until I'm there. So if someone walks away from me, we just let them walk, and I move on to the next person.
GROSS: So what's the angriest response you've gotten?
EICHNER: There was an older lady back in my YouTube days who slapped me across the face. I asked her something vaguely sexual. I honestly don't even remember what it was. This is going back a while, and I loved it. I mean, I thought it was hilarious. And I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often.
But, you know, I think New Yorkers - they're media savvy. People have a sense of humor. Even if they don't want to ultimately be on the show and not sign - you know, if they don't sign the release, they're not necessarily going to hit me. And that's really the most physical response we've gotten. I've had a lot of arguments with people, but it's never really gotten physical.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Eichner. He hosts the truTV show "Billy On The Street" and co-stars in the Hulu series "Difficult People." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Eichner. He does the series "Billy On The Street" in which he quizzes people on pop culture questions sometimes more political ones on the street. It's a truTV series. He also co-stars in the Hulu comedy series "Difficult People." So did you try stand-up comedy before doing what you do now?
EICHNER: I started out as a very traditional actor. The first thing I ever did in terms of performance was singing. When I opened my mouth to sing as a kid, I kind of randomly had a really good singing voice. And so that put me on the actor track and the musicals track. I went to Northwestern. I was a theater major there, and then when I got to New York after college, I was doing the typical struggling actor thing, and people had told me that I was funny. I would adlib in plays even if I wasn't supposed to. So I thought I should maybe try to focus on comedy. And I went to the Upright Citizens Brigade, the famous improv school in New York, and I took improv classes. And, ultimately, I ended up writing the show that I mentioned earlier "Creation Nation." And that became the first thing I did which put me on the map at least in New York in terms of the industry getting to know me and press and things like that.
GROSS: Since you left TV and you left to sing could you sing a few bars of your favorite TV theme (laughter)?
EICHNER: Oh, my goodness. On the spot? (Laughter) I'm trying to think. Let's see. (Singing) Thank you for being a friend. Travel down the road. I'm back again. My heart is true. You're a pal and a confidant.
There you go.
GROSS: There you go.
EICHNER: "Golden Girls," everyone (laughter).
GROSS: Did you watch that show a lot?
EICHNER: Oh, of course, I did. Who you talking to?
EICHNER: Yeah, of course. My parents and I - we watched it every Saturday night. We couldn't get enough of it.
GROSS: What did you like about it?
EICHNER: You know, the writing was good. You know, "The Golden Girls" still holds up. I'll still catch it, you know, in the reruns. It's still funny, and the actresses were fantastic. This is - this could not be more on the nose - me on FRESH AIR talking about "The Golden Girls." But - I - I mean...
GROSS: (Laughter) And singing the theme, yes.
EICHNER: And singing the theme song. This interview better get a GLAAD award, Terry. That's all I'm saying.
EICHNER: And I haven't gotten one yet so maybe this is it. It was perfect. The comic timing, the writing, it was very progressive. It was the mid-'80s. They were doing episodes about gay marriage, not that I even recognized that at the time. But looking back, they were wonderful. And, you know, those actresses - well, particularly Bea Arthur, she came from the theater. She had a stage actor's timing, and I loved Broadway. As a kid, my parents and I would go all the time to plays, to musicals, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway. We weren't rich people, but my parents and I shared an interest in the theater and so we went a lot. And that definitely inspired me.
GROSS: You did some acting as a kid, right? And you had a little cameo on "Saturday Night Live" when you were 12, I think...
EICHNER: I did.
GROSS: ...Playing John Goodman's son.
EICHNER: I did, yes.
GROSS: Did you audition for other roles and for commercials?
EICHNER: I did. I did a couple of commercials, I did a couple...
GROSS: Which ones?
EICHNER: Oh, boy, "Mortal Kombat," the video game. I did industrials, which are almost like after-school specials. What else did I do? I didn't do much. I really wanted to be on Broadway as a singer, but I was already 6 feet tall. I was really fat as a kid - I just was - and there weren't many roles for me. I remember I auditioned for - it's funny, I just saw the Broadway revival of "Falsettos," which is beautiful and maybe my favorite musical of all time, certainly one of them. And one of the leads in that is a 13-year-old Jewish kid. It's about him getting bar mitzvahed.
And I auditioned for the original production when I was 12 or 13. And James Lapine, the director, after I sang, went out into the waiting room and told my dad that I was really good, but I was already taller than the actor playing my stepfather even at that age.
EICHNER: And so this kept being a running theme. I was too tall, I was too this, I was too that. And then I never fully committed to the child actor thing. I also liked being a regular kid and being a student. I ended up deciding not to go to the performing arts high school and instead going to Stuyvesant, which is a specialized math and science high school, of all things. So I liked being a student, and I got back into theater in a major way in college.
GROSS: Was your father impressed when James Lapine told him that you were good even though you were wrong for the role?
EICHNER: Yes. He - my dad went to all my auditions with me. My mom couldn't get off work as easily, and my dad could. And I think my dad got a kick out of the whole thing because he loved show business from afar. And, yeah, my dad loved it. I remember he - as soon as we left that audition - this is just coming back to me now - we stopped at a payphone - there were no cellphones - and he called my manager and told my manager what James Lapine had said. And my dad was not a stage dad in any way. He didn't push me. It was all about what I wanted to do or didn't want to do, but he loved that someone said I was talented.
GROSS: And James Lapine wrote the book for Sondheim's musical "Into The Woods," for people who don't know who he is.
EICHNER: Yes, he's a very celebrated Broadway director, writer.
GROSS: Right. So as a boy, you weren't able to audition in the role of "Annie," right, 'cause all the girls (laughter) want to be, like, Broadway stars, they get to do "Annie."
EICHNER: No, I did not audition for "Annie." That would have been very nontraditional casting. Although we're probably about five minutes from that production.
DAVIES: Billy Eichner hosts "Billy On The Street" on truTV. After a break, we'll hear more of his conversation with Terry, he'll talk about working with Julie Klausner on the Hulu series "Difficult People." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to the interview Terry recorded last week with Billy Eichner. He hosts "Billy On The Street," a satirical quiz show on truTV that takes place on the streets of Manhattan. He also stars with Julie Klausner on the Hulu series "Difficult People." Here's a clip from the series. Billy Eichner's character and Julie Klausner character have gone to a gay bar in Hoboken. It happens to be on National Coming Out Day. Lately, Billy's been feeling too old and unattractive to be noticed. Here, he can't even get the bartender's attention.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIFFICULT PEOPLE")
EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Well, there you have it, New York or New Jersey, I am invisible in gay bars.
JULIE KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Hey, "Grease Live," pay attention to my friend.
EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Could we get the Coming Out Day drink special, I guess?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The two for one is only for people who just came out. Did you just come out?
EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Me? Yeah, I just came out today.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hey, welcome to the tribe. This round's on me.
EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Thank you. (Expletive). Did you see that?
KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Yeah, I didn't know Diesel still made that wash of denim.
EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) No, no, no, Julie, don't you understand? Nobody knows us here. I can pretend that I just came out and then you guys who are way out of my league would start paying attention to me.
KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) So what are you waiting for?
EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Everyone, sorry to bother you. I just wanted to make an announcement. My name's Billy, and I just came out of the closet.
EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Oh, and, furthermore, this is my wife, and I'm going to leave her.
KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) But I'm OK with it.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner in a scene from "Difficult People," which is on Hulu. So you probably can't even go into a bar now without being recognized or maybe you can.
EICHNER: Some bars, depends on the night, Terry. But, you know, people know me. You know, I tend to - I spend the majority of my time in New York and LA. I feel like a large part of my following and my fans are probably in New York and LA because of the work that I do is very New York-LA-centric. So people do recognize me. But it's nothing overwhelming at all. I'm not Jennifer Aniston or anything like that, try as I might (laughter).
GROSS: So did you come up with that concept or was that Julie Klausner of...
EICHNER: That was Julie. Yeah. That was Julie, and I'm assuming an assist from Scott King, our wonderful show-runner who co-writes a number of the episodes. And that was all Julie. And I love her for it. I mean, Julie knows - somehow knows more about the nuances of modern gay relationships and dating and sexual relationships than I do sometimes. Sometimes I'm shocked at the things Julie knows about gay culture and gay subcultures.
And, honestly, I am very proud to be a part of that show. And for - and that Julie asked me to be part of that show because I really do think - some may disagree - but I do think that it is possibly the only show on TV showing a realistic portrayal of what it means to be a single, gay person, at least in a big city.
GROSS: So when you were in high school and you were too tall to get kid parts in shows and you were too heavy for a lot of those parts, too, you were also gay. Did you know you were gay yet?
EICHNER: Oh, yeah, definitely knew I was gay.
GROSS: Did other people know?
EICHNER: No, I came out when - I came out to my friends when I - well, I bet they knew, but no one was saying anything (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) Right, yeah.
EICHNER: I came out at the end of my sophomore year at Northwestern to my friends, and then I came out to my parents about a year after that.
GROSS: Was anyone surprised?
EICHNER: I don't think so. I remember when I told my parents, I came out to them in a car at Northwestern. They'd come out to visit me, and the time had come. My mom kind of was pressing me. I think she just wanted me to say it. She asked me if I was dating anyone, and she said are you dating anyone - boy, girl, whatever?
EICHNER: And that was actually really, really nice because...
GROSS: That's her way of saying that she knew.
EICHNER: Yes, that was her way of saying she knew and that it was OK for me to tell them. And I asked them a few - like an hour later, after that dinner, I asked them to pull the car over. And I told them that I was gay. And they said that they had discussed the possibility. (Laughter) And that they were OK with it, but they were really wonderful. Again, I was really lucky. They were very supportive, and it just never was an issue.
GROSS: You've spoken very fondly about your parents who have both passed away. Your mother died, I think, when you were 20, and your father in 2011. Was your - had your mother been ill? Did you know that this was...
EICHNER: No. My mom had a heart attack, and it came out of nowhere. She was 54. My dad had leukemia for about three months. He was 80 when he passed. My dad had me later in life. And so he had leukemia and was alive for about three months between diagnosis and passing away.
GROSS: What's the transition been like for you to be somebody without parents after having been so close to yours?
EICHNER: Yes. It's been a very strange trajectory because I struggled for so many years. I mean, I was doing these videos. I was doing these live shows. I had a lot of fans in New York. The press would write about me, but I couldn't get a paying job. And so my father and I were really like a team. I mean, he was very supportive. He'd come to every single one of my live shows. My mom had passed away at that point. She'd passed away when I was in college.
And then strangely, my dad passed away on March 30, 2011. And about six weeks later, I finally sold "Billy On The Street" as a TV show. And in December of that year, it was on the air on the network it started on, Fuse. And that all happened in one year. So that obviously, was, to say the least, very bittersweet because my dad just quite - just missed seeing it all come to fruition finally. And certainly has missed everything that's happened for me since. And a lot of nice things have happened for me.
So that is tough. But I also know that, you know, they were so great that that really has stayed with me, and they would've been so excited. I do think there would have been a lot of funny moments in the way that they processed my fame and all my celebrity encounters, and I do think about that. But obviously, it's very sad, and timing is everything.
GROSS: Were you grateful that you are able to come out to your parents before your mother died? Not necessarily because it was a big revelation to her because she probably knew, but more so that you knew that you weren't keeping such a kind of fundamental thing secret from her, you know, never having spoken to her about something that was, you know, so fundamental to who you are?
EICHNER: Yes, and I remember thinking about that a lot because I came out to her about six months before she died, I believe, and I am very happy about that. I think that would have been difficult. That would have been very frustrating had that not happened.
DAVIES: Billy Eichner hosts the satirical quiz show, "Billy On The Street" on truTV. We'll hear more of his conversation with Terry after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's interview with Billy Eichner. He hosts the truTV series "Billy On The Street."
GROSS: You did a really funny video that's a play on "New York State Of Mind", but this is "Forest Hills State Of Mind" because you grew up in Forest Hills, Queens.
GROSS: Which, I guess, when you were growing up, it was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
EICHNER: It was a very Eastern European, Jewish, Russian area.
GROSS: OK. So I thought we could hear a little bit of "Forest Hill State Of Mind", and this is you rapping with Rachel Dratch singing. And do you want to say anything about this before we hear it? When did you make it?
EICHNER: This was done late 2010, I believe. The Jay-Z, Alicia Keys song, "Empire State Of Mind" about his experience growing up in New York was a huge hit, and I rewrote it to be about my experience growing up in a very different part of New York than he did. And we made a video of it, and it's actually my first video to go viral before the "Billy On The Street" videos.
GROSS: So we're going to play a part of it where the language is clean enough that we can actually broadcast it. So here's Billy Eichner.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOREST HILLS STATE OF MIND")
EICHNER: (Rapping) Hated playing sports. I preferred the mall. You're not good at basketball just because you're tall. Strutting down 71st and Continental. They make me get bar mitzvahed as if I was a yentl. Love playing clue, hated playing Yahtzee. Ironically, my rabbi was a bar mitzvah Nazi. So I got bar mitzvahed. And though I didn't want to, the theme of my bar mitzvah party was Madonna.
RACHEL DRATCH: (Singing) In Forest Hills, concrete jungle [expletive] are made of. There's nothing you can't do.
EICHNER: (Rapping) Forest Hills, baby.
DRATCH: (Singing) When you're in Forest Hills, Forest Hills. The city lights will inspire you. Upper middle class Jews walk around Forest Hills, Forest Hills, Forest Hills.
EICHNER: (Rapping) Rosh Hashanah.
EICHNER: Oh, god. Haven't heard that one in a while.
GROSS: So does it seem inherently funny to you for you to be doing hip-hop, for you to be doing, like, a Jay-Z thing but talking about your bar mitzvah?
EICHNER: Yes. I mean, it was very - it's very incongruous. And it's one of those things I just thought it was silly. I made that video for YouTube with friends of mine from high school just as a whim, and it ended up getting shared a lot and actually put me on the radar of a lot of blogs and things who, then, because of that video, started discovering my "Billy On The Street" videos, which were already online, but no one was watching them.
GROSS: So you were close with Joan Rivers for a while, and she was the first famous person to really help you with your career. Did she give you advice about insulting people in your act?
EICHNER: Joan gave me a lot of advice over the years. And the main advice Joan gave me is to stick with it because there had been a point when I remember emailing her - maybe this was 2010 or something like that - 2009 - and I said Joan, I don't know what to do. The New York Times wrote about me, people write about me - oh, you're - oh, he's a genius. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I'm not saying any of that is true, but people were very complimentary of my live show and of the videos, but no one was hiring me. Like my dad used to say, if you're such a genius, why can't you get three lines on "Law & Order?" This...
EICHNER: ...No. Literally, he said that to me. And my dad was a native New Yorker, too, and an older guy, and he just called it like it is. And although he thought I was very talented, I wasn't making a dime. I mean, I would get little gigs here and there, but nothing substantial. And I emailed Joan, and I said, Joan, can I come see your stand-up? She did stand-up every week in New York at a little theater in Midtown. She gave all the proceeds to charities. She just liked performing. So I went to see her, and she said, it took me seven years. It might take you longer. She was talking about the time between when she started stand-up, and when she first, I think, got on "The Tonight Show".
And she said you've got to stick with it. And she was very complimentary and very encouraging. And that was at a moment when my dad was starting to get - you know, I was in my early 30s. It wasn't so cute anymore. It's one thing to be struggling and not really making money in your early 20s and figuring out your life. Early 30s, you start to wonder, is this ever going to happen? And I was lucky in so far as my dad because he was a bit older, he was the same age as Joan. They were in the same generation, so he understood. He remembered Joan from way back. Joan Rivers, to him, was huge.
When I went home - when I called my dad and said, hey, this is what Joan Rivers said. Joan Rivers thinks I've got what it takes. She said that she saw all these young comics coming up, and that I was on their level and that she just thinks it's going to take the right person to come along and put me in the right project and that I should stick with it and that she thinks this is going to happen for me. And that really calmed my dad down.
GROSS: So your "Billy On The Street" character's always throwing tantrums. Like, no, you don't understand, you know, this pop culture person. You don't recognize (laughter) - you don't recognize Jon Hamm. How is that possible? So in character, you're always throwing tantrums. Do you throw tantrums in real life?
EICHNER: On occasion.
EICHNER: (Laughter) I mean, not amongst, like, my friends or anything. There were some - when "Billy On The Street" the TV show first started, I mean, I really didn't have a leg to stand on. No one knew who I was, but I was going to stick to my vision of what the show was going to be. And there were some arguments with TV execs at the time that probably were a little over the top. And ultimately - I hate to say it - oftentimes, that did work because sometimes, if you're just really loud, people just want - will give you what you want just to get you to shut up. And so I'm not saying it was not effective. And I often won the argument, but I think I've grown up a little since then. And what can I say? I feel really strongly about my show, and I'll fight. You have to fight. You know, you don't want to fight, but you have to fight to make your show your own, to make your voice be heard. You just have to sometimes. No one wants to. And if it's a temper tantrum that - that that's what does the trick, that's what does the trick.
GROSS: So since you are familiar with the work of every actor, if you could choose an actor to play you in the made-for-TV-movie based on your life, who would that actor be?
EICHNER: Wow. Who would that actor be? There are a lot of great actors. You know, I think Daniel Day-Lewis, Terry.
GROSS: (Laughter) Only the best.
EICHNER: I mean, look, it's only going to happen once. You might as well go for the best. If Daniel Day-Lewis passes, I don't know. I really love John Malkovich. Yeah. Look, it's a very sought after role...
EICHNER: ...We'll see who bites.
GROSS: They need a lot of talent, though.
EICHNER: I mean, really, Terry, I don't know if there's anyone who can do it.
GROSS: Yeah. So let's close with another clip. You were on "Parks And Rec" - "Parks And Recreation" for a couple of seasons...
GROSS: ...Playing the character of Craig who was a new addition to Pawnee's Parks and Recreation Department. You'd come from a rival town's Parks and Rec Department. So did being on "Parks And Rec" have an impact on you professionally?
EICHNER: I think it exposed me to a lot of people. "Billy On The Street" particularly at that time was very much a cult-type of program, and it's gotten more - "Billy On The Street's" had a very odd trajectory. We've switched networks. The videos tend to get more and more popular. It's an odd show which has gotten more popular as the years go by. Sometimes the opposite happens. I'm not patting myself on the back. That's just literally what the numbers show, and - but I do think at that time "Parks And Rec" introduced me to a lot of people who probably didn't know who I am and maybe became aware of "Billy On The Street" because they started following me because of "Parks And Rec."
And for me, personally, it was a huge educational experience because I'd never done a sitcom before. And so it taught me what that's like to be on a set, you know, in a studio in LA on a sound stage and to work with this fantastic ensemble.
GROSS: OK. So here you are in a scene with Donna, and, again, you're new in this scene to the Parks and Recreational Department in Pawnee. And she's on the phone with a supplier for the parks. And Donna is played by Retta. Billy Eichner, thank you so much. It's really been fun to talk with you. Thank you.
EICHNER: Thank you, Terry. This was my pleasure. It's an honor. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")
RETTA: (As Donna Meagle) I guess we can make a switch to Bermuda grass. It's only 80 cents more per square foot.
EICHNER: (As Craig Middlebrooks) What? Give me, give me, give me. You want me to put Bermuda grass in a continental climate that's a 6 on the Beaufort scale and a park with zero drainage? I want Kentucky bluegrass. I want a 10 percent discount, and I want you to apologize to my best friend Donna.
RETTA: (As Donna Meagle) Yeah. Hi. Is there - and I'm just guessing here - some kind of medication that you maybe need a lot and have taken none of or maybe too much of today?
EICHNER: (As Craig Middlebrooks) Oh, I have a medical condition, all right. It's called caring too much, and it's incurable. Also, I have eczema.
DAVIES: That's Billy Eichner from "Parks And Rec." He also hosts the satirical quiz show "Billy On The Street" on truTV, and he co-stars with Julie Klausner in the Hulu series "Difficult People." This is FRESH AIR.
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