Many viewers first met Billy Eichner in his guise as a manic quizmaster hammering pedestrians with cockamamie pop-culture queries such as “When Matt Damon daydreams he’s running for the Senate, what state does he imagine he’s in?” and “Where were YOU when Kelly Osbourne left ‘Fashion Police’ ”?
Eichner’s breathless “Billy on the Street” premiered on Fuse in 2011, then moved to truTV, where its fifth season hit the pavement last fall (and is up for an Emmy as outstanding variety sketch series).
Along the way, Eichner’s career as an actor has blossomed. Now he can be as hard to miss in his TV acting roles as he was on the street accosting puzzled passers-by.
He’s co-starring in the third season of “Difficult People,” the Hulu comedy where he and Julie Klausner play 30-something besties bonding in a snark attack on New York and the entertainment world they lackadaisically are trying to break into.
In Netflix’s comedy series “Friends from College,” he appears alongside co-stars including Fred Savage, Cobie Smulders and Keegan-Michael Key as a grumpy gynecologist.
And for something a little different, last week he bows as a supporting player on the second episode of “American Horror Story: Cult.” No spoilers here. Let’s just say Eichner plays a quirky next-door neighbor of series star Sarah Paulson who keeps bees and likes guns.
“Cult” takes its cue from the election of President Donald Trump, which itself constitutes an American horror story in the eyes of the series.
Trump’s presidency “is a topic that everybody’s talking about every single day,” says Eichner, “but it certainly hasn’t been talked about in this way. To combine political commentary with the horror and gore that ‘American Horror Story’ is known for is, I think, really cool.”
To discover Eichner off the “Street,” performing in roles other than his Billy alter ego, is to be surprised. And impressed. A commanding figure at 6-foot-3 with woeful eyes and a mouth that seems to alternately signal pique and wry amusement, he has much more to offer than his hysteric “Street” performance.
“I’m not sure people knew that acting was in my bag of tricks,” the 38-year-old Eichner says over a quiet cup of coffee on a recent day off from “Cult” filming. “But no one grows up saying ‘I want to do “Billy on the Street.’ ” That was just a funny idea I had, and thank God it got me in the door. But when I was growing up, I wanted to be some combination of Nathan Lane and John Malkovich.”
For him, the seeds were planted growing up in New York, the son of parents who loved the arts and show biz. His accountant dad read him the newspaper gossip columns by Liz Smith and Cindy Adams and together they watched “Entertainment Tonight.” With his parents, he saw movies and attended Broadway shows.
He appeared in school plays and took voice lessons, then headed for Northwestern University’s legendary drama school.
After graduation, back in New York, Eichner’s scramble began.
“I remember standing in some crazy line for an audition for some regional musical and seeing how many people there were. I thought, ‘This CAN’T be the only way in!’ ”
He set about writing his own stage show, called “Creation Nation.” It took the form of a late-night TV talk show — he played the excitable host — and it was staged all over town to increasing popularity.
As one of the evening’s bits, he introduced a pre-taped segment called “Billy on the Street.”
“The initial conceit — and it still makes me laugh — is the idea that I am interrupting normal people heading to work or the dentist or otherwise going about their day, and I’m forcing them to talk to me about Cate Blanchett! That becomes a comment on my own love-hate obsession with the entertainment industry.”
A TV series version naturally followed, which led to “Difficult People,” whose co-star and creator, Klausner, had first partnered with Eichner as a “Billy on the Street” producer.
“He’s a flavor that just wasn’t out there before,” Klausner said. “He makes choices that nobody else does. He commits like nobody else does. He never goes for the obvious thing.”
When time allows, he hopes to be back on the street as Billy — a character who by now, says Eichner, has come into his own.
“He was commenting on pop culture before, but now he’s PART of pop culture,” Eichner says. “I’m very proud of that. And I never in a million years would have thought that he would be my entry into acting.”
Even so, Eichner feels like he’s just getting started.
“Now I’m trying to become the guy that I always intended to become prior to ‘Billy on the Street.’ Giving it time and trusting the process and then delivering: I get what has to happen for me to be where I want to be.”