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Emmy Watch: Why Billy on the Street got political in season 5

‘If you have the platform that I do, I think on some level you have a responsibility to use it for the issues that matter to you,’ says Billy Eichner

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Ryan C. Jones/truTV

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Not even Billy on the Street could ignore our tempestuous political climate. In fact, season 5 of Billy Eichner’s decibel-shattering truTV game show embraced it. Aside from accosting New York commuters with pop culture questions and mocking Hollywood, the comedian, 38, tackled weighty issues like gun control and immigration, but always with that trademark Eichner touch. For example, the quiz “Immigrant or Real American?” slyly made the point that beloved figures like Salma Hayek and Albert Einstein are immigrants while serial killers like Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer are “real Americans.” According to Eichner, who also stars on Hulu’s Difficult People (season 3 premieres Aug. 8), widening Billy’s scope was natural given his own interest in current affairs. With an exceptionally busy few months ahead — he’ll appear on four series this year alone — Eichner hit the pause button to look back on this adventurous season.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drove the decision to increase Billy on the Street‘s political commentary?
BILLY EICHNER: Ninety-five percent of the show was shot before the election. We obviously never could have anticipated the outcome…but I knew that was going to be the main story. Billy on the Street has always been about commenting on current events. In [past seasons], most of what we covered was pop-culture-based, but to ignore politics this year would’ve seemed completely tone-deaf. At the same time, I thought even though I’m playing this ridiculous character, I want the show to reflect more of who I am. I’ve always been interested in politics. Those turned out to be some of our most popular and acclaimed segments this year. I’m really proud of that.

The “Super Sloppy, Semi-Automatic Double Dare!” segment featured a gun-control-focused obstacle course where Keegan-Michael Key [with whom Eichner stars on the July 14 Netflix series Friends From College] had to legally collect as many guns as possible while on a tour of America. How did you come up with that?
One issue that’s very close to my heart is gun-control regulations — I’m on the creative council of Everytown for Gun Safety, which is a great organization. This year, we did this huge obstacle course inspired by Double Dare, which I watched as a kid on Nickelodeon. We did our own political take with Keegan-Michael Key all about the current gun-safety laws in this country and how limited they are to a shocking and dangerous degree.

The original idea for that segment came from a contributing writer on the show, David Litt, who’s brilliant and was one of President Obama’s speechwriters. I really wanted to do something about gun safety, and the two of us hashed out that idea together. I always want to lead with comedy, even when it comes to more serious topics. I don’t think that the segments would be as effective if they weren’t funny. If you have the platform that I do, I think on some level you have a responsibility to use it for the issues that matter to you.

Were you worried about how fans might react to the show going in this direction? 
To be honest, I was nervous about it. When we were working on the gun obstacle course, I had numerous conversations with my creative team and the producers saying, “Hey, I really believe in this. I think this is something we should do, but will there be people who say, ‘Oh, shut up, just go back and talk about Meryl Streep movies’? Are we betraying what this show is supposed to be about, which is this persona who is laser-focused, no matter what else is happening in the world, on pop culture and entertainment?” But [we decided that] five seasons in, he would have to be completely out of his mind to be ignoring politics this year in particular. If we lost a few people along the way, that’s okay because I know — and I see it now that we’re on the other end of it — we also gained a lot of new people.

See all of EW’s Emmys coverage here.

On the other side of the spectrum, you had Rachel Dratch literally run, jump, and crawl through some of Margot Robbie’s 2016 accomplishments in “Escape Margot Robbie’s Moment.” What inspired that one?
The idea of an actress having a moment is an enduring theme. This time it’s Margot Robbie, next year it’ll be someone else — that’s what we were satirizing, and it might be one of my favorite pop-culture-themed segments of the year. It looks incredible, and of course, Rachel Dratch is just hilarious every single second.

Five seasons in, does creating this show get any easier?
No. I have no qualms about saying this…but when it comes to Billy on the Street, it is without a doubt not only the hardest I’ve ever had to work, but I truly think it’s the hardest I will ever have to work. It’s difficult to make anything good, but this show [is particularly challenging] because it is so heavily improvised. I am in every single frame and am heavily involved in the writing, producing, editing, and even the marketing of the episodes. And on top of that, there’s the physical and creative energy that it takes to perform as that character. It’s been five years’ worth of 90-degree summers in New York. It’s taken a lot out of me, but I also love it.