The Subversive Gay Satire of Billy on the Street

TV Features Billy on the Street
The Subversive Gay Satire of Billy on the Street

Billy Eichner bellows in your ear. This is simply the fact of his style of comedy, whether it occurs beside you on the streets of New York, where he shoots his TruTV show Billy on the Street, or through the speakers of your TV, computer, etc. He’s brash, a kind of confrontational that’s polarizing. (Even The New Yorker called his brand a “comedy of confrontation😉 There’s something subversive about what Eichner does that feels different from a lot of gay comedians. If gay male culture is often a foundation for the material that Eichner uses, both on Billy on the Street and on Hulu’s Difficult People (created and written by Julie Klausner), it’s a very specific subset of gay male culture, even subculture. Perhaps the reason Eichner, who fires on all cylinders at all times, is equally beloved and dismissed is because his target is gay male whiteness: Billy on the Street attempts to deconstruct the insularity of a gay media culture that’s very white, and relies on women and people of color not necessarily as significant subcultural contributors but as objects to gaze at.

Queer culture is fluid, elastic, and can encompass everything from Mrs. Dalloway to Audre Lorde to Angels in America to Judy Garland to Lady Gaga. But you won’t find that on Billy on the Street. You will find Billy—tall, well built, hirsute—harangue people about La La Land and its Oscar chances, pester civilians regarding a threesome with him and Jon Hamm, and interrogate gays on the street as to whether or not they care about John Oliver. Yes, technically, anyone can like these things: I’m sure lots of people have seen La La Land, Mad Men, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, but the aggressiveness with which Billy approaches these topics, as if they’re a matter of life and death, seem to exist within a particular cultural niche. He’s very pointed in both expressing his passion for The Thing and getting the other people to have just as much exuberance for The Thing. But those aforementioned cultural objects are middlebrow liberal things watched by, admittedly, not that many people (Mad Men averaged 2.3 million during its seven-season run and Last Week Tonight floats by on the virality of its YouTube clips). In both tone and content, Billy Eichner has, under his eye, white gay coastal elites.

Gay male whiteness, of the coastal elite kind, presents itself with the proclivity towards pop culture—and the broadness of whatever “pop culture” is, as well as the kind of people who say they’re obsessed with it, is part of the joke. But a defining factor is the relationship these men have with what’s in pop culture and how they approach it: middle class, white, middlebrow things, often masculinist in a particular manner, where people that don’t fall into those circles are often presented less as fully dimensional people and more as objects of pander. The Real Housewives franchise works within this framework: Its class setting is aspirational, but its characters are discussed more as vehicles (e.g., for plot) than as people.

If so many gay comedians—online, in writing, on TV, in films, etc.—have been influenced, consciously or otherwise, by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Gore Vidal, Billy Eichner is decidedly not those things. He does not do bon mots, and when he does, on Difficult People, they serve to underline the lampooning of the derivative tendencies of, generally speaking, contemporary gay comedians. He’s loud and cleverer than thou, and in his crosshairs is every other white gay coastal elite like him.

It’s the last two of the aforementioned segments that reveal the subversive quality of Eichner’s comedy most clearly. The humor of the Hamm threesome segment is built on multiple layers: 1) That you know who Jon Hamm is; 2) That you’ve seen Mad Men; and 3) That you know Jon Hamm is well endowed. (This last element is slyly slipped in there by Eichner. True, the size of Hamm’s dick isn’t necessarily common knowledge, but during the segment, as he snarkily dismisses Hamm as a bottom— “I’ve spoken with January Jones,” he says—Eichner glances to Hamm’s crotch.) There’s little reason to want to sleep with Eichner and Hamm unless you know those things, and thus it’s a test more for the audience at home than it is for the “contestants,” the challenge being, “How many somewhat arbitrary details do you know about these people?” Knowing that Jon Hamm was Don Draper on AMC’s prestige darling means primarily that you are aware of Draper’s iconography: elegant, rich, flawed, boozy, smoky masculinity. He’s as debonair as a self-loathing ad man could be. But knowing he’s hung is something different altogether.

The segment’s focus is on Jon Hamm and what he may represent to white gay men, and thus what white gay culture orbits around: rich, straight-acting white men with large penises, and a world that revolves around those components of identity. Not only is Hamm ostensibly good in bed, he’s representative of cultural power: His presence, and the humor that’s drawn from it, becomes a way to articulate and satirize what white gay men want. It isn’t precisely the reactions from those solicited on the street, or at least not exclusively; it’s also the presumptively white gay audience saying, “Yes, of course we would have a threesome with Jon Hamm and Billy Eichner.” That many of the people asked are hesitant, uninterested or galled works in juxtaposition to what said viewer would respond to. That’s the subversive brilliance of the joke: It’s about you and what you desire being challenged.

That comes into play in the John Oliver sketch as well. It’s not to suggest that the men who answer “no” in the segment are oblivious to current political discourses, exactly, but that John Oliver appeals to a particular demographic that does not really include the queer men who are asked, almost all of whom are white. It might mean that the pat mini-lectures that Oliver gives aren’t made with them in mind, even when LGBTQ people are the focus. What’s more fascinating, though, is the relationship to the question of Wendy Williams, a prolific television host, fashion designer and actress. Picking that person—also a television personality—feels deliberate. Gay men gravitate, not to the political satirist, but to the black female talk show host, one whose performance of blackness is not only easy to mimic, but undoubtedly informs the language and performance of many. The dynamic between gay whiteness and black queerness and femininity is fraught, less an example of cultural exchange and more of appropriation, particularly because of racist attitudes within the LGBTQ community. The implicit calls of “yas” or “gurl” feel more pointed when the sharpness of Eichner’s satire shines a light on this kind of discrepancy.

Or, rather, you can look to the answer regarding Cookie on Empire, of whom one of the men repeatedly says, “She’s fierce”: On the one hand, like the Wendy Williams question and answer, it functions as a critique of white gay male appropriation of black femininity. On the other, the respondents’ enthusiasm for Williams and Cookie far exceeds their enthusiasm for Oliver. Even their praise for Oliver comes with a polite awkwardness, the way you say you like a friend, but would probably be disinclined to grab drinks with them. While this suggests that Oliver remains a rather bland figure on their radar, the segment operates primarily to critique appropriative tendencies. Why talk about a white male political comedian addicted to using similes when you could perform blackness?

Billy on the Street utilizes an absurd amount of cultural specificity to inform its satire, so much so that it’s surprising the show isn’t more alienating than it already is. His tone is a kind of shrill bitchiness (dialed up several notches), and the acidity feels more potent because of the specificity of much of the humor. You have Julianne Moore running about performing parts from her career, Lupita Nyong’o performing bits by straight white male comedians and unearthing how deeply unfunny they are, and a sketch called “Escape Margot Robbie’s Moment!” This is Eichner intrusively trying to get people to care about the same things he does, the same things that illustrate this kind of subcultural hive mind. And if you don’t, he passes by you or shouts or screams to the gods.

There is a complexity about Eichner’s satire which is interesting: Though the humor is pointed and certainly intended as comedy with a particular goal—a sort of ideological one—in mind, Eichner can’t help but be somewhat complicit in what he’s critiquing. He is, as a frequently “on” white gay male coastal elite, privy to the exact cultural niche he’s critiquing. It means that his comedy frequently uses the things that informally define what whiteness and gayness are, particularly in the sense that these cultural objects exist in relation to what is not white and gay. Billy on the Street sometimes feels like inside baseball with the cultural references, and those cultural references appeal to white gay men. The issue is whether Eichner in fact perpetuates the myopic, vicious tendencies he’s supposedly critiquing. Satire can have a target audience—both in terms of at whom and to whom—but if the subversive quality of Eichner’s pointed humor isn’t visible or discernible, does this mean that his satire has failed? For Eichner, the line between the character and the real-life person interested in or engaging with these subcultural touchstones can seem, at times, razor thin.

Even if Eichner is not entirely successful, though, his attempt to satirize white gay culture is admirable—because it’s too frequently framed as the only kind of queer culture. After all, if queerness can be read as open, fluid and expansive, then why does it often feel like gay media returns again and again to the same things? Constructing our own culture has been vastly important to our history as queer people, but the definition of that culture has rarely been left to queer women, trans people, and people of color to the same extent that it has gay cis men, including those that appropriate from others.

At their best, Eichner and Billy on the Street point out the ways in which gay culture can feel isolated in its cultural obsessions, overwhelmingly white, and prone to tokenizing women and people of color. From his tone of voice, whose derivative nature and savage approach is itself critique, to the way his on-the-fly segments feel perfectly calculated, make no mistake: Billy Eichner is trying to implicate your gay male whiteness.

The season finale of Billy on the Street airs tonight at 10:30 p.m. on TruTV.

Kyle Turner is a freelance writer, editor and transcriber based in Brooklyn, NY. He has contributed to Esquire, MUBI, Playboy, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar, and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.

Share Tweet Submit Pin