It’s not often that the MTV Video Music Awards make waves in the political sphere, but, thanks to Billy Eichner, such was the case for this August’s ceremony: the morning after, Washington D.C. site The Hill was one of many outlets to blare Eichner’s podium comments about “homophobes on the Supreme Court.”
Eichner, the co-writer and star of the forthcoming Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy Bros, had been scheduled simply to introduce Panic! At The Disco and then head out on his way. Instead, he shouted into Newark’s Prudential Center, “I need you all there on Sept. 30,” citing the Bros release date, “because we need to show all the homophobes like Clarence Thomas and all the homophobes on the Supreme Court that we want gay love stories.” The crowd screamed in approval.
“[MTV] had no idea I was going to say that,” Eichner tells me a few days later, over lunch at cozy Los Feliz spot Little Dom’s. “But I knew that MTV [execs] had seen Bros, and I knew they were very supportive, and that’s why they wanted me on. I didn’t think they were going to be angry about it. But I was surprised by the [positive] response from the crowd—because they weren’t being prompted, because it wasn’t scripted. So it was very organic, and they were just so enthusiastic about speaking out about LGBTQ rights.”
In person, Eichner is more subdued than you might expect from someone you’ve watched dangle a microphone in a stranger’s face to ask if he wants to have a threesome with Jon Hamm. (Such chaotic moments made the hilarious New York guerilla comedy Billy on the Street Eichner’s most beloved work to date.) Wearing a faded Provincetown t-shirt and glasses, Eichner speaks deliberately, taking careful bites from his meal of rice balls and a tuna salad. At times, the pressure of the forthcoming release seemed to be evident. “I want people to love [the movie],” he says, when I ask about his current emotional state. “I want the box office to be decent. I don’t know how much control I have over that. I’m doing the best I can. I’m not Ryan Reynolds.”
Eichner is also known for his comedic roles on shows like Parks and Recreation and Friends from College, but his VMAs audible is emblematic of the way politics has influenced how he thinks about his work as of late. Bros is the first studio-released romantic comedy featuring a gay couple to debut in theaters, with an entirely LBGTQ+ cast, and Eichner is aware of the significance. “I remember [President] Biden, years ago, saying that Will & Grace probably did more for gay rights in America than certain activists—and activists obviously did a ton and they did the hard work—but there’s also some truth in that [sentiment], too. That’s the power of culture, and that’s the power of Hollywood.”
He says that when he’s been asked what the difference is between Bros and previous “indie or streaming” films that feature gay characters, his answer is that “it’s the scale at which [Bros] was made, and also the reach with which it’s being distributed, and the fact that it’s playing in movie theaters, not only all over the country, but all over the world. That’s what it’s about. I don’t mean that as an insult to any other movies, but when Universal puts its financial resources and its marketing resources behind a movie like this, it really infiltrates the system in a way that a smaller movie or a streaming film or series might not.”
He becomes notably emotional several times over lunch, describing how it feels to see images of himself and co-star Luke Macfarlane plastered on buses or billboards with their hands lovingly placed on each other’s butts, or when he reads supportive, heartfelt texts from friends who have seen the film. But as much weight as he’s placing on what the film might mean in a grander sense, he also wants to make clear that this is, let’s not forget, a Judd Apatow comedy. Like Trainwreck or The King of Staten Island, which spotlighted the unique shtick of Amy Schumer and Pete Davidson, Bros is a mass-appeal romantic comedy in which Eichner can shine as an outsize version of his “real” self.
Eichner plays Bobby, an opinionated New York-based podcast host who is working on the launch of an LGBTQ+ history museum. He is swept off his feet by Aaron, a sweet (and muscular) lawyer, played by Macfarlane. Their courtship is funny, heartbreaking, and decidedly adult. “Ninety percent of gay stories involve someone coming out of the closet for the first time,” Eichner says. “They can barely kiss someone, or they’ve never kissed anyone. And I’m like, no, no, no. [Bros] is the opposite. These guys may have their emotional hang-ups and intimacy issues, but as sexual human beings, these guys are forty-year-old gay men in Manhattan. They fuck.”
Eichner says films ranging from Broadcast News to The Way We Were served as inspirations for his script (co-written with Nicholas Stoller, who also directed). But there were also many elements taken from his real life, most notably a romantic connection he forged with a man earlier in his life who “really got under his skin” and ultimately “drove him insane.” (“I felt that was a very compelling notion that when you are this confident, self-reliant person… what happens when you do get thrown off?”)
The film was also partly based on a Billy on the Street sketch in which Eichner played a stereotypically masculine, deeper-voiced “bro” character. He was particularly amused that, after that sketch aired, a longtime gay friend of his called to say that he thought he “looked really hot in that segment.” Eichner recounts, “I could tell from the way he was saying it that he really thought for the first time, after knowing me for 15 or 20 years, that I was hot… because of the way I dressed and the way I sounded in that video.” There are several conversations between Eichner and Macfarlane’s characters in the film examining the ways perceptions of traditional masculinity play a role in gay relationships.
Billy on the Street is still—at least until Bros comes out—probably what Eichner is best known for. The comedy game show series ran from 2011 to 2017 on Fuse and then TruTV, but its clips continually resurface on TikTok and Twitter. The bread and butter of the show was Eichner—usually in a dark t-shirt and jeans—frenetically racing down the streets of New York hoisting a microphone at unsuspecting denizens and shouting pop-culture-themed questions at them. Eventually, as the show expanded, prestige-actress-themed obstacle courses and celebrity cameos became part of the mix, too. But while there are certainly elements of his intense, heightened Billy on the Street persona in his Bros character, those expecting him to be barking a Nicole Kidman joke a minute may perhaps be surprised to also find a great deal of poignant (and at times uncomfortable) commentary about what it means to be a gay man forging a career and trying to find love in his early forties. (Eichner, who grew up in New York City, just turned 44 and is currently unattached.)
“Of course, I wanted it to be hilarious and funny and have explosive physical comedy, the way any Judd Apatow movie does, but it was important that we speak to the experience of what gay men, especially those around my age, have gone through,” he says. “It is the first movie of its kind with an openly gay man at its center… I thought it was important to tell my whole story, not just the parts of the story that make people laugh… This was an opportunity to really give people the full, messy, complicated, sad, and also triumphant version of my life.”
A week before the film’s release, Apatow phones from California, assessing that Eichner’s blend of comedic sensibilities with his commitment to portraying the thornier, layered aspects of his experience helps to set the film apart. “When you make a movie like this you try to do it in a very light-spirited way, because you are making comedy and talking about romance,” Apatow says. “It’s just so impressive how Billy’s able to do the really hard work to figure all of this out—what is the story we’re telling? what does it mean? how do you balance all of the different ideas in it?—while also trying to have that light comic spirit so it doesn’t feel labored over in any way. I was really impressed by his ability to hold those two things at the same time.”
In early September, Macfarlane calls me from the Toronto Film Festival, where Bros had its premiere. He admits that he found Eichner to have a different vibration in person than his on-screen output might suggest. “Billy on the Street is a persona, a really funny persona – it’s kind of like the New Yorker’s id,” Macfarlane says. “[But] he’s a much more thoughtful dude, and patient, than I think a lot of people expect.” Macfarlane says that shortly after they first met, their differences became evident (“So much of our relationship was me saying something like, ‘Who is Kim Kardashian?’, and him rolling his eyes and politely saying, ‘Who are you?’”). But Eichner was always extremely understanding: “As acerbic and quick-witted and yell-y as he is, he is incredibly open and kind to people.”
Bros, as Eichner readily notes, is among several recent prominent works that feature gay characters falling in love with each other. In addition to a slew of LGBTQ+-focused television programming, popular streaming films like Hulu’s Happiest Season and this summer’s Fire Island have debuted. Eichner found himself in a bit of a Twitter kerfuffle when, in a recent interview with Variety, he referred to streaming movies as “disposable.” (After our interview, Eichner tweeted an apology for the word choice; several days later, Fire Island writer and star Joel Kim Booster—a former Billy on the Street writer—and Eichner shared tweets that appeared to patch things up.)
In our conversation, Eichner stressed that the success of any LGBTQ+-focused project is a good thing for all such projects. “I really do feel like we’re all in it together,” he says. “This is an all ships rise moment. I think Bros is unique in certain ways because it is being released in movie theaters, because [Universal] is giving it this massive wide release all over the world… because of the scale with which it’s been made and the scale with which it’s being distributed and marketed. But at the same time, I’m thrilled to be part of this wave of queer-centric entertainment..When Schitt’s Creek is successful, we all get to go in and try to sell our show and point to that, and say, ‘Well, look how successful Schitt’s Creek was.’ People aren’t scared of these stories anymore.”
At the same time, Eichner says, one should not necessarily assume that all is completely idyllic when it comes to the Overall State of Things in Gay Hollywood. I ask him about Kate Winslet’s 2021 comments about having several actor friends who are still in the closet, and Eichner nods knowingly. “Oh, there are a ton of people that are in the closet—and at the same time, also, way more people that are out of the closet, especially in the younger generation. The twenty-something actors out there are much more comfortable saying they’re queer or gender-fluid or gay or whatever they might be,” he says. “But at the same time, don’t get it twisted, as the kids say… There still seems to be a ceiling in certain areas. Especially if you’re an actor who wants to do a certain type of role, maybe an action movie, or you want to be a Marvel superstar, I think a lot of actors are still thinking twice about coming out—to a lesser extent than they did years ago, but it’s absolutely a thing that is still happening all the time.”
As for his own personal life, Eichner plans to take a “moment” after Bros comes out, and he perhaps may devote more energy toward dating. “I am on all the apps,” he tells me. “Maybe not all of them, but I’m on a handful of them.” Like many, he’s not exactly thrilled by the process: “It’s weird that this is the method we’ve all chosen, because I think it’s a huge time suck, and it’s also not terribly satisfying. It’s not terribly sexy.”
When Eichner watches Bros now, he says he connects with the love story at its center—between his character and Macfarlane’s—in a different way, now that he has some distance from it.“When you’re writing, you’re just trying to find the beginning, middle, and end,” he says. “Okay, this is what the character would say. Okay, this makes sense. Okay, this is funny.” He pauses. “But now it’s gotten to a point where I’m so removed from the writing, because that happened years ago. Now I just watch with an audience, and I watch them get swept away, and I myself, I know this sounds silly, but I start to get swept away. I look at [the characters] Bobby and Aaron and I think, ‘Wow, that looks fun.’ I’m like, ‘Boy, I wish I was Bobby… Oh, wait. I sort of am.’”
There are several of these dichotomies when it comes to Eichner: between his character in Bros and his real-life self, between his Billy on the Street persona and his approach to other acting roles, between the outrageous comedy he is known for and the heartache and loneliness and anger that also runs through his work. I ask Apatow on the phone what it is about Eichner that he thinks connects so strongly with audiences: “With the movie, trying to find love and being afraid and all the terrible things that go wrong along the way… is a very universal experience,” he says. “The ways that we try to protect ourselves are usually the source of most of the comedy. He’s a big, brash, hilarious, opinionated person, but I think everyone always knew underneath that was a sensitive person—and that’s why we root for him.”
Styled by Oliver Vaughn
Grooming by Jason Schneidman at Solo Artists using The Men’s Groomer Paste
Special thanks to Akbar