Couch potato: Billy Eichner and Tig Notaro reckon with the cult of celebrity

Comedians Tig Notaro and Billy Eichner in front of a blue background.
Graphic by Elaine Yang

I would be hard-pressed to identify my favorite bit from “Billy on the Street,” the television show featuring actor and comedian Billy Eichner yelling at people on the streets of New York. 

Is it “Do Gay People Care about John Oliver?,” in which Eichner asks gay men walking around New York City if they care about John Oliver (spoiler alert: they don’t) as the real John Oliver stands awkwardly in the background?

Or maybe it’s “Can You Separate the Art from the Artist,” a giant obstacle course in which Eichner asks a guest actor to do bizarre tasks, like rescue a copy of the movie “What Women Want” from a life-size statue of actor Mel Gibson being crucified.

In “Billy on the Street,” Eichner plays a larger-than-life version of himself, shouting the names of B-list celebrities at startled passersby and cornering them into gameshow-style trivia matches where the correct answer is based on Eichner’s own opinion. The show also incorporates more involved bits, such as pop culture-themed obstacle courses and celebrity cameos.

Eichner may display a borderline encyclopedic knowledge of A-D list celebrities, but he remains critical of pop culture. In one bit, he mournfully asks random New Yorkers how they feel about the show “Bones”’ ending. The bit isn’t in earnest, rather, it makes fun of the fact that even a cookie-cutter show like “Bones” could last for 12 seasons. 

While “Billy on the Street” has existed in one form or another since 2005, it wasn’t until clips of the show were put on YouTube that it really took off. In hindsight, the breakneck pop culture references, sly political commentary and equal-opportunity irreverence made the show perfect for the internet era. 

After all, where is the spirit of internet humor better embodied than a video of Michelle Obama slow dancing with Big Bird as Eichner serenades them with a rendition of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”?

Under a Rock with Tig Notaro” is another show on YouTube that, like “Billy on the Street,” plays cat-and-mouse with pop culture. In stark contrast to Eichner, comedian Tig Notaro is pop-culture illiterate. The premise of the show is that she interviews famous actors and tries to figure out who they are — the fact that she can never identify them is kind of the point.

In “Under a Rock,” celebrities tend to react with suspicion, then childlike glee, when Notaro doesn’t recognize who they are. In one episode, James Van Der Beek, star of the hit 90s TV show “Dawson’s Creek”, shows Notaro a picture of a creek as a clue.

“A stream?” Tig Notaro guesses.

“Or…?” he guides her. 

“A river.”

“Less rapid than a river.”

“A creek.” Van Der Beek then nods in smug agreement, satisfied that the riddle has finally been cracked.

“Alright…” Notaro responds, confused as ever.

In “Billy on the Street,” a similar thing happens when celebrities interact with the public. In one episode, Eichner drags Chris Pratt, star of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise — and fellow “Parks and Recreation” co-star — around New York.

“This is one of the biggest stars in the world right now. Who is it?” he asks a couple as a smiling Pratt stands next to him. “I have no idea,” the woman responds.

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A similar dynamic is at play in “Under a Rock.” While Notaro doesn’t jostle her celebrity guests as much as Eichner does, she doesn’t treat them with kiddie gloves either. In one episode, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” actor Glenn Howerton remarks proudly that he’s weird. 

“I don’t think you’re weird,” Notaro flatly responds.

I say this from the perspective of someone obsessed with pop culture: Both “Billy on the Street” and “Under a Rock” reckon with the cult of celebrity. Watching famous actors like Pratt and Van Der Beek go unrecognized is a balm to the soul. 

Stars — they’re just like us!

It would be overly simplistic to say that people are obsessed with watching celebrities being taken down a notch. Both “Billy on the Street” and “Under a Rock,” for all the publicity they’ve garnered, still have largely cult followings. They haven’t quite broken into the mainstream in the way that other celebrity-centric shows like “Lip Sync Battle” and “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” have. 

Perhaps that’s because those two shows fit more neatly into the celebrity worship model of entertainment. In “Lip Sync Battle,” celebrities may make fools of themselves to prove their relatability, but there’s no risk involved. When Tom Holland dons a burlesque costume to sing Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” he’s the one in control. 

On “Billy on the Street” and “Under a Rock,” anything could happen. Watching Julie Bowen or Kaley Cuoco squirm in their seat, you get the sense that they came on the show believing that they’re the exception to Notaro’s celebrity blindness. Surely she’ll recognize them. Ditto for celebrity guests on “Billy on the Street.”

To put a point on it, both shows lack the kind of hyper-positivity that appeals to wide audiences. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that genre of television to those who enjoy it, but “Billy on the Street” and “Under a Rock” provide a refreshing break. 

Both are definitely worth watching — find “Billy on the Street” on Netflix (short clips available on YouTube), and “Under a Rock with Tig Notaro” can be found for free on YouTube.

Gabriella Del Greco SC ’21 is an economics major. In her free time, she can be found studying at the Motley Coffeehouse, roaming the aisles of Trader Joe’s and probably watching more TV than is medically recommended. AND WHO COULD BLAME HER! 

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