Billy Eichner’s Big Gay Hollywood Rom-Com
The co-writer and star of ‘Bros’ explains how he made a landmark samesex comedy for the ages
‘Inever thought a major studio would do an authentically gay film,” says Billy Eichner, “and treat it the same way they would Bridesmaids or Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Eichner is the star of Bros, the groundbreaking, instant-classic gay rom-com that he also co-wrote, which is due in theaters Sept. 30, with a big push from Universal Studios. In the movie, co-written and directed by Nick Stoller (who also directed Sarah Marshall) and co-produced by Judd Apatow, Eichner plays Bobby, a media personality who finds his neurotic selfsufficiency disrupted when he falls in love with Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), a guileless lawyer. For Eichner, arguably still best known for the daredevil comedy of his pedestrian-accosting, celebrity-razzing series Billy on the Street, becoming a leading man at 43 feels like a belated return to a path he always meant to pursue. “As a kid, you don’t think, ‘I could be the star of this movie if only I wasn’t gay,’ ” he says. “I went to see Tom Hanks movies and thought, ‘I could do something like that.’ It was only in my mid-twenties when I started to think, ‘I’ll be lucky if I can just play the neighbor on a sitcom.’ Because that’s what Hollywood was telling me.”
A romantic comedy that’s not about straight people opens the door for tons of fresh material.
It’s a peek at a culture of dating and sex that straight people think they understand, but they don’t. Two men together is a very specific romantic situation. Because yes, we’re gay. But we’re still men. I think straight people think we’re basically women. We are men! I always say to my straight male friends, “Think about all the weird, fucked-up male shit you have in your brain, about sex and monogamy and being vulnerable, and now times that by two.” That’s a complicated situation, and we’ve really never seen it explored.
Bobby’s opening rant, excerpted in the trailer, is a brilliant meta attack on the idea of making a gay movie that’d make straight guys comfortable. How did you come up with it?
It’s been on my mind. We’re getting so much queer content, and it’s all great and a sign of progress. But queer people have spent a lot of time telling stories about ourselves while being concerned that we’re palatable to straight audiences. For me and a lot of my friends, when we watch some of those shows, although there are gay characters, we don’t recognize those people. They’re two-dimensional, wearing cutesy little outfits, and it’s all done with this satirical veil. One of my goals with Bros was to lose that archness and have the characters feel like fully fleshed-out, complicated, funny, sad, three-dimensional people.
Sexuality aside, a big, lush, urbane studio comedy about grown-ups is actually a throwback at this point.
I’m in my forties, and I look around at movies in general — especially comedies — and say, “Where are the adults?” [ Laughs.] I grew up with those great James L. Brooks movies and Nora Ephron movies and Woody Allen movies. I wanted to hold [ Bros] to a higher standard than what’s passing for romcoms these days. But as much as I love
Broadcast News, Moonstruck, Annie Hall, Tootsie, LGBTQ people are completely ignored in those worlds. We weren’t even the best friend!
You’ve said that you never experienced homophobia until you entered the entertainment business. What form did that take?
In 2006, I had a manager who represented a lot of Broadway talent. She said, “I’m inviting big agents to your next stage show. Can you make it a little less gay this month?” I was shocked. It was insulting, and also impractical, because that would be like literally changing my entire personality. I said, “You don’t really know what you’re dealing with, because I have a rebellious streak, and I’m not going to deal with that shit.” [I got] signed anyway. But she wasn’t wrong. It was a real obstacle in my comedy at the time.
What was it like coming to terms with your identity growing up?
My perspective on these things has always been so skewed, because I was born and raised in New York City, with very liberal, accepting parents who both lived in the West Village, like in the Sixties and the Seventies. And I’m not saying they were dying for me to be gay, but they knew who I was really early on, and they were so supportive.
There’s a part in Bros where a teacher questions whether elementary-school kids are old enough to learn about gay history. Did that end up being more timely than you expected, given what’s going on in Florida with the “Don’t Say Gay” law?
I could not have anticipated that. In fact, I remember writing that [part] and thinking, “I hope people don’t think that this is unrealistic,” because it seemed that we were making progress. But we were never taught our own history as LGBTQ people, even in a threadbare, generalized way. We have no sense of ourselves historically. And I don’t think we realize what that did to us, [to] know nothing about ourselves.
What’s the closest experience you’ve had in real life to the romance in the movie, where your self-reliant character finds himself falling in love for the first time relatively late in life?
I had an experience in my mid-thirties where I had not seriously dated anyone in a long time, and, all of a sudden, I met someone who really shook me up, who I fell for very quickly. It was short-lived. But it did open my eyes in terms of relationships and made me think, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t completely ignore that part of my life.” I was talking to friends about it, and they said, “Wow, Billy has feelings!” Anyway, that didn’t work out, and then I put the wall right back up! [ Laughs.]
You’re working with Paul Rudnick on a movie for Amazon called ExHusbands. How’s that coming?
We’re just starting to write it, but I’m very excited. Sitting around during Covid, I thought, “What if we did a gay version of The War of the Roses?”
Because we see so many happy gay couples. We get gay people falling in love and everything is beautiful and hunky-dory. This is the other side. Just because we can get married doesn’t mean marriage is the answer to everything for gay people and that all those marriages are gonna work out. And there’s a certain pressure on LGBTQ people who get married to really try to work it out. So I thought the idea of a gay divorce would be really funny.
You stopped doing Billy on the Street in 2017, but culturally it feels like it’s never left.
It’s had a whole new life over the course of the pandemic. It’s on streaming services, and the biggest thing of all became TikTok — which, I don’t have a TikTok page! Fans started to rip the clips, and there are multiple Billy on the Street pages on TikTok with millions upon millions of views. I took a look the other day [and] there was one clip with 50 million views. There are probably 12-year-olds watching them who were literally not born when I first started doing them, which is really shocking. It just keeps having this crazy afterlife.
You had a moment on there years ago with Chris Pratt. You tell him something like, “Someday you’re gonna play gay and win an Oscar, and I’m still gonna be on the street doing this shit.”
It was kidding. And it wasn’t kidding. Although, look at me now! [ Laughs.]
So I mean, he’ll still win an Oscar for playing gay, but I’m not on the street anymore. At least I get to be in a movie playing gay also. So that is progress.