Mar 13, 2014

Channel Surfing: Billy on the Street - with Olivia Wilde

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
There is something fascinatingly surreal about performance art that has made it an endearing past time, specifically in comedy. When an established character goes rouge and interacts with the unsuspecting public, the reaction remains natural, whether it be absurd or overtly confident. It is one of the most impenetrable formats out there if done right, and the iconic Funny or Die series Billy on the Street returned to Fuse TV this week to test the waters of satirizing the man on the street concept with a bombastic personality in Billy Eichner and a lot of strange set-ups and questions as he runs through New York. It is essentially performance art at its most anarchic, which comes packed with all of the hit or miss charm that man on the street segments tend to have.
In the premiere episode, Eichner is back at his old tricks interviewing random people. The questions aren't particularly hard, but with his aggression and somewhat self-involved personality, it brings out the nervous side in people. In fact, during the first game segment, a contestant fails to pass and ends up having to sleep on the ground. In terms of strange punishments, this is a bar that was set and never quite passed. That isn't to say that what followed wasn't bizarre, but there was some limits to the confines of the series.
In probably the episode's strongest segment, Eichner interviews a woman in a segment called "Quizzed in the Face" that starts off with introductions and slowly evolves into a game of multiple choice. Working like a slapdash Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, the guest has options to ask a stranger, tear up photos, or find someone who knows about Guys with Kids (that short-lived Jimmy Fallon-produced show). It is endearing not only because it gives the episode some pacing, but it allows for spontaneity and some endearing crowd interaction. In this sense, Eichner's performance art is profound, allowing for real life people to react instead of using his own abrasive comedy. The questions are also rather ridiculous, with the first one being "Which is a Kirstie Alley show?" with options: "Fat Actress, Black Actress, or Fat Mattress." The amount of time pondering this one is rather funny in a more adrenaline-fueled version of Jay Leno's old Tonight Show segment Jaywalking.

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The rest of the show is a strange experiment in even briefer spontaneity. As seen in the above clip during a segment called "Lightning Round," Eichner runs around the city asking people to either do or answer random things. The reactions are priceless, but it does get a little tiresome, especially as his persona is energetic and at times maybe a little off-putting. Conceptually, it is fun, but when paired with a later segment involving Olivia Wilde, it does wear thin. Without context, some of the more absurd comments don't make sense and his insults back to the audience are a little rude. It may be part of his act, but compared to the Quizzed in the Face portion, it feels like filler.
As stated, there was also a segment with Wilde that is even less inspired. It involves running around a block asking people to recognize her beauty. Whether they say yes or no, Eichner responds by calling the passerby something repulsive. It's the most spontaneous moment on the show and it results in the least interesting despite having the biggest pull (a guest star). Nothing is really accomplished besides giving a rise out of people, which has its appeal, but Eichner's egocentric personality doesn't do it justice. His obsession with Wilde's beauty is a little repulsive and uninspired in ways that don't make for interesting performance art. It may fill time, but I'd like to imagine that he could have done something more inspired with Wilde.
Billy on the Street is hit or miss to a large degree. It doesn't always land, but there is something that is subliminally endearing about Eichner when allowed to play a segment out. He may be a little brash and off putting at points, but when it comes to crowd interaction, he has a charisma that somehow works. It is a show not to be taken too seriously, and because of that, it kind of works. It brings anarchy to performance art and the results are equally strange. With a barrage of guest stars to come this upcoming season, there is room to see what else he can do. Provided that this episode isn't note-for-note what he does every time, this may be an enjoyable, strange little program that reminds us why performance art is something special.

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