Billy Eichner on why his 'Difficult People' character will evolve but never apologize

Julie Kessler (Julie Klausner) and Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner) are back for Season 3 of 'Difficult People' (Photo: Linda Kallerus/Hulu)
Julie Kessler (Julie Klausner) and Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner) are back for Season 3 of ‘Difficult People’ (Photo: Linda Kallerus/Hulu)

Difficult People — the show you love about New Yorkers who love to hate everything from The Big Bang Theory and Staten Island to hipsters, lines at restaurants, Republicans, and children attending Broadway plays — is returning Aug. 8 for a third season to ask the hard questions about life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and what would happen if Donald Trump’s idea of healthcare reform was Jenny McCarthy’s blog.

“[Julie and Billy are] trying to really figure out what makes them happy, personally and professionally, and how to make their lives better,” Billy Eichner, who stars as Billy Epstein, told Yahoo TV last May while the series was still filming in Manhattan. “They start asking all of those sorts of questions that start to pop into one’s mind in [your] mid-to-late 30s. And can we even find happiness as we are?”

He promises fans that all the soul-searching will not get in the way of the signature sarcasm or the lead characters’ ability to loathe just about everything. “Julie and Billy continue to fight against the world and also their own lack of self-awareness. And yes, we still judge everyone and everything. It’s not like we are making a totally different show now,” he says.

Below, Eichner talks about getting a serious boyfriend on the show for the first time, some of the guest stars (as well as his wish list for Season 4 cameos), and what he loves about the comedy co-starring Julie Klausner. He also teases the future of Billy On The Street and the sartorial demands of his new job with Ryan Murphy.

We’ve spent two seasons getting to know Billy, Julie, and their friends and foes. Where are they at when the new installment begins?
For Julie, the focus is on what professionally makes her happy and finding success in that part of her life because she already has Arthur. She also struggles with her relationship with her mom. She tries various things — meditation, AA, drugs — and keeps searching for what it means to be happy.

For Billy Epstein, it’s the same to an extent in terms of his career, because he doesn’t have it all worked out either, but he is also trying to work out his personal life. Julie and Billy have so much in common and they’re so bonded, but one profound difference between the two is that even though they are each other’s support system, Julie has a boyfriend that she lives with and a mother. Those are complicated relationships, but they exist in her life. Those are the types of people that Billy doesn’t have. His parents are gone. He has this somewhat tortured relationship with his brother and sister‑in‑law, but they don’t really come around very much. He’s never had a serious boyfriend. And he’s trying to figure out if that is what he wants. What will make us happy and if we figure it out, does that mean we have to change things about ourselves, our lives, our careers, or our goals?

And just in case that is sounding like we are suddenly a drama, I will say the show is as funny as ever, if not funnier. And we have tremendous guest stars and all the plots and crazy twists and turns. There is a slight increase of self-awareness for both of them this year, and that starts with an acknowledgment of the fact that they aren’t happy necessarily. Or are they? I think that’s something everyone, particularly New Yorkers, deals with because there’s so much agita and angst in being a New Yorker. You pride yourself on that, but it can be tough to deal with at the same time especially as you get older. So Billy talks about going to LA.

John Cho as Todd on 'Difficult People' (Photo: Linda Kallerus/Hulu)
John Cho as Todd on ‘Difficult People’ (Photo: Linda Kallerus/Hulu)

It was announced that John Cho (Star Trek, Harold & Kumar, Flashforward) would be joining the fun as Billy’s new beau, Todd.
Billy finally meets his match in terms of a boyfriend in Todd, a guy he runs into in a very Difficult People‑ized version of a romantic comedy meet-cute. In the midst of dealing with his own professional struggles, he now has to deal with what it means to have a boyfriend, how that fits into his life, and how that affects his life. It all sounds very serious when I’m describing it, but obviously, all these things manifest themselves in extremely absurd and hopefully very funny ways. John is a great comedian, and he’s game to throw down with Julie and me, so I couldn’t wish for a better fake boyfriend.

Were you ever worried about adding a boyfriend to the dynamic that has already been well established and is beloved by DP diehards?
On some level. But Todd’s not in every episode. He’s in half of them I think, so if you really hate Billy having a boyfriend you can still watch half the season. But I also think people will want to watch just because it’s a very new journey for him and a very new type of storyline. In past seasons, in every episode, there was a different guy in his life. That’s not true this season. We watch him and Todd try to navigate all the new. There are ups and downs. I’ll say this, it was really refreshing to have someone like John to work off of. He’s so funny, but also, really grounded and a really great actor. Very natural. I think, knock on wood, we had some really good chemistry going. It was really nice to be able to sort of explore the sweeter side of Billy. It’s easy to be very cavalier with your emotions and very walled off when you’re just dating random, crazy characters in every episode and they’re coming and going and all played by different guest stars. To have the same person keep coming back felt new and very satisfying. I’m curious to see what people think about it.

Fans always wonder how much of the show is based on real life and how much of you and Julie are represented in the characters, Billy and Julie?
It really depends on the episode. It’s a mixed bag. There are certain things that are directly pulled from my life, Julie’s, or one of the other writers’ lives. Sometimes they recalibrate [an event from their lives] to be part of my character’s plotline. There are things that we see our friends going through, things that we see happening in pop culture and in the news that we use. And some things are just completely fictional and pulled out of thin air. My relationship with my brother and sister‑in‑law, Fred Armisen and Jackie Hoffman, on the show, is completely pulled out of thin air. I do have a half brother, but he’s the polar opposite of Fred’s character. My family was never religious and certainly never became religious. By the way, I love those characters so much. In real life, I don’t tend to be someone who needs to be in a relationship, so that is one parallel, I guess, up until now between me and Billy Epstein. Not that I’ve never been in one, but I’m not someone that needs to be in one. But I’m not someone who doesn’t want to be in one. I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. I like to think I have a relatively healthy attitude about that sort of a thing. And I actually like that Billy Epstein does, too. He wasn’t just running to get married because we can now or anything like that.

That’s one thing the show has always done well — it shows a spectrum of representatives within a group. It isn’t like all the LGBT characters, or the straight ones for that matter, are clones. And the same goes for every other kind of group on the show.
That’s one thing I really love and appreciate about the show, too. Julie, and Scott King who writes some of the scripts with Julie and is our wonderful showrunner, are taking a very realistic, funny, self-aware, sardonic, but accurate look at what it means to be a single gay person in 2017, in terms of sex and relationships and the boundaries that exist, the parameters that don’t exist, and all of that. I really don’t see many other TV shows that handle the [diversity] as well. Needless to say, every LGBT person does not have the same experience. There are attempts made to show what it’s like to be a gay person, living now and dating and going through all the things that people go through in life, but usually gay characters are either too angelic or too naughty. It’s like one or the other. There’s this kind of saint-whore thing that happens, and, of course, most of us fall, like most straight people, somewhere in the middle.

I love how diverse the show is. There are multiple LGBT characters, people of every race and background and religion and status. And it doesn’t feel shoehorned in. It feels very organic to New York City, and downtown where these people live, and who these people are. I love that we get to explore all different facets of those types of people. Like our transgender waitress is just as bitchy and mean and somewhat deranged and delusional as me and Julie and Andrea Martin. It’s progressive, but it feels very organic. Difficult People handles different with such nonchalance because this is the world that we know. We don’t make a big deal out of ourselves, and we’re not patting ourselves on the back for it — except I guess I kind of am right now. But for the most part, we don’t. And because we don’t make a big deal about it, no one else seems to. We’re not screaming to the world, “Hey, everyone. Look how diverse and amazing and progressive we are.” We just are that. Because we are New Yorkers and LGBT people. You have LGBT people writing the show, and in Julie, you have the most gay-friendly, beyond gay-friendly ally. Julie knows more specifics about gay sex than I do. It literally stuns me sometimes the things that Julie pulls out about the bear community. It’s hilarious and wonderful.

Julie and Marilyn Kessler (Andrea Martin) look judgmental as ever (Photo: Barbara Nitke/Hulu)
Julie and Marilyn Kessler (Andrea Martin) look judgmental as ever (Photo: Barbara Nitke/Hulu)

Given the title of the show, I have always been surprised by how much I come away from watching thinking that they would be fun to hang out with. I feel like I relate and like I really like them. And I have heard that from many other people. Like those characters dare to say what we are all thinking.
I completely agree. There’s a difference between reality and the world of the show. Obviously, we’ve exaggerated things for comic purposes. I think the fans feel it is almost cathartic. Julie and Billy and even the other characters like Matthew are letting their crazy show. No one’s afraid. A lot of people go around internalizing their disgust or hiding the reason they’re disgruntled about something or someone in their lives. We let it all hang out. Often they let it all hang out to the point that it negatively affects their lives and they’re punished for it most of the time. It’s fun to have people incapable of having a filter. It’s not even apologetic. Julie doesn’t want the characters to apologize. They can be punished for their behavior, but they’re not necessarily going to apologize for it. They just keep trucking on. I find it endearing, too. But as with a lot of shows, some viewers find them too abrasive or unlikable. It depends on what experience the viewer is bringing to the table and what kind of person they are. Of course, it’s not for everyone. Nothing’s for everyone. The show is dense with references — extreme, very niche, cultural references. And not everyone’s going to get every joke. We don’t expect everyone watching The Big Bang Theory to get every joke on Difficult People. But to be honest, it’s not for them. In a really absurd, fun, ridiculous way, we’re serving an underserved audience and I’m happy about that.

You guys have had great guest stars like Tina Fey, Julianne Moore, Debbie Harry, Rachel Dratch, Seth Meyers, John Mulaney, Kate McKinnon, Nathan Lane, and Amy Sedaris, and Season 3 is adding more names to the wall including Cho, Stockard Channing, Rosie O’Donnell, Chris Elliott, Maury Povich, Larry Wilmore, and Vanessa Williams. Is there anyone left you’d like to recruit for Season 4?
Oh, man, we’ve had so many great people. I’ve really been spoiled between Billy on the Street and Difficult People. It’s like a parade of heroes of mine. I personally love Steve Martin. Julie and I are huge fans of The Comeback. I would love to work with Lisa Kudrow some day in some capacity. I think she’d be hilarious on Difficult People, actually. Of course, the list goes on and on and on. We really make use of the fact that we’re [shooting] in New York where you have all of these great theater actors and not just the bigger names. You have your Nathan Lanes, Stockard Channings, and Andrea Martins who are theater legends, but then, even in some of the smaller parts, we get people like Dylan Baker, who is such a wonderful actor and I’ve seen him in so many plays. I think of him as a great New York actor. We have so many people making cameos or guest spots that are from the theater community. I’m a massive theater fan, so I love whenever that happens. Laurie Metcalf, who’s in New York doing a play on Broadway right now, I’d love to work with her. She’s brilliant. Allison Janney. There are so many people.

Your profile has raised significantly in the last few years, and I would guess that you are more recognizable. Does that make filming Billy On The Street harder?
It has not got in our way, thankfully. Clearly, there are more people who recognize me now, which I think is a good thing. But I’m five seasons into Billy on the Street as a TV show, and I was doing YouTube videos for years before that. So at this point, if I was running down the street and no one knew who I was, I’d be pretty sad and disappointed about that. Billy on the Street is the hardest thing I’ve ever, ever done in terms of the energy that is required. I have my ways though of working around people knowing who I am. There are tricks of the trade. I know how to catch people off guard. I also can tell very quickly when someone recognizes me and is trying too hard to play along. I love when people love me or acknowledge that they like the show on the street. I won’t spend much time with that person, because I agree with you that you want people that aren’t aware of the character. So I do try my best to find people that aren’t aware. In New York, you walk up and down the same block ten times and it’s constantly refreshing itself. There’s also a billion TV shows out there. If I was doing Billy on the Street on NBC in 1992, and there were only four networks and we had 20 million people watching each week, then maybe at this point, I wouldn’t be able to do it. We have a pretty good mix right now when we’re filming of people who recognize me and want to stop and take a selfie and people who don’t know enough to interfere with what’s fun about it. I’m going to do it forever. I’m taking a little break from it to do American Horror Story this summer and some other things, but it’s also my baby. It will always be a huge part of my life.

Talk to me about doing AHS. Were you a fan? Did Ryan come to you, or were you seeking this out? Can you tell us anything about the role?
I’m very excited about it. I’m beyond sworn to secrecy. I am so scared to say anything about it. I think I would be fired if I said the wrong thing [Laughs]. One of my big goals of the last few years was to work with Ryan Murphy. I just love him. He’s a visionary. I love that he takes such big swings at bat. What’s the point of doing any of this if you’re not going to be bold and try to put something new into the world? Some things are a big hit; some are not. That’s show business. I am really honored to be a part of it, and to work with Sarah Paulson, and to be in such a great company of actors.

I’m an actor. I went to Northwestern. I was a theater major. All I wanted to do growing up was to be an actor. I kind of stumbled into a comedy career and Billy on the Street, which for the first few years people didn’t know if that was a performance or not. They just kind of assumed I was a lunatic. I think people now are realizing that it is a character and a persona. But I love that I’m getting to explore another genre and flex my acting muscles. And apparently, I’m going to be in tank tops. That was announced by Ryan. So I guess I’ll have to flex all kinds of muscles on AHS.

Season 3 of Difficult People starts streaming Aug. 8 on Hulu.

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