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How Billy Eichner Got Michelle Obama and Big Bird on Billy on the Street

9 minute read


Billy Eichner has bellowed at plenty of celebrity pals on his Funny or Die series Billy on the Street, but none more famous than Michelle Obama. This week the First Lady took part in a special edition of Billy on the Street (more like Billy in a Grocery Store) to raise awareness about her new healthy eating campaign, Eat Brighter!, a partnership between the White House, Sesame Street (whose very own Big Bird stopped by for the fun) and the Produce Marketing Association.

TIME spoke to Eichner about how it all went down, his upcoming Hulu show and what Zooey Deschanel was like in college.

TIME: How do you get Michelle Obama on the show? Does the White House pitch you? Do you pitch the White House?
Billy Eichner: Well, I would never be presumptuous enough to pitch the White House. Funny or Die, which produces Billy on the Street, has a good relationship with the White House and the Obamas coming off the Between Two Ferns that President Obama did with Zach Galifianakis, which was very successful.

I’m not sure who did the initial reach-out, but I believe it was someone on Team FLOTUS who knew that the First Lady was passionate about raising awareness of this Eat Brighter! campaign. They were looking to promote it in ways that would be entertaining as well as educational. It would be raising awareness among the parents, really, who are the ones responsible for taking their kids to the grocery stores and making decisions about what they eat and snack on.

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The First Lady had seen a bunch of my videos and thought that the combination of this campaign geared towards parents of young children and my energy and enthusiasm would be a good match. That way, we would be able to break through the clutter of what’s online and get people’s attention in a funny way. As soon as I heard this was a possibility I was incredibly honored to do it. I’m so glad that it worked out and people liked the video.

How much did you have to run by her ahead of time? Was she game for whatever?
That’s what’s really great about the First Lady. Billy on the Street really depends on spontaneous unscripted reaction. We’ve never staged anything or rehearsed anything. I made it really clear that as much as we wanted to do the video, in order to have the best results, we really should not run the questions by the First Lady. They’re not used to doing things that way, but they did allow us to do it. We did talk through general ideas of what we might do with her team, and we sent over sample questions, but none of those sample questions were used in the actual shoot. They were just in the spirit of something I might do. And she obviously had watched a bunch of my videos. When she got there, one of the first things she said to me was, “I really don’t have any idea what you’re going to ask me.” She was told that was the best way to do it, and she just went for it. She was game.

So she’s a true Billy on the Street fan, that’s not just her team saying that?
Well, she better be now! She wasn’t going to say yes to dealing with all of my craziness without being a fan of some of my prior work.

What’s the security situation like? If the cameras had turned out around, how many Secret Service people would we have seen?
I believe it was between 10-12 Secret Service guys. We were in a supermarket in D.C. that had been shut down to the public for the hour we were shooting. They swept it through, but once we were in the room, the Secret Service guys were very cooperative. We talked them through a little bit about what we’d be doing so they wouldn’t shoot me if I decided to run in a particular direction.

I figured they probably blindfolded you and drove you around in circles first, Homeland-style.
That’s a whole other game I hope to play one day on Billy on the Street.

Was Elena always going to be a part of it?
Bringing Elena into it was my idea. One of the things we weren’t able to do with the First Lady for obvious security reasons was take her out onto the street and run up to people. And because the point of the video was to raise awareness of a campaign in grocery stories, the First Lady’s only request was that we shoot in a grocery store so people could get some sense of what the Eat Brighter! campaign actually looks like. So how do we do all of that but also maintain the spirit of Billy on the Street which does involve spontaneous reactions from a real person?I thought, what if we could bring someone to the store?

Elena is everyone’s favorite contestant on the show. One of the great things about Elena is that no matter what you throw at her, she’s pretty unfazed. I also knew from prior conversations that I had with Elena that she loves Michelle Obama. She once said if she could have dinner with anyone, it would be Michelle Obama. So I thought it would be a good idea, as long as we could bring Elena down without her knowing who she’s going to meet. Team FLOTUS agreed with that, and some of my producers escorted Elena down to D.C. We had her sequestered in a room in the grocery store before the First Lady got there. Once we brought her out, she was blindfolded, she had earplugs in. The reveal that you see on camera is exactly how it was.

I love that Elena didn’t even believe it was her at first.
Yeah, which makes sense to me — she’s familiar with other weird stunts I pull on the show, so it wouldn’t be out of the question that I would get an impersonator or something.

Has Ariana Grande seen the video?
I don’t know, that’s a very a good question. I thought she’d get a kick of it.

I think she has a good sense of humor.
I think she does! We’re not terrible snarky to Ariana Grande. I go out of my way to say she’s a good singer. The only thing is Elena points out that her ponytail is fake, which is another perfectly Elena thing to say. But I hope she sees it and likes it. Or at least Frankie Grande. Give me something.

How’s your Hulu show with Julie Klausner coming along?
I am sitting in my trailer right now as I talk to you because we are in the middle of shooting it. We’re about halfway done, maybe a little more. It’s going to be eight episodes on Hulu. We haven’t been given a premiere date yet, I think it’s something like late summer or early fall. We’ve been shooting in the incredibly cold New York City temperatures, but we’re having a really good time. Amy Poehler is the executive producer, and there are a bunch of guest stars that haven’t been announced yet, so I don’t want to get in trouble and say who they are. There are some really great comic actors whom we all know and love making appearances on the show, playing my family members or themselves in various cameos. It’s about two thirty-somethings still trying to make it in the entertainment industry. There’s a lot of pop culture talk, but it’s pop culture with a very strong point of view. It’s coming from, I hope, a intelligent perspective, as opposed to some of the more derivative stuff.

Zooey Deschanel recently told me a story about how you both did A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum together in college. Do you remember that? What was she like in college?
She was great! I did an episode of New Girl with her a few months ago, and it was very much a full circle moment because the last time Zooey and I had performed together was when she was a freshman at Northwestern and I was a junior. We were both theater majors cast in a student production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and I played her pimp, essentially. I mean, it’s about ancient Roman times, so there are nicer words for it than pimp. I remember her in college very vividly, she was really funny in the show.

She had a great style back then, which was really unusual because Northwestern has a lot of theater majors who show up to class in jogging pants. There isn’t much of a personal aesthetic — it’s the Midwest. Now she’s somewhat of a fashion icon, and that’s not surprising to me. She was always like that, even when I met her years ago.

Read next: 5 FLOTUS Family Dinners for Under $12

See Michelle Obama's Best Outfits of 2014

Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
After being criticized for wearing a sparkly sleeveless dress to the 2013 State of the Union, Obama went with a more conservative ensemble by Azzedine Alaia for the 2014 State of the Union Address. Drew Angerer—EPA
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
Never one to shy away from color, Obama donned a bold red coat for a visit from French President Francois Hollande in February.Pete Marovich—Bloomberg/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
Obama won plaudits for this powder blue and black lace gown by Carolina Herrera, which she wore to a state dinner with Hollande in February.Evan Vucci—AP
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
During a visit to Beijing in March to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Obama wore a custom dress by Naeem Khan which updated the traditional Chinese red dress — and her daughters didn't look too bad either. Andy Wong—Pool/AFP/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
The first lady doesn't just own formal wear. For this visit to a Beijing school that prepares children to study abroad, she dressed casually, but with flair.Andy Wong—Pool/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
For this February appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon, Obama went with a sleeveless jumpsuit, showing off her toned arms.NBC/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
The White House Correspondents' Dinner is often jokingly called Nerd Prom, but Obama's choice of a grey tulle embroidered dress from Marchesa was neither nerdy nor prom-like.Olivier Douliery—Pool/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
The devil may wear Prada, but Obama went for another Naeem Khan when she met fashionista Anna Wintour at a ribbon-cutting in May.Paul Zimmerman—WireImage/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
Returning from the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Obama aimed for a subdued but still classy look.Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
The president may have gone for jeans, but Michelle Obama was ready for summer, wearing a crisp white summer dress to the White House Fourth of July celebration.Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
For a luncheon at The Grammy Museum in July, Obama once again went sleeveless in a white dress from Phillip Lim. Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
During a visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Obama wore a colorful wrap from Diane von Furstenberg.Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
At an awards dinner held by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Obama chose a dress from Bibhu Mohapatra's fall collection.Nicholas Kamm—AFP/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
No ugly Christmas sweaters in sight as Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha and the family dogs greet the White House Christmas tree. Joshua Roberts—Bloomberg/Getty Images
Michelle Obama Best Dresses Outfits 2014
Ending the year in style, and mirroring the White House Christmas decorations, Obama wore this dress by Monique Lhuiller to the Kennedy Center honors in December. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com