This past Friday, scandal marred the once-pristine landscape of the Excitable-Thirtysomething-Man-on-the-Street-Trivia-Interview comedy subgenre, when Billy Eichner (best known for his series Billy on the Street, and for a memorable gig as Craig on Parks and Recreation) took to Twitter and accused Ross Mathews (best known for a memorable gig as an intern on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno) of stealing his schtick for a CapitalOne ad:
Yet another Billy on the Street ripoff. I usually ignore but this one is SHAMELESS and PATHETIC. (And not funny). https://t.co/y2BtoQa6in— billy eichner (@billyeichner) June 17, 2016
The offending bit:
The video does bear a slight resemblance to Eichner’s own Verizon ads from 2014 (“COME ON, TODD!”).
But Mathews did not appreciate being accused of corporate-sponsored intellectual espionage and promptly clapped back, reminding Eichner that he’s been Ross the Interning ever since the nascent days of his best friendship with Gwyneth Paltrow in the early 2000s:
@billyeichner Are you serious? I've been doing man on the street interviews since 2001. I've never even seen your stuff. Bless your heart.— Ross Mathews (@helloross) June 17, 2016
By day’s end, the two seemed to alight upon a bitchy détente, with Mathews referring to Eichner as funny but “a dick,” and Eichner wishing Mathews “Biyeeeeee.”
No feud. Just responding to you. I came before you. I agree you're funnier, but you're also a dick. ❤️, Mr. Mathews https://t.co/5UGykcsEqt— Ross Mathews (@helloross) June 17, 2016
@helloross It's not a "hissy fit." I'm defending my work. I'm not going to "bring people up" who steal my work or anyone's else's. Biyeeeee— billy eichner (@billyeichner) June 18, 2016
I have many, many concerns, given that every single moment of this skirmish is literally unbelievable. Not literally as in I-am-an-excitable-woman-in-her-30s “literally,” nor unbelievable as in “ludicrous.” I’m talking about actual-literally actual-unbelievable, possibly the least believable Hollywood Twitter feud of our time. It’s hard to take a side here when both sides are beloved cultural icons (or, at any rate, comedians whose work I enjoy) and yet both of their arguments are completely implausible.
It is relatively simple to determine whether Ross’ CapitalOne ad is a rip-off of Billy on the Street (or its far more monetized Verizon tributary). Ross’ defense is that he’s been doing an excitable-man-on-the-street schtick for longer than Billy has, and this is objectively true. But Billy’s argument is not that Ross is simply conducting a MOTS interview—the Difficult People star readily admits a working knowledge of entertainment history, and the debt he owes to, among others, Leno, Fry and Laurie, and Steve Allen. He says that this specific ad ripped off his style.
As Sarah Larson of the New Yorker has written, the core of Eichner’s comic genius—and what he clearly feels is proprietary—is his adversarial stance. He accosts subjects on the streets of New York, microphone brandished like a broccoli spear at a toddler, and then screams an entertainment trivia question. The anti-subtle subtext is that as a maven of popular culture, the answers are of such mortal importance to him that anyone who does not know them has committed a human rights violation. Basically, what distinguishes Eichner’s work is the yelling.
And yet, Ross’ admittedly tepid CapitalOne bit (hard not to be tepid when you’re talking about credit-card rewards) is markedly devoid of an accost or a raised voice. Yes, he insults one of his contestants—but he also does that in this trivia bit, also for CapitalOne, from back in 2014.
This brings me to the first of the approximately 10,000 questions about what is essentially the Nancy vs. Tonya of excitable men in their 30s who do man-on-the-street interviews. Billy claims CapitalOne first approached him for this bit, and he passed. If that’s the case, that would have had to have been back in 2014, when Billy was actively working for Verizon and almost certainly under a noncompete agreement. Why didn’t he pitch a Twitter fit back then?
Lest you think I join Andy Cohen on #TeamRoss, sit down. For his part, the world’s second-most-famous intern claimed not to know who Eichner was.
Just googled @billyeichner to watch some of his stuff for the first time. He's funny! Wish he was nice, too.— Ross Mathews (@helloross) June 17, 2016
I simply refuse to believe this. Ross’ entire rise to fame centered on both his ebullient personality and his exhaustive repertoire of pop-culture knowledge. I can see him not being an Eichner superfan. (After all, apparently there can be only one.) But full ignorance of his existence? Absolutely no way.
For his part, Eichner seems aware of Mathews, Tweeting that he “will not be getting into a Twitter feud with ROSS THE INTERN of all people.” But if that’s the case, then his shock at Ross’ CapitalOne bit is disingenuous, too. Also, if Billy is so unimpressed with the bit, then why did he give the multinational credit conglomerate so much free traffic when he Tweeted the PATHETIC and SHAMELESS ad out in the first place? Why indeed.
There is, in the end, only one plausible explanation. Billy and Ross are in cahoots. This is all some sort of brilliant, winking homage to Madonna and Courtney Love at the 1995 Video Music Awards, that we are all too earnest—or too eager for any sort of frothy distraction from a wrenching and awful week—to understand. A commercially funded triumph of performance art, scripted down to the emoji at the biannual meeting of the Excitable Mid-30s Street Trivia Illuminati.
This is the narrative I choose to accept. Because otherwise, all that’s left is two comedians committing the most grievous of misdeeds: taking themselves too seriously.