Arts & Culture News

Billy Eichner Made the First Gay Romantic Comedy With a Fully Queer Cast

Billy Eichner (left) wrote and stars in a romantic comedy about gay men.
Billy Eichner (left) wrote and stars in a romantic comedy about gay men. Universal Pictures
Hollywood has a history of neglecting LGBTQIA+ performers and lauding straight performers for their "bravery" in playing queer characters. Whether it’s Tom Hanks in Philadelphia or Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, the Academy Awards sure love to reward straight actors for “playing gay.” Billy Eichner has been fighting his entire career to change that. He’s done it by being hilarious and by being himself.

Eichner first rose to prominence thanks to his popular Funny or Die series Billy on the Street. This year, the openly gay writer and actor leaps to the big screen for the romantic comedy Bros, which he co-wrote alongside director Nicholas Stoller.

Bros is the first gay romantic comedy released by a major studio with a cast of entirely LGBTQIA+ performers, including Jim Rash, Harvey Fierstein, Ts Madison, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Díaz, Guy Branum and Amanda Bearse. The film will be released on Sept. 30.

“Ninety percent of the most highly marketed LGBTQ roles have gone to straight movie stars,” Eichner says. “If you were brave enough to be openly gay, they would pat you on the back and then never give you any professional opportunities. We are looking to correct an imbalance in Hollywood. It’s very rare that we’re able to play our own roles in highly visible projects, and even more rarely get to play straight roles, so for many years there was nothing for us.”

Bros tells the story of two loners who unexpectedly fall in love. Eichner stars as Bobby Lieber, an outspoken podcast host who gets an opportunity to serve as a curator at New York’s LGBTQIA+ History Museum. In the midst of the biggest opportunity of his career, Bobby isn’t exactly looking to make any serious romantic commitments.

Luke MacFarlane co-stars as Aaron Shepard, a lawyer who surprisingly catches Bobby’s eye. Aaron is a “tough guy” who enjoys country music, working out and The Hangover. As he falls in love with Aaron, Bobby learns to open up.

MacFarlane and Eichner stopped by Dallas on Sept. 14 to talk about the upcoming film.

“You can’t have a romantic relationship if you can’t be vulnerable,” Eichner says. “In the long term, that’s not going to work out, and these two characters really struggle with that. The movie, as much as it’s about gay men specifically, it’s about men in general in terms of how hard of a time we sometimes have in expressing our feelings and being vulnerable, really being intimate, being scared of commitment. I think it speaks to all of that.”

Eichner had initially resisted working on a romantic comedy film, as he felt that a major studio would try to “sanitize” the representation in order to appeal to more conservative viewers. There’s even a scene in Bros in which Bobby is asked by a film producer to write a gay rom-com “that straight people can enjoy.”

Eichner says it was Stoller, a straight man, who approached him about making a romantic comedy about an openly gay couple. Ironically, the idea for the film was inspired by a Billy on the Street sketch in which Eichner adopted the persona of a “workout bro,” who speaks in a “super macho voice.”

“It was one of the few times on Billy on the Street where I dropped my usual persona and took on the persona of this bro,” he says. “I was wearing a backwards baseball cap and khakis, and did this voice on the street.”

Eichner says he was shocked when a good friend of his remarked that he found this “bro persona” attractive.

“That’s an interesting thing to think about, how the gay community and the world at large really put masculinity, and a certain type of ‘bro-y’ masculinity and posturing, on a pedestal,” he says. “The current version of it is every man you know, straight or gay, showing off his body and his gym routine on Instagram. All these athletes and action stars and superheroes getting juiced up and getting as big as possible, and being as tough and strong emotionally and physically. I don’t think it’s something we talk about a lot."

MacFarlane agrees, and believes the film has an insightful perspective on the state of gender norms in an era where politicians such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are waging a political war against LGBTQ culture, from drag shows to medical care.

“Masculinity is not going away, it’s not under threat, it is absolutely fine,” MacFarlane  says. “Masculinity exists on a spectrum, and we need the other thing [compassion], just as much now. That’s where love happens.”

Eichner says there are only a few examples of positive representation on the screen that he remembers from his childhood, including MTV's The Real World and Madonna’s documentary Truth or Dare.

“I remember they’d have scenes of those guys going out to gay clubs and gay bars in New York in the art scene and the fashion world,” he says of the reality show The Real World. “I remember seeing that and never thinking that it was off-putting. I was always drawn to it, and said, ‘Oh, in a few years I want to do that.’ I’m lucky that we had just a few men like that on TV. There were just enough to let me know that there was going to be an exciting world of gay men and LGBT folks I would be a part of.”

It’s very rare that we’re able to play our own roles in highly visible projects, and even more rarely get to play straight roles, so for many years there was nothing for us.” – Billy Eichner

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MacFarlane hopes that Bros will be a positive example of gay culture, because he didn’t have a lot of those when he was growing up.

“I grew up in suburbs. So much of my exposure to early gay culture was hospital rooms,” he says of the AIDS crisis of the 1990s. “I’m so grateful that this multiplex in my neighborhood is going to have a different representation of what love is between two men.”

Bros is produced by Judd Apatow, the producer extraordinaire whose films launched the careers of stars  Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Steve Carrell. Eichner says he hopes this film will help spotlight some of the funniest LGBTQIA+ performers working today.

“This is the same idea as that, it's just we’re all LGBTQ actors who’ve never been given the opportunities to shine before, and they’re all hilarious,” he says. “Everyone really scores, they’re all so funny and endearing. I think it makes the movie this special experience, where somewhere in the back of your head you know we’re all getting this opportunity for the first time.”

Although MacFarlane has been working for over two decades as an actor, Bros marks the first time that he auditioned for a lead role in a studio film. He says that he could instantly tell from the script and his chemistry with Eichner that it was going to be a positive experience.

“I read the script and immediately knew it was a great part for me,” he says. “I understood this guy, and that’s not often the case with parts you read. We were lucky. We had chemistry and we got to get to know each other over the course of the movie.”

Bros debuted at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation and overwhelmingly positive reviews. Eichner says that he’s excited about debuting a studio film at a festival in an era where so many comedies are released directly on streaming services.

“It ended up being one of the most truly exciting nights of our lives,” he says. “Beyond the standing ovations, it’s exciting to sit in a movie theater with 1,700 people and hear people laughing out loud. It’s fun to watch a comedy in your house and laugh alone, but it becomes such an exciting event to watch with hundreds of people in the dark and laugh together. That’s what the movie was from start to finish.”

MacFarlane finds it notable that Bros was accepted by the Toronto audience, as the festival is best known for launching award season contenders as opposed to studio comedies.

“The fact that they said, ‘You’re a romantic comedy,’ that culture has generally turned its nose at for the last 10 years, they said you can come and join this esteemed group,” he says. “We have a place there, too.”
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.