Maybe it was tongue-in-cheek, but it also made sense, especially because we have a president born out of reality television. Cohen, the late-night host of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen," is also the executive producer of the Real Housewives franchise who helped transform reality TV when he ran the cable network’s programming. He’s well-versed in hosting chaotic show reunions, managing to control the drama while also bringing seasons to a satisfying conclusion. Why not him?
We talked to Cohen about his thoughts on the calls for him to be moderator; comparisons between Trump and the Housewives; that 2016 WWHL polls that predicted Trump’s victory; and Bravo’s challenges during a year of racial reckoning. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: During the first presidential debate, I lost track of the number of tweets and Instagram comments that demanded you host the next one, given your experience with Housewives reunions. What was your reaction when you first saw all of those comments?
A: I mean, I was flattered. I think the fact that the president is a reality star who behaves recklessly and impetuously, with a loose relationship to facts, makes the comparison to a Housewives reunion or a Bravo reunion apt.
But when I was watching the first debate, I started to get offended on behalf of the Housewives and the work that we do at Bravo on these reunions because actually, he was so much lower than the tenor that we go. What you have to remember is he is not capable of modulating himself, so that was 90 minutes straight of that. So I was offended on behalf of the Housewives … because he was way lower than we ever are. And we are certainly a mix of low and high.
The other thing that’s different is we aim to have some resolution and end on some positivity. So while the discourse may get heated during our debate — if you want to call it that — I try to land the plane so that people have come together or issues have become resolved, and then we end on a hopeful note. I think he wasn’t even able to do that.
Q: You have done Zoom reunions. What did you think when Trump backed out of the virtual debate?
A: It’s a hard format for anyone, for a reunion or a president or anybody. I will say, [Trump] is someone who has spent the last 20 years or so on his life on television, so if anyone should have been able to look in the camera and be comfortable doing so, it should have been him.
Q: It seems to me that on Bravo reunions, the Housewives don’t really care how wild they look to the viewer because if they’re interesting, that means they have a better chance of staying on the show. Watching Trump interrupt Biden [in the first debate] reminded me of that, as if he almost didn’t care how he came across.
A: That’s the interesting thing, because that’s a misconception. If Housewives go in there and they’re too nuts at a reunion, there’s no way to modulate them … it can go the other direction and really turn people off. There has to be some kind of reckoning and calm and variety of moods, because if you’re at a fever pitch for an entire reunion, the audience is going to turn on you.
Q: How do you keep it together during reunions when you have so many people yelling and trying to get in a word in? I know sometimes you just have to yell “stop,” but what is your secret while doing this?
A: It’s my job and I’m the EP of the show, and I kind of know what we need to get. And it’s my job to host the reunion and get good television and go through all the topics. I know what I’m there to do. And no one is leaving the room before it’s done. [Note: On Friday, Cohen weighed in with his thoughts on the final debate between Biden and Trump: “It’s amazing that just getting through the debate without losing your mind constitutes as ‘presidential’ these days. Also — WHERE WAS THE MUTE!?"]
Q: Speaking of Trump, I wanted to ask about the famous “Watch What Happens Live” polls in 2016. Multiple polls on the show predicted Trump would win and, at the time, your show was one of the only places saying that. Do you remember what you thought when you first saw the results?
A: I was really stunned. I kept telling my friends, “We can’t underestimate people’s strong feelings about Hillary Clinton.” As strongly as we were for her, there were people who were as strongly against her. And I guess that poll really reaffirmed it to me and blew me away.
Q: Why do you think it was that your audience got it right?
A: That’s an interesting question, because the other thing is, you could also look at it and say, “Well, maybe Trump voters are more likely to vote in polls on a late-night talk show.” I’m sure Nate Silver could add several layers of analysis to why the poll came out the way that it did.
Q: When we talked last year, we talked about Hillary Clinton and how she didn’t come on your show in 2016. She did go on your show this year. What did you think of her episode?
A: I thought it was really great — she really came to play. I wish that she had done my show and “Howard Stern” before the 2016 election. I think people would have seen a different side of her.
Q: In 2017, you told the New York Times that you weren’t shocked by Trump’s victory, partly because of the popularity of Real Housewives — where you hear people give nicknames like “Jesus Jugs,” which you compared to something like “Crooked Hillary” — and how viewers were captivated by that. Do you think people are tired of this kind of thing after four years?
A: I’m surprised that more people are not exhausted by it. It’s noise that you cannot ever shut up. It doesn’t ever stop. Again, there’s no variety, there’s no modulation of it. It’s not like he’s presidential at one moment and then he’s childish at another. He’s only childish. If he were a Real Housewife, he would have been fired by now. There aren’t any Real Housewives that I can think of who have behaved as he has in this way, without showing any vulnerability or humanity, that have remained on the show.
I think Housewives gets a bad rap. If the Housewives was only table-flipping and wine-throwing, I really don’t think that it could still be on 15 years later. But it’s not. It’s also relatable: It’s got friendship and motherhood and being a wife and being a sister. It’s about a whole lot more. And he is 24/7 on the speed of a table-flip.
Q: I feel like people don’t usually think of Real Housewives and politics together, but Season 9 of “New York” had a whole story line about Hillary Clinton supporter Carole Radziwill and her reaction to Trump winning. Ramona Singer has also been criticized recently for going to a Trump fundraiser. How do you decide whether to incorporate politics into the show?
A: It wasn’t a conscious decision to include the election in that year of “New York,” but we were shooting and the women were active. Same thing, we were shooting “Beverly Hills” when the Justice Kavanaugh confirmation hearings were on, and that sparked a big fight between Lisa Rinna and Camille [Grammer] and it was really interesting. And it was real.
Q: Bravo fans, and even Housewives themselves, have called for more diversity in the franchise. “Salt Lake City” seems like it has a pretty diverse cast, and Eboni Williams is joining “New York” as the show’s first Black Housewife. I’m curious about the conversations at Bravo: What steps is the franchise taking to ensure there are a range of voices and people across all the shows?
A: You know, I think it’s something that we haven’t gotten right. We’re in a moment of reckoning right now. And so it’s only on us to make it better and make it right and that’s what we’re doing.
Q: There were the “Vanderpump Rules” and “Below Deck” firings from over the summer for people’s racist statements and acts, and some episodes of “Southern Charm” were removed. Have there been discussions about more changes to any of the shows, or how to ensure this doesn’t happen with future cast members?
A: Well, listen, I think it’s challenging because we employ a lot of outspoken, unpredictable characters who people are drawn to, either to judge or connect with or laugh at. So it’s a delicate balance and the line is always moving. We’re always adapting. I think it’s a constantly evolving dance that we’re doing to create entertaining programming with outspoken people without offending a group of people.
Q: Is there a role for Bravo or its shows to play in bringing people together?
A: The thing that I hear constantly, everywhere I go, is “Bravo is a place that, no matter if I’m fighting with my mother or my wife or my daughter or my sister or my friend, Bravo … is a place that we can go and escape and enjoy.” When I talk to people, literally with terminal illnesses, they have said, “Bravo takes my mind off of my problems.”
Bravo is one of the few brands left on TV. People don’t say, “I’m going to go home and watch ABC” or “I’m going to go home and watch TNT.” But they say, “I’m going to go home and watch Bravo.” And Bravo, I think, is synonymous and an escape and fun and entertainment, and that’s what we are going to continue to do. And for that reason, I think we really do bring people together.