(Chris Sorensen for the Washington Post)
In his journey from reality-TV producer to A-list interrogator, Andy Cohen discovered a gift for breaching the barriers of fame in our era’s celebrity circus.
Andy Cohen bounced in his seat and pumped his fist. Diane von Furstenberg, one of his guests on his Bravo late-night show “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen,” had just gone there — dished about her long-ago “brief love affair” with Richard Gere, not just on live TV but in the most deliciously, bluntly vulgar terms.
“Iconic! Iconic!” Cohen cheered, leaning over to give the fashion designer a high-five as his studio audience screamed.
Cohen, a reality-TV innovator behind the camera long before he became a talk-show host, has an uncanny radar for juicy details of famous and semifamous people’s lives. That may be why his show has become a nightly raucous confessional for bona fide celebrities — even if they don’t always plan on it.
The Gere story wasn’t new news — von Furstenberg revealed it in her 2014 memoir — but it was new enough, or at least fun enough, to light up Cohen’s audience that March night, as well as Page Six, People and dozens of other gossip-accumulating sites the next day. Yet it wasn’t even the biggest scoop from that one 30-minute show. Cohen went to the phones to take questions from viewers. One asked his other guest, actress Julianne Moore, why she abandoned the leading role in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” which turned into an Oscar nomination for Melissa McCarthy.
Moore, who had just set down a glass of white wine, winced. “I didn’t leave that movie,” she said, her voice light. “I was fired.”
A gasp rose from the small audience. “Were you?!” Cohen exclaimed, then shifted into reporter mode: “Was there a reason? . . . So you started shooting it? . . . Did you see the movie?” She replied quietly: Creative differences. It happened during rehearsals. No, she hadn’t yet seen the film. “It’s still kind of painful.”
Cohen, 51, who sharpened his interview skills at CBS News before deploying them at Bravo “Real Housewives” reunion shows, isn’t afraid to ask any question — or hand over the mic to a call-in fan who might have thought of a better one.
“I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of endorphin released in me every time someone reveals a secret,” Cohen said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “Whether the question came from me or not.”
If he isn’t the architect of this decade’s celebrity culture, Andy Cohen is certainly one of its ringmasters — a gleeful scholar of the intersection of social media, reality TV and gossip, dedicated to breaking down the barriers between the A-list and the C-list, and between fan and star, just so we can, well, watch what happens.
Spending most of his career behind the scenes, he was a key part of the Bravo team that transformed reality TV — both with unscripted shows (“Top Chef,” “Project Runway”) that translated coastal urbanity and creative-class coolness for the masses, and with the “Real Housewives” franchise, which presented a smeared window into the messy drama of the sort-of rich and mildly famous and monetized the great American hunger for schadenfreude.
A series featuring five people who helped shape the culture of the past decade.
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“We embraced the idea that real people are as interesting, if not more so, than scripted characters,” said Lauren Zalaznick, the former NBCUniversal executive who brought Cohen to Bravo. “Andy himself really embodies that. His own human nature is a great deal of what makes him a superstar.”
It was 10 years ago this summer that he started hosting his own show, no longer just a wrangler of big personalities but one in his own right. “Watch What Happens Live,” which airs Sundays through Thursdays at 11 p.m., emerged as the late-night stop where A-listers are most likely to let their guards down in an era known for intense self-curation.
On WWHL, they divulge the hardest drug they’ve ever taken (for Gwyneth Paltrow, it was ecstasy); what they really think of Ben Affleck’s back tattoo (his ex-girlfriend J-Lo hates it); or how long they’ve reigned as “master of their domain” (“a reasonable period of time,” Jerry Seinfeld said). Howard Stern, one of Cohen’s broadcast heroes, may score as many scoops with his celebrity interviews, but Cohen manages to work his magic in a mere 30 minutes, including commercials.
“We are very proud at the amount of water-cooler churn that we generate on the show,” said Cohen, who has described WWHL as “ ‘Playboy After Dark’ meets ‘Wayne’s World’ meets ‘Larry King Live.’ ”
His pot-stirrer techniques don’t always charm. This summer, a fan texted into the show to ask guest Tituss Burgess how he liked working with Eddie Murphy on a new movie. Cohen, who came out in college and was bothered by Murphy’s homophobic routines in the 1980s, made the question sharper: “I was just wondering if you got close at all,” he asked Burgess, who is also gay, “because he was very problematic for the gays at one point.”
Burgess bristled. “Any troubles he may have had with gay people, I guess, are gone because he loved me,” he said. Later, he slammed Cohen on Instagram: The show, he wrote, should be “a place where artists come to talk about art and have a little fun. NOT a place to rehash old rumors or bring a star negative press.”
Seems like Burgess hadn’t been watching much WWHL, where most stars anticipate personal questions and even bask in the awkwardness. (See: Mariah Carey’s slyly pleased expression when given a chance to shade her nemesis, Nicki Minaj, in a May 2016 appearance.) Cohen never wants guests to leave angry, and they are allowed to designate certain topics as off limits. But he also recognizes that Bravo viewers love a good train wreck.
“Say what you will about that episode with Tituss, but it was a half-hour episode of television where he was not feeling me, and you saw it — and we’re not cutting around that,” Cohen said. Viewers, he said, “crave” authenticity. As for his VIP guests: “They also might see that when they do this show, it generates a lot of extra attention,” he said. “And isn’t that the point of doing late-night talk?”
Deirdre Connolly, a longtime MTV producer who came to Bravo in July 2009 with production company Embassy Row to launch "Watch What Happens Live," can pinpoint the moment in the third season when she realized it had staying power.
“I just really wanted to get in there,” she recalls guest Tina Fey saying of the Bravo Clubhouse — their tiny set, filled with photos, books, tchotchkes and seats for about 30 audience members, in a Tribeca office building.
“It was the idea of the Clubhouse being a place. Not a studio, but really just like Andy’s living room,” Connolly said. “As a viewer, I think you feel that you’re eavesdropping on a conversation. And as a guest, you probably get lost in conversation.”
The show’s magic formula relies on a counterintuitive tactic that Connolly and Cohen settled upon early. On most talk shows, stars walk onstage fully knowing what they are about to discuss. In a pre-interview with producers, they’ve tried out their cute family anecdotes or wacky stories from the set to see what plays well.
But WWHL doesn’t do pre-interviews — unless you count the only question they provide their guests in advance: What drink would you like waiting for you?
There’s an on-set bartender, and the booze helps loosen tongues, especially for celebrities already punchy from a long day of media rounds. Chrissy Teigen said her publicist once prohibited her from returning to the show after the supermodel got “blackout drunk” on-air. She blames a cozy atmosphere that feels like “gabbing” with best friends.
“That kind of comfortability can lead to saying some pretty crazy things you forget are on national TV!” Teigen said in an email. “I’m definitely guilty of this!”
A writing staff of pop-culture obsessives help Cohen craft those potent questions, but so do legions of fans. WWHL evolved alongside social media, and now viewers can call in with questions or submit them via Facebook or Twitter. It’s a convenient strategy for Cohen, whose persona can shift between smarmy and sly — a celebrity kiss-up artist who must put his guests at ease while simultaneously prying secrets out of them. He brandishes the blue cards bearing those deeply nosy call-in questions like a shield: Hey, he’s not the one asking — it’s the fans!
“I keep getting the question ‘Who are you dating?’ ” said Gizelle Bryant of “Real Housewives of Potomac,” a frequent guest. “Those are questions I don’t really want to answer. But, of course, I will.”
The show’s parlor games also help. “Plead the Fifth,” in which guests may take a pass on only one of three questions, “was a big revelation for us because . . . people feel like they actually have to answer the question,” Cohen said. “I’m sitting there, thinking, ‘You can say whatever you want. I have to go to commercial break eventually!’ ”
Jennifer Lawrence confessed she once got high before the Oscars. Mike Tyson, when asked what an ear tastes like, said it “depends on what ear you bite.” Oprah Winfrey said she last smoked weed in 1982. Matthew McConaughey confirmed he dated Janet Jackson. Sally Field admitted she broke up with Johnny Carson by pretending to have a mental breakdown. Katie Couric said Matt Lauer’s most annoying habit was that “he pinches me on the ass a lot,” a quote that came back to haunt after NBC fired him over allegations of sexual harassment.
“We go viral every day,” Connolly said. “I don’t think that Andy could have an interview with anyone that doesn’t get pickup.”
In college, Cohen's idols were Susan Lucci, the flamboyant femme fatale of "All My Children," and Sam Donaldson, the aggressive ABC White House correspondent.
“To this day, when I’m interviewing someone, I try to channel Sam,” Cohen wrote in his 2012 memoir “Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture.” “Of course, today, my hardest-hitting interviews are usually with Real Housewives.”
After graduating from Boston University with a degree in broadcast journalism, Cohen took an internship at CBS News in New York. Early on, a producer advised him that his wandering eye might keep him from an on-air career. Cohen never realized he had one. He convinced himself he didn’t, but when he eventually got on-air, he wrote in his book, “every blogger and tweeter and commenter . . . had something to say about my wonky eyes.”
He worked his way up to booker and producer on “The Early Show” and “48 Hours.” And he blossomed as one of the cool kids of Manhattan media, chummy with the likes of Anderson Cooper (a friend tried to set them up on a date; it didn’t work) and Kelly Ripa.
“Before he was a big TV star, he was a really popular dude in the city and had some pretty highfalutin friends,” said actor Jerry O’Connell, a Cohen pal. “Before he was famous, he was chilling with Sarah Jessica Parker.”
Cohen left CBS in 2000 to join Trio, a new arts- and culture-focused cable channel, where he bonded with network president Zalaznick. She brought him with her to Bravo in 2004 as vice president of programming. Already known for “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Bravo took off around 2007 with a new slate of giddy, glamorous reality shows. “Real Housewives” soon became the table-flipping, cat-fighting crown jewel, spawning eight spinoffs and confirming viewers’ appetites for bad behavior, no matter how ugly or manufactured the drama. (Not all viewers: Just before the 2016 election, the New York Times reported, a man at one of Cohen’s speaking gigs asked him whether he felt responsible for the degradation of discourse in America.)
Cohen’s snarky emails with Zalaznick morphed into a blog. His deep familiarity with the programming got him tapped as moderator of Bravo’s occasional online after-shows — and later the wildly dramatic “reunion” episodes that marked the end of a “Housewives” season. When traffic spiked for the online show, Bravo decided to adapt it for a weekly midnight TV slot — with Cohen as host, despite his limited on-camera experience.
“It was unusual and innovative and extremely risky only in retrospect,” Zalaznick said. Bravo wanted a relaxed, intimate atmosphere, not celebrities rattling off publicist-approved talking points. It helped that most early guests already knew Cohen — they were his famous friends or Bravo-lebrities.
In January 2011, executives were stunned when a post-season-finale episode with Kim Zolciak and Kroy Biermann of “Real Housewives of Atlanta” earned about 3 million viewers. (The current Season 16 has averaged about 674,000 nightly viewers but millions more via YouTube.) Cohen’s show moved to 11 p.m. and, in 2012, to five nights a week, with a higher class of guest. Oddball pairings are a specialty: Dan Rather and John Mayer; Liv Tyler and Common; Clay Aiken and Jenna Jameson. Cohen relied constantly on his hard-news background: writing, editing, streamlining a live segment.
“I could see how much you could actually do in that amount of time,” he said, and know what question to ask next. “I know when I’m onto something, and I will keep going.”
“He didn’t come up in the stand-up clubs; he’s not an improv comic. He came up as a booker, where you’re in the trenches,” O’Connell said. “He just thinks differently.”
"Watch What Happens Live" stands alone in the late-night landscape. Cohen is the only gay host. Connolly is one of the very few female showrunners, and about 75 percent of the staff are women. Perhaps because he didn't follow the usual comedy path, Cohen is often left out of the cultural conversation about late-night hosts. Then again, unlike Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and John Oliver, Cohen mostly avoids current events.
“We’ve really intentionally allowed it to be a space where people can check out and feel like, ‘Okay, I can just relax and know this is a half-hour of fun entertainment, and I’m not really going to get bogged down in all the news I’ve heard all day long,’ ” Connolly said. “Of course, if there’s something he feels like he wants to say, and it’s important, he absolutely uses his platform to do so.” Cohen once named the Trump administration a “jackhole” (each episode brings a “mazel” and a “jackhole” of the day) after a report on officials’ plan to exclude transgender people from Title IX protection.
And he wishes Hillary Clinton had taken up his WWHL invitation before the election. “I think it probably would have done her good.”
Otherwise, count him out. “Late-night has just become so political. It’s crazy to me that Jimmy [Fallon] and Colbert did a live show after the Democratic debates recently. . . . They’re not fun to make fun of,” Cohen said. “I’m happy to be on an island and still be doing what we do.”
Lettering by Made Up for The Washington Post; photo editing by Moira Haney; art direction and design by Eddie Alvarez; copy editing by Emily Morman.