“In my mind, we’ve created an entirely new genre in late-night television which can only be compared to what Howard Stern has done for years on morning radio,” says Andy Cohen, the Bravo executive-turned-host of the network’s Watch What Happens Live, as we sit down at New York’s Empire Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The handsome 48-year-old, who is the first openly-gay person to host a late-night talk show, continues, “This is the only show on late-night television where you’re gonna see a host ‘going there’ in the way of trying to generate news and ask questions and be dangerous. I want this show to feel dangerous and unscripted and sometimes awkward and always exciting.”
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Cohen, who was born and raised in St. Louis, grew up obsessed with pop culture and dreaming of a life in television. A popular kid, he nevertheless spent much of his youth internally tortured by his awareness that he was gay, something that he only felt comfortable sharing with others once he was a student at Boston University. With that weight off his shoulders, he took his first steps into show business by procuring an internship at CBS in New York the summer before his senior year; shortly after graduating, he returned there in a full-time position, and over the ensuing decade experienced a “meteoric” rise that resulted in him becoming a senior producer of The Early Show and 48 Hours, all while still in his twenties. By 2000, he was seeking new challenges and, at the urging of Barry Diller, left The Tiffany Network for Diller’s startup arts and culture cable channel Trio. Trio soon was acquired by Universal, which, in turn, merged with NBC. NBCUniversal then pulled the plug on Trio and moved its chief Lauren Zalaznick to Bravo, and it was she who asked Cohen to join her there as head of programming, something that he did, with some reluctance, in 2004.
Before long, though, Cohen came to love the job and earned the nickname “Bravo Andy,” having helped to nurture or create hit shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Project Runway (which won a Peabody Award in 2007) and Top Chef (for which he won an Emmy Award in 2010), which were instrumental in putting the network on the map. But if there was one thing with which Cohen became most closely associated — at least before Watch What Happens Live went on the air in 2009 — it was the network’s Real Housewives franchise, which he did not create, but which he and his fellow executive producers “kind of turned into what it is,” namely, a massively popular reality series about wealthy and often confrontational groups of women. Inspired by the hit ABC melodrama Desperate Housewives, as well as much earlier TV programs like Peyton Place and Knots Landing, it began in 2006 with The Real Housewives of Orange County, quickly found a massive and passionate following and soon expanded to other cities across America. “It’s the modern soap opera,” Cohen argues, only with the added allure, for participants, of finding some measure of fame. “The one thing money cannot buy is fame. Fame is an aphrodisiac.”
(Some Housewives “stars” have indeed parlayed their appearance on the show into fame, as well as fortune, the most notable example being Bethenny Frankel. The 46-year-old appeared on The Real Housewives of New York City in 2008 while still living in “a really shitty one-bedroom apartment,” Cohen says, and she used the opportunity to promote her Skinnygirl cocktail line. A fan favorite, she was given her own spinoff show on Bravo, Bethenny Getting Married?, in 2010. In early 2011, Frankel appeared on the cover of Forbes magazine and sold Skinnygirl for somewhere between $8 million to $120 million.)
More than a few prominent people — including feminist leader Gloria Steinem — have sharply criticized Cohen’s Housewives franchise, which they argue is dumbing down America and demeaning to women. Cohen emphatically rejects that line of argument. “There are a million channels,” he argues. “If it was the only representation of women on television, this would be a really, really serious conversation. It isn’t. There are many, many portrayals of women on television. And I know that Gloria Steinem has not watched a full season of any Housewives, where there are moments of incredible greatness and triumph and strength and beauty for the female race. Listen, if it was just ratchet buffoonery, it would not still be going as strong as it is, it just wouldn’t.” As for the suggestion that the Housewives franchise created a climate in which Americans were more inclined to respond to a brash and boisterous presidential candidate like Donald Trump, he says, “There would not be a Donald Trump, I don’t think, without reality TV. But please do not hang Donald Trump on me — I do not accept that.” He quickly adds, “But he does act like a season one Orange County housewife.”
While Cohen was, by all available measures, “kicking ass” as an executive, he privately held on to the dream of one day appearing on the air himself — something that eventually came about through a series of fortuitous events. He began emailing Zalaznick chatty summaries of Housewives episodes, and she encouraged him to start a blog on Bravo’s website, something that he did on top of his other responsibilities, which only had grown with his promotion to executive vp of all production (some 30 shows) and development. Soon thereafter, he was encouraged to begin hosting a web-only “aftershow” following episodes of Top Chef and Project Runway, where his following began to grow. In February 2009, he was given the opportunity to host an on-air reunion of The Real Housewives of Orange County‘s second-season participants, and by that July, with the encouragement of producer Michael Davies (“my patron saint”) and Bravo’s top brass, he hosted the first episode of his own late-night talk show, Watch What Happens Live.
“The biggest thing that upset me at the time was when people said that I gave myself my own talk show,” Cohen concedes. “If the ratings were bad, I would have gotten canceled.” Instead, the ratings were so strong that the show quickly expanded from one night a week to two nights to its current five and, starting in 2013, Bravo and Cohen began phasing out his executive responsibilities altogether so that he could focus more on the show. (He remains, however, very busy with other endeavors — in addition to continuing to serve as an exec producer of the Housewives shows and the host of many of their reunions, he has his own Sirius radio channel, tours on the speaking circuit with pal Anderson Cooper, writes books, develops and produces shows out of his own production company and hosts Fox’s reboot of Love Connection, which debuted May 25.)
Cohen says of Watch What Happens Live, “What’s great is that what it started as is still exactly what it is today,” noting that it is the only late-night talk show that airs live, features real-time interactivity with its audience not only in the studio but also online, does not conduct pre-interviews with guests in order to retain an element of surprise, has an open bar that it actually uses during the telecast and actively tries to generate news — at least entertainment news — through provocative interviews and games. Cohen undeniably is a smart and ambitious man who, for better or worse, caters to the tastes of the masses. “I’ve always been a high-low guy,” he acknowledges. “I say I’m a ‘fluffer’ for straight guys because I get their wives all hopped up and then I’m gone in a half-hour. You’re welcome, straight guys.”