As the Bravo talk show celebrates its fifth anniversary, its host talks to The Hollywood Reporter about Craig Ferguson's replacement, his efforts to woo Michelle Obama, his favorite interviews and which episode he wishes he could erase from existence.
This story first appeared in the July 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If Jimmy Kimmel is late-night television's prankster and Jon Stewart is its wiseass, Andy Cohen is the resident "shit-stirrer." It's his own descriptor, and it's fitting given his background as a top Bravo programming executive and host of the network's often-controversial Real Housewives reunion specials. In the half-decade since Cohen, 46, transitioned in front of the camera, he has used his now nightly platform at Watch What Happens Live! to persuade his guests, be they Bravo talent or top-shelf movie stars, to throw back a cocktail and dish. Discussions in his Tic Tac-sized studio, dubbed the Clubhouse, can range from Mariah Carey reflecting on the 2001 box-office bomb that was Glitter to Oprah Winfrey addressing the juicy, unauthorized biography Kitty Kelley wrote about her in 2010.
As the only truly live, interactive series in late night, WWHL has been able to establish a niche with pop culture-loving females. Thus far this year, the New York-set series is averaging 977,000 weekly viewers, up 5 percent from the same period a year earlier. And Cohen, who spent 10 years as a CBS News producer before jumping to cable, is committed to luring more eyeballs, through bigger guest bookings (Madonna remains atop the wish list), social media outreach (via his 1.4 million Twitter followers) and a follow-up to his New York Times best-seller (The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year, out in November).
As Cohen celebrates his fifth anniversary, THR caught up with the Watch What Happens Live host and executive producer to discuss his best (and worst) shows, the crowded late-night landscape and that somewhat embarrassing note his boss, Bravo and Oxygen Media president Frances Berwick, gave him earlier this year.
You're five years in: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
When we started, we didn't have a fan in the Clubhouse, [which is small and gets very hot,] so I was sweating my ass off. That was a big revelation year two. (Laughs.) The other thing, and I knew it then but I didn't trust myself enough to do it, is to just be myself. I was scared to do that in the beginning.
There are many hosts vying for late-night eyeballs today. Where do you fit in in the landscape?
I'm a cross between an enthusiast and a shit-stirrer. I have a deep love of pop culture and an excitement about it that I hope comes through. And yet, because of my background not only at CBS News but stirring things up on reunion shows and being a lifelong Howard Stern listener, those are things that I carry with me, too. I often think: "Wouldn't it be fun if this was just a little bit dangerous, and we could play a game where you had to answer questions?" When people come on our show, they feel looser, and we wind up going places that maybe they wouldn't go elsewhere.
You've had Oprah, Cher and Lady Gaga on the show. Who's still on your guest wish list?
I love music people. I'd love Beyonce or Justin Timberlake. I'd still love Madonna, and I think that'll happen. The best guests for me are people who I'm actually a big fan of and very invested in. And we're working on the first lady, too. She and I spoke about it, and she said, "I think that's a thing we could do later in Barack's second term." I loved that answer because what that said to me is, when she comes, she's going to go for it.
What's the first question you'd want to ask Michelle Obama?
I'd just like to see her drinking something other than water, frankly.
Following the success of shows like yours, you saw a deluge of cable networks from FX to MTV try to jump into the late-night space, and many of them have since retreated. Why didn't they work? What were they missing?
It's usually about the guy or the woman who's there. You either click or you don't.
You spent several years on the executive side, where it was your job to identify talent.
What do you look for in a late-night host?
Someone that's funny, open, comfortable and has the energy. I worked in morning television for eight years, and it's a really specific thing where people are finicky about who they want to let in in the morning. I think the same thing goes for when you're laying in bed: Who do you want to fall asleep to? I rarely watch our show back, but when I do, I see myself and I'm like, "Man, I'm screaming. Calm down, dude." I worry sometimes when I see myself: Oh God, would I want to be going to sleep with this?
Chelsea Handler is wrapping her E! show at the end of the summer and moving to Netflix. Any advice for her?
Oh my God, I wouldn't venture to give Chelsea Handler advice about anything. I don't think she needs or wants my advice!
CBS has yet to name a replacement for Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show. Who should get that gig?
I'd love to see a format change. It would be interesting if someone, whoever it is, did
a different show. Or what if [Stephen] Colbert did his show at 11:30 from the desk for the first 15 minutes? There's an opportunity there to shake up the way it's done.
Who's the person to do that?
I had Wanda Sykes on my show recently, and I thought, "God, Wanda would be great." I love Joel McHale. And I think Kathy Griffin could do something interesting there. It's 12:30 a.m. -- I'd like to see something really edgy.
Would you be interested in that franchise if it were presented to you?
I couldn't be doing a show that's more a version of myself if I tried, and so I'm just grateful for the opportunity that Bravo has given me. I'd never trivialize what they're letting me do every night at 11 -- and live! There was a misconception early on when this launched that I had [greenlighted] my own show or that I was somehow running rogue. This is a business, it's a ratings game. I knew in that first episode order of 13 episodes at midnight, which is what it was, that if the ratings weren't good it would be gone. And that hasn't changed: If the ratings aren't good now, they'll put someone else in there.
What kind of notes do you get from Bravo executives?
I've gotten very few notes, but there was a very funny one that I got earlier this year from [Bravo president] Frances Berwick, when I had come back from vacation. Her note was, "It's time to shave the beard." (LOL. We were all thinking it.)
Looking ahead, what would you like to do with the show that you haven't already?
We've gone to SXSW twice, and that festival feels very us because we're the only interactive live show in late night. I want to continue to go there, and I love the idea of other road trips and getting outside of the studio. And I really hope to grow the show by getting more big-name guests, too, which we're doing.
If you could take an episode back -- erase it from existence -- which would it be?
It's live TV, so there have been some that are just total duds, and you walk out of there like, "Oh God, that was horrible." I remember we had [Today co-host] Willie Geist booked on the same night when we had this woman who was jokingly referred to on the Orange County Housewives as Jesus Barbie, Alexis Bellino, and it was the night that Obama announced at like 10:50 p.m. that Osama bin Laden had been taken out. I sent Willie Geist home because I knew as a serious newsman he couldn't come on my show. It wasn't appropriate. I decided at the beginning of the episode that I have a responsibility to tell people what's going on even if it was weird coming from me. We'd had 2 million people who were just watching the Housewives, and they hadn't changed the channel yet and they didn't know. I get the minute-by-minute [ratings] of our show, and I knew what was going to happen: We started the show with 1 million viewers, and then as soon as I made the announcement it was like, boom, they all changed the channel.
We've seen a lot of turnover in late night. Which of the competitive shows are you watching and perhaps enjoying?
I'm watching [The Tonight Show with Jimmy] Fallon. He's a good buddy of mine. I feel like he's brought a new energy to late night, and I love what they're doing over there. They're just consistently creative. I don't know how any of them sleep -- all I know is that they're making the rest of us look lazy.
ANDY COHEN'S FIVE FAVORITE INTERVIEWS
“I’m a huge Oprah fan, and I felt like she did an Oprah trust fall with me,” he says, noting that there were a lot of potentially uncomfortable topics he was eager to address, including the last time she smoked pot (answer: right before her talk show went into syndication). “She got on a long tangent about how big her boobs are, which was interesting.”
Cohen suggests having Streep in the Clubhouse was a big turning point for the show, particularly in terms of other celebrity bookings. “People took us more seriously after that,” he acknowledges, noting that Streep told him specifically that she did his show because she was looking to reach women. “She was as Meryl as she could be,” he adds. “It was perfection.”
The Real Housewives stars
“They’ve been the bread and butter of the show,” he says of the Real Housewives stars. Cohen, who executive produces the franchise, likens his relationship with the Housewives to Howard Stern’s with his Wack Pack. “Howard can interview a member of the Wack Pack for an hour, and then he can go on and interview Julia Roberts,” he says. “The Housewives are my Wack Pack.”
Will Ferrell and Steve Carell
Cohen says the Ferrell/Carell interview, pegged to Anchorman 2, was “really big” for him because the A-list booking didn’t come through a personal relationship. In fact, he had never met either of them. “It’s always just shocking to me when someone I’ve never met who is a huge star chooses to do the show,” he says, maintaining that sense of wonderment five years in.
Dan Rather and John Mayer
There are few things that tickle Cohen more than a zany mix of guests, and the pairing of Rather and Mayer was among the zaniest. (Vying for that spot also is Clay Aiken and Jenna Jameson, who appeared on a WWHL episode in March 2012.) Says Cohen: “When you have that kind of weird combination on, people are like, ‘Oh my God, you’re kidding me. I have to see that.’ ”
[I love me some Andy.]