Celebrity Close-UpJun 01, 2012
King of Talk
STL’s Andy Cohen gets chatty about his new book, his skyrocketing late-night show and the outlandish success of his "Bravolebrities."
Story: Jill Manoff
Photos: Frank Veronsky
"In terms of big bucket-list moments, I've written a book, my show has gone five-nights-a-week, I've played myself in a sketch on 'Saturday Night Live,' I threw out the first pitch at a Cardinals game, and I was on 'Letterman.' It's been wild!"
It's a typical, bustling Wednesday for the Bravo network's Executive Vice President of Development and Talent, better known as Andy Cohen. Just two hours in, he has already screened several DVDs pitching new reality shows, vetted potential cast members for Beverly Hills "Housewives" (a term that, thanks to his own direction, has become widely redefined as "wealthy socialites with big hair, big breasts and big personalities") and is mid a number of meetings centered on various plans and projects, including the reunion special for "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." If all goes as scheduled, he'll hit the set of "Watch What Happens: Live" in time for its customary 11:30pm taping, and then will retire to the Cubbyhole, a lesbian bar in his NYC neighborhood, with either his guests or crew in tow. And, at some point, he's "supposed to get a burger with Jerry Seinfeld." Even so, Cohen seems giddy (his trademark demeanor, granted) to be spending time with someone from his hometown, rehashing the many meaningful goings on since he was first acquainted with ALIVE by way of his cover story in early 2010.
"Have you seen my Lite-Brite backdrop of the St. Louis skyline on the set of my show?" he asks proudly, narrowing his focus to bucketlist item No. 2 (one of a pair of very recent milestones he is currently labeling "very big deals"). I have. The bold homage to the Gateway Arch appeared in January when "Watch What Happens: Live"—the show he hosts and executive produces—received a Sunday through- Thursday time slot, evolving from its original twice-weekly late-night treat. "I'm still in the midst of the transition," he admits. "I don't think I'm balancing it yet; I'm just trying to keep sane."
If the past is any indication, Cohen will soon adapt with flying colors. After all, he is the guy who launched a 10-year tenure at CBS News— highlighted by appointments as a producer for "48 Hours" and "CBS This Morning," and senior producer of "The Early Show"—with a mere internship between semesters at Boston University. With his subsequent bold move to Head of Programming for the pop-culture-fueled cable channel TRIO, he maintained his pace. The start-up witnessed many successes, including a Peabody Award for an original documentary and such cult-classic series as "Freaks and Geeks." Then Cohen set his sights on Bravo—largely motivated by its innovative star program, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Today, as reality shows make up the bulk of Bravo's lineup, few would refute dubbing Cohen a pioneer in television's flourishing, comparatively new realm.
(More after the jump.)
Keeping it real
"It's all about the casting," Cohen says, regarding what makes Bravo's shows resonate so loudly with its audience—which is consistently rated the most affluent, educated and engaged in cable entertainment. "In terms of a lot of our shows—like 'Flipping Out,' '[The] Rachel Zoe [Project]' or 'Tabitha [Takes Over]'—I think those are people who are just great at what they do. They are big, aspirational characters who are so fun to watch. In terms of 'The [Real] Housewives' [franchise], we have people who are one-of-a-kind. They are sometimes people you think you don't like, but wind up liking; they're funny, whether it's purposeful or not."
And, they're the biggest "Bravolebrities" the network has churned out yet. Emerging with everything from skincare products to collections of low-calorie cocktails following their first appearances as "Housewives," standout castmates from "Orange County" to "Miami" (and all five series in between) have Cohen to thank for their expansive fame (case in point: even Gigolo, the Pomeranian owned by "Beverly Hills" star Lisa Vanderpump, has upwards of 50,000 followers on Twitter). In addition to appointing them to a season's inner circle, Cohen and his colleagues had the keen sense to expand their spotlights outside of weekly hour-long shows to spin-off series, live tours and oft-heated reunion specials. Where the "Housewives" went, their fans followed. As the reunions were regarded as an extension of the web shows he was moderating following early episodes, Cohen was eventually asked to host them, which paved his way to "Watch What Happens: Live."
Typically populated by Bravo's beloved characters, "SNL" comediennes past and present ("I love funny women," Cohen confirms) and celebrities plucked from Cohen's own circle of friends (he's been known to rub elbows with Kelly Ripa and Sarah Jessica Parker), "Watch What Happens: Live" is a casual setup in which nothing is rehearsed, alcohol is a fixture and references to the off-camera skeleton crew are not only permitted, but common. "I'm just inviting you into my den, basically—to have a cocktail, hang out, have some laughs and play a game." One fan favorite is "Plead the Fifth," in which guests can opt out of one of three decidedly awkward questions. "Which celebrity was a bit of a letdown when you first met them?" Cohen recently threw out to "The Office" star and fellow St. Louis native Jenna Fischer. She pleaded the fifth.
According to Cohen, his ability to man such on-camera antics and feel comfortable chatting up big names stems from a lifetime of preparation. "I went from sitting two inches away from the TV—while growing up in Clayton, MO, obsessed with pop culture—to moving to New York, producing TV and meeting a lot of the idols I had from my childhood, to being on TV." Unique in its almost bizarre natural progression, Cohen's exciting journey to what can safely be labeled his dream job is the centerpiece of his new book—the other of his recent "very big deals."
Titled "Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture," the hardcover memoir, released in May, is replete with tales of life-defining moments (including his coming out to family and friends during college), unlikely recurring characters, mistakes and triumphs, and instances that clearly foreshadowed his career. "Working the green room was like hosting a cocktail party," Cohen reflects on p.55, regarding an internship duty while at "CBS Morning News." "I wonder how my life will ever take me back to this place, where I can sit with an idol and talk about something I love," he remembers on p.9, following an interview for his college paper with lifelong obsession Susan Lucci.
Also included is a chapter titled "Perfect Pitch," which includes a play-by-play of his experience throwing out the first pitch at Busch Stadium in 2010—a very big deal to the fervent Cardinals fan. "I always go to the Cardinals Clubhouse store at the Galleria when I'm in town; I'm always in the market for Cardinals gear," he confesses. In addition, Cohen lists Companion, Erney's 32° and Blueberry Hill among his favorite local haunts—though fulfilling bucketlisted goals left and right doesn't leave much time for hometown bars and burgers.
"I have to say, I'm pretty much livin' in the bucket right now," he laughs. "The only thing left is that I have to fall very heavily in love, and a psychic told me that it's happening this year, so that's next."
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