Andy Cohen seems tired. It’s 5:30pm on a Wednesday–hardly the end of his workday–and we’re sitting in his capacious corner office on the 46th floor of New York’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home to NBC Universal. Here, Cohen reigns as executive vice president of talent and development of Bravo Media, creating and overseeing network hits. This Andy, subdued and serious, is not America’s no-holds-barred god of pop culture who keeps a reserve of boundless energy, juuuust in case he’s forced to restrain one housewife from decking another during a reunion show. (I assume his handlers notice his lull, too, since one of them scurries off and returns later with a chai latte from Starbucks.)
“My side job is hosting,” Cohen says, cup in hand. “And that’s taken up a lot more time in the last couple of years.” Cohen’s “side job” is Watch What Happens Live, the zany late-night talk show where he interviews celebs and recaps Bravo’s latest programming. A testament to WWHL’s appeal is that it started as a Web show, and last year evolved from two nights a week to five in the 11p.m. time slot. If you’ve tuned in, you understand why Cohen might be exhausted. Example: On one recent show taped at SXSW, Cohen and Sarah Silverman crushed items between their legs–tacos, piñatas–to find out who had the “Deadliest Crotch.” On another, Mike Tyson punched him in the stomach (semi-playfully) before going to commercial. Not to mention staples like “Word of the Day,” in which viewers are encouraged to take shots whenever they hear a certain word (“crotch,” in the case of the aforementioned episode). Oh, and the guests get plastered, too.
It sounds crazy–it’s as if each moment of the show is skating toward incurring a sizeable FCC fine. But WWHL is the best display of what Cohen has honed over his 24-year career in entertainment: Taking elements of pure chaos and masterfully weaving them into pure gold. “If there’s a good time to be had, I will go for it,” Cohen says of the show. “It’s not canned, it’s exciting, and it’s authentic.”
This is also what helped Cohen build Bravo into a reality-TV empire. What could be a disaster–hinging a network’s core on the unpredictable interaction between strangers–works flawlessly. Since Cohen joined Bravo in 2005, ratings have grown consistently year-over-year, thanks to franchises like Top Chef, Shahs of Sunset, and Cohen’s baby and biggest money-maker, Real Housewives. Like it or not, NeNe Leakes, Lisa VanderPump, and Teresa Giudice, along with the other “Bravolebrities,” as he’s coined them, have become household names, and Cohen simply funnels them back into the network. Bravo recently approved 17 new reality series for 2013, a 15 percent increase over last year’s slate. “They go on breaks after a three-or-four-month cycle,” Cohen says, “So you start to want to see this group of people again.” It seems that Cohen can’t go too long without seeing them, either–the most famous Bravolebrities are immortalized in a collage of magazine covers and spreads hanging in his office.
Cohen perfected his celebrity-whispering over an expansive career in television, first at CBS, where he learned to book guests and produce, then as VP of original programming at the defunct Trio, where he mastered the kind of material he later made standard at Bravo: quirky, live, and worshipping of all things pop culture. Cohen says he combined those two experiences when he finally stepped in front of the camera. “I’m trying to produce the show in my mind, and thinking, Is this good? If not, how do I get it some place good?” he says. “I’m producing myself.”
It could be that the Starbucks has kicked in, but I’ll wager that Cohen has simply started to edit the parts of my visit in his head: Suddenly, he’s likening himself to a “fluffer” for the husbands of his female viewers, and we’re laughing about the standard “booze and boobs” fare on WWHL. Before, he offered up his best business-savvy EVP of talent and development. But somewhere along the line, he figured my readers and I–his audience–wanted more. He’s right. “I try to be the same person on my show as I am at any time,” Cohen says of WWHL, which he’ll be off to in a few hours. Indeed, he is the same– maybe not taking shots of Bourbon, but always producing. Always on.
[Photos by Chris Mcpherson]