Andy Cohen has what you might call "social disease."
And Cohen -- former Bravo executive/man behind the curtain of the ”Real Housewives” franchise and current host of the network’s talk show “Watch What Happens Live” -- knows it, using that Andy Warhol turn of phrase to kick off his new tome “The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year” (Henry Holt and Co.: 352 pp, $26).
The book, inspired by the posthumous “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” functions as a sort of mashup of Twitter and Instagram for fans who have a longer attention span. Spanning one year beginning September 2013, Cohen chronicles his cheeky misadventures as an insider in the pop culture and celebrity vortex: ordering production assistants to save Lady Gaga’s pee from a trash can; texting Cher selfies while on vacation with Anderson Cooper; insulting Barbara Walters and filming scenes with Lisa Kudrow for the comeback episode of HBO’s “The Comback.” Barely a stone is left unturned, or a celebrity name left un-dropped.
Cohen spoke to us by phone from his “Watch What Happens Live” office in New York about the process of writing the book, treading the unfiltered waters, and keeping the diary going.
In the introduction, you talk about how, as a young intern at CBS, you were caught up in the “The Andy Warhol Diaries.” What did you enjoy about that peek behind the curtain?
It was really just all the rage when it came out in 1989. The book was electric. It was this shocking book that everybody wanted to get their hands on because everyone in New York was in it. And what I just couldn’t get enough of was that he didn’t hold back on his opinions. It was just this amazing entry into the world of pop culture that I had kind of always fantasized about growing up. And, so, I just lapped it up. I just couldn’t believe his life and his opinions and his world.
Twenty-five years later, I’m living this life where doors are being opened to me that I never thought would be opened, and I’m meeting people that I never dreamed I would get to meet, and I just thought … I was trying to think of another book, and it just hit me: I should really try to do this. Use [“The Andy Warhol Diaries”] as an inspiration, and see what I get. I’ll tell you, I wrote—even before I told my publishers—I kept a diary for about three months for myself. I went through it and I was like, “I love this. I’m doing this.” So, that’s the evolution.
What is the process of writing something like this? In the book you mentioned working with Liza Pesky, a friend and talk show producer, in the initial stages.
Well, yeah, she was there to really to help me get it off the ground for the first couple of months because I still had my day job at Bravo, and I was doing “Watch What Happens Live” five nights a week. I used her as my Pat Hackett, who was Andy’s editor, and I would call her and she would kind of take notes on my days and nights. Every couple of weeks she would send me the notes, and I would go back and kind of flesh it out and fill in the blanks and add to it. Once my schedule lightened up, which was after the first couple of months, I was just putting pen to paper basically on my own because my schedule had opened up.... I’m a control freak and I know my voice and my writing style, and so I just felt that it was the most effective for me to put all this stuff down myself.
This is where I hope you tell me you kept a paper diary, and wrote it in it every night.
I used a laptop. Sorry.
There are moments in the book where you make references to going back through the pages of “The Andy Warhol Diaries.” Did you find that going back through it gave you inspiration or that it gave you some perspective?
You know, I found his—I mean, he’s very droll in his storytelling and you sort of get into his rhythm in reading it. I’m much more effusive and dramatic, and so I didn’t want to emulate his writing style. But I wanted to use his style of how it comes across like he’s eavesdropping. He’s very observational in his recounts.
The inspiration was there—it’s a book that as always been on my coffee table. All this time, I still have my original copy and I still have the Spy magazine index that they published a few months later because they didn’t have an index in the original book. I would just flip through it like I always do. Every few months I’ll pick it up and pick a day, or just start looking around in there. That’s what I was doing while I was writing the book.
It was funny because there was a couple of situations where I would open to a page and someone would be there who I had just written about in my book. I remember I went to a dinner at Janie Buffett’s house and she asked what was going on with me and I told her I was working on a book sort of like “The Andy Warhol Diaries” and she was like, “Oh, I’m in 'The Andy Warhol Diaries.' And I said, “You’re kidding.” And so I went back to read it, as I recount it in the book....
To me, Warhol’s book is a pop culture time capsule. And I think, in a sense, mine will be too. I think there is something cool about the idea of someone appearing in one person’s diary in 1984, and someone else’s in 2014.
The book, in some ways, sort of mimics the confessional interviews we see on some of Bravo’s popular reality series, in that we see how you really felt about a moment or a person. But did that worry you—as a host of a show that requires guests or just as a person who mingles with these people?
Um, yes. Yeah. I mean, yes.
Did you take anything out?
You know, I did take some stuff out--
Because my advance copy had some redactions …
The redactions in your book were because those were sections about me convincing Bethenny [Frankel] to come back to “The Real Housewives of New York.” We hadn’t announced it yet, so I didn’t want it out there.
But, yeah, I am worried about how people will react. But I can’t take it on that much. I wanted to do this, and I think overall, I did a real good job of riding the line. It’s always about riding the line between giving the reader what they want and being able to continue functioning in the world you live in. And so I do believe that I’m still going to be able to host this talk show and I’m not going to be ostracized from society. If Warhol’s book had come out when he was alive, I think it would have been really hard for him to walk around because a lot of people were [angry] at what he said. Look, I certainly hope I didn’t [anger] a lot of people.... Maybe I did.... But I thought I did OK.
You also give the same treatment to some fans—
That’s, again, riding the line. I didn’t want to appear ungrateful. I’m not ungrateful! I think, also, my feeling was, if I’m really going to let you into my life and my thoughts, I just wanted to do it. You just have to commit to this thing if you’re going to do it.
This book was being written as a major transition was happening in your career [leaving his job as a Bravo executive]. Did it help in any way?
It kind of did because weirdly in January of this year, it felt like suddenly I became a working actor. My days were much more free than they had ever been. I didn’t have to go to an office, I had this late night show I had to be at every night, but otherwise I was freer. It was great because the diary was still something I had to work on everyday.
I’m amazed when I look back at this year, how many opportunities I had: being on “The Comeback” and being in the Lady Gaga video. And, also, I interacted with almost every late night talk show host on TV. I think if you’re into late night TV, you’ll be into this book. I’m on Letterman I’m on Fallon, Kimmel’s on my show—and on, and on, and on.
A big thorn in your side, as we read in the book, is the evolution of New York City--the old giving way to the commercial. You are not a fan of Chipotle, it seems.
That partly came from my love of Warhol’s books, and it also came from the fact that I’ve lived here since 1990 and I’ve seen the city change. It’s kind of heartbreaking to me what’s happening to small businesses in the city. There’s all these stores going out of business, and we have all these banks and Duane Reades and Starbucks popping up everywhere. It’s kind of trite, but when you live in it, it’s not.
You get a lot of flak for being a culprit in the dumbing down of society as the “Real Housewives” boss—which you acknowledge in the book. So when you write something like this, what do you hope is the takeaway?
That’s a good question. Look, predominantly, I think this book is fun and it’s funny. I don’t want anyone to think that I think this book is Tolstoy. I think certainly it’s a well-rounded kind of telling of what it’s like to produce a show and host a show and live in that world. It’s probably the most first-person you can get in terms of saying, ";I host a live talk show; this is what it’s like.”
There's obviously a lot of name-dropping in the book -- sometimes I had to turn to Google to figure out who was behind nicknames or to put a face to a name I wasn’t familiar with.
You have to own it. I definitely own it. This book has to do that in order to work. I mean, look at Warhol’s book. That’s what it is.
Any chance there will be another volume? A look at 2014-2015?
I’ve thought about. I’m still keeping a diary. You never know.