‘Watch What Happens Live’: The story behind that set
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Mary J. Blige admits to being a mile-high club member. Ralph Fiennes walks out in PJs and giant slippers. A ‘Real Housewife” talks about her fling with Gerard Butler. Why do so many celebrities on the Bravo talk show “Watch What Happens Live” say and do things they wouldn’t on Leno or Letterman? The answer might have something to do with the on-set bar (and most guests do partake). Or maybe host Andy Cohen is just so amiable and self-deprecating that guests instantly want to become his new BFF.
But another reason for the on-air craziness just might be the show’s intimate set. Shot in a nondescript Tribeca building in New York, “Watch What Happens Live” unfolds in a dark, cozy room full of tchotchkes. It looks more like someone’s basement den from the 1970s than a talk show. And that’s exactly what the host had in mind.
When the show was picked up, Cohen said, he had an art director come to his apartment for inspiration. “The reason the set looks the way it does is because I wanted it to feel like me,’ he said. The show is so much a result of my mind and sensibility, that it just seemed like it would be more comfortable if it sort of looked like me too.”
The most important design element from Cohen’s compact Manhattan apartment that art director Kenny Cahall re-created is a shelving system that holds a mind-boggling array of knickknacks.
“He lives in a real New York apartment. It’s not very big and it’s designed around storage,” said Cahall, who took items from Cohen’s digs, including three blue glass sculptures shaped like human heads, Snoopy figurines including a large bedazzled Pez dispenser (“Andy loves Snoopy and has a lot of them,” associate producer Chase Dillon said), an Edward Fields rug (since returned to the host’s apartment and replaced with a new one, pictured above) and a set of books with candy-colored spines.
“Those are my Childcraft encyclopedias from when I was growing up,” Cohen said. “They came from my parents’ basement in St. Louis.” The two Lite Brite installations of the Manhattan and St. Louis skylines by artist Rob Surette were requested by Cohen.
“Years ago, I was at a friend’s house who had a piece of art made out of Lite Brites and I never forgot that,” Cohen said. “Ours are sort of an ironic nod to those cityscape backdrops you see on other talk shows.”
The shelves are also filled with books written by the many reality TV stars unleashed upon the world by Cohen, who in addition to hosting “Watch What Happens Lives” five nights a week also serves as Bravo’s executive vice president of program development and talent. Goofy items inspired by guests (a Justin Bieber doll wearing a wrap dress by Diane von Furstenberg, who appeared on the show) are joined by photos of favored guests (Giggy, the pampered pomeranian with a skin condition from “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”). There are also bizarre things like the painting of Ricki Lake and Divine in character from “Hairspray,” made by the actress’ son, and an Andy Cohen action figure by a contestant on the Bravo show “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” who goes by the name the Sucklord.
The latest prized acquisition? An old wooden ski with three shot glasses glued on, made by Jimmy Fallon and his wife.
It may sound like a hot mess, but it’s a popular one. About 1.2 million folks, mostly women, are tuning in to catch the show, making it more popular than Conan O’Brien’s or Chelsea Handler’s programs. And the maestro behind the madness said he simply feels at home. ‘I know that some people think it’s kitschy or tacky,’ Cohen said, ‘but I think it’s really beautiful.”
-- Leslie Van Buskirk
Corrected: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described Kenny Cahall as a set designer.
Glass heads (with a case of problem dust dandruff) on the shelving system designed to emulate the one in Cohen’s apartment.
The rainbow encyclopedias.
The Sucklord’s Andy Cohen action figure.
Ricki Lake and Divine in character from “Hairspray.”
Giggy the Pomeranian.
Photo at top: Andy Cohen with guests Sandra Bernhard and Mary J. Blige. Credit for all photos: Bravo