Most unlikely host? Bravo’s Andy Cohen expands his late night kingdom

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In high school, Andy Cohen was voted “Most Talkative” and “Biggest Gossip.” Hardly the sort of recognition one might think would be advantageous. But it’s precisely those unrestrained and chatty tendencies that have gotten him where he is now: a cable exec who has become one of TV’s most brazen talk show hosts.

Interactions with Cohen on his Bravo series “Watch What Happens Live” range from candid to shocking to absurd. Like when he asked Emmy-winning, Mark Twain Award-earning Tina Fey whether she would rather wax Alec Baldwin’s front or backside.


“Back,” she answered wryly.

It’s all part of Cohen’s screwy charm as ringleader of the no-holds barred talk circus that is his Bravo show. At a time when the late night roster is overcrowded with name brands like Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, Cohen’s bare bones, off-kilter approach helped carve the half-hour New York-based chatfest a loyal following—which regularly attracts more than 1 million viewers--and become destination-viewing on the cable network, which is owned by NBC Universal.

“WWHL” began its 6th season Sunday by expanding from two nights a week to five, planting Cohen —an unabashedly gay and gleefully Jewish 43-year-old -- even more firmly in his role as the main man of Bravo, otherwise best known for “Real Housewives” and “Top Chefs.”

“It’s like, oh my god, I have to be in the studio at 11 o’clock at night most of my week?” said Cohen, seated at a table at the Sunset Tower Hotel during a recent trip to LA. “It seems restricting, and then you sort of realize that it’s not. I drink alcohol and get to talk about wigs and stuff. It’s about having fun for 30 minutes. Our biggest concern is what cocktail or drink our guests prefer.”

Liquid courage is a signature element of the show; in fact, a drinking game was recently added to the mix. While Leno might let a guest ramble about his or her current project, Cohen would rather his guests answer audience questions (solicited via Twitter, Facebook and telephone; the show is live on the East Coast), or guess whether someone is a “Real Housewife” or a drag queen based on photos of body parts.

“I think he is doing the kind of show that’s been going on in his head since he was a little boy,” said Kelly Ripa, Cohen’s longtime friend and frequent “Watch What Happens Live” guest. “And I think that’s genius.”

Bravo’s own reality stars (known as “Bravolebrities”) have always been a staple of the show, alongside A-list celebs (who are often friends of Cohen’s) like Sarah Jessica Parker and Anderson Cooper. Cohen asks questions no other interviewer would dare but tends to avoid being bogged down in serious matters. Last summer, he steered clear of addressing the suicide of Russell Armstrong, husband of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” cast member Taylor Armstrong. It wasn’t until weeks into the Beverly Hills series’ second season that he tackled the weighty situation by having Taylor on as a guest.

It’s a predicament made all the more unusual given Cohen’s other ties to Bravo: he retains his full-time day job as an executive vice president at the network. But he suggests it’s that position that gives him an edge as a host.

“I think there’s a shorthand there,” Cohen said. “There’s a built-in level of fandom that I have. There’s a comfort level.” And because he’s the boss of Bravo’s reality stars, he knows their back stories and isn’t afraid to probe when he questions their honesty.

“He’s probably one of our biggest Bravolebrities,” said Bravo president Frances Berwick. “It feels like a natural evolution. The talk show area was something we struggled with a lot. There were pilots we had that just didn’t work. Andy just has something that our audience connects with.”

Cohen, a St. Louis native who moved to New York in his early 20s, is a veritable socialite, attending various parties and mingling with the in-crowd. “He always has a story to tell about some magnificent party he went to or some famous person he’s buddies with,” Ripa said.

He’ll detail some of those encounters, as well as his journey from a closeted teen to a high-level executive, in his upcoming memoir, “Most Talkative: Stories From the Front Lines of Pop Culture.” It’s set to be published in May. On this trip to LA, he clacks away on his BlackBerry, tending to final edits on the book and network matters.

Cohen began his broadcasting career at CBS News, where he worked for almost a decade as a booker and producer for its morning news programs. After jumping to Bravo, he began a blog that commented on the network’s shows. That eventually led to him hosting “Top Chef” and “Housewives” reunion specials and having a Web series. Soon the network brass wanted to try the online show in a TV format. That 12-week, once-a-week tryout became permanent.

Taped in SoHo on a set that seats about 18 audience members with a crew of just under 20 people, “WWHL” feels like being invited into Cohen’s inner sanctum.

“It’s the most insane experience,” said Bethenny Frankel, who graduated from “Real Housewives of New York” to solo reality stardom in “Bethenny Ever After.” “The studio is the size of a California King bed. And there’s booze. It’s a miracle anyone makes it out alive.”

“I think there’s something great about it being a little bit like Wayne’s World,” Cohen said, noting moments of scrambling, like when a crew member caused an on-air blackout by accidentally turning off a switch. “Our studio is only so big, we can only do so much. But you make do. And that’s usually when you have the most fun. It’s like how kids get a kick out of playing with boxes rather than their expensive toys.”

Bravo is further building on its talk show cred this spring by launching a prime-time pop culture gab-fest hosted by Kathy Griffin, already an important component of the network with her former reality show “My Life on the D-List.”

But late night is Cohen’s domain on the network, and that means staying on top of all kinds of nagging details. He finds himself panicking about an important decision for an upcoming episode.

“I have to find out what pajamas I’m going to wear,” Cohen said. Sensing confusion, he explained: “We’re going to have a pajama-party themed episode with Ralph Fiennes and Holly Hunter in an upcoming episode. That’s not weird, right?”


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-- Yvonne Villarreal
Top photo: Andy Cohen. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times