Andy Cohen has become a maestro of reality TV. Now he’s exploring the format’s evolution with “For Real: The Story of Reality TV.”
Andy Cohen has never had his life taped. But he’s made a career out of producing reality TV — most notably, Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise — and has witnessed some of its most talked-about moments unfold as host of the network’s various reunion specials.
Now Cohen is taking a look back at the entire genre in “For Real: The Story of Reality TV.” Premiering Thursday night, the seven-part E! docuseries traces the history and cultural impact of reality TV, reminiscing with some of its biggest stars through the years.
“We cover a lot of shows,” Cohen says. “I mean, who remembers ‘Kid Nation’?”
Video-calling recently from his home office in New York City — where he spent much of this last pandemic year doing a self-shot version of his late-night talk show, “Watch What Happens Live” — Cohen chatted with The Times about his introduction to reality TV, the possibility of reuniting the original cast members of “Real Housewives of Orange County” and his brush with COVID-19. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve been in this space for a long time. Have you ever been approached about having your life taped?
No. But I got a letter about “Dancing With the Stars” years ago. Um, that’s it. I would be the wrong person. I know how the sausage is made.
Was it a mind trip looking back on some of these shows in “For Real”? I wish some of them were available to stream.
I have to think with all these streamers that they’re going to start putting them up — like “The Osbournes,” I would think that Paramount would put it back up.
I’ll tell you what was a trip was walking into Khloé Kardashian’s backyard as they were shooting an episode of “The Kardashians.” And, you know, I’m a producer of the “Housewives,” but the lighting and the production design for “The Kardashians” ... it looks like we’re casually sitting on swings in Khloé's backyard — it was a trip. I loved talking to them about what they’re looking for in rough cuts.
When did your love of reality TV begin?
With “Real World: New York.” Absolutely. I think that’s when modern reality television was born. I was stunned. I thought it was fascinating. I was a huge soap opera fan and I was like, wow, this is like a real-life soap opera. These people are my age. They’re living in the city that I live in. What’s going to happen?
It hit me in the face what a great format it was. At that time, I was a desk assistant at CBS News. And then when “Survivor” came on, my mind was totally blown. I was working at the morning show at the time. So we had a deal where, at the CBS morning show, we were getting the castoffs every week. I remember thinking: Oh, my God, it just regenerates itself. I thought it was brilliant.
Before reuniting with her “Real World” cast mates, Julie Gentry had to grapple with the very public life of a ‘naive’ 19-year-old from Birmingham, Ala.,: herself.
It’s been 15 years since “The Real Housewives of Orange County” debuted. Would you ever float the idea of doing something like “The Real World Homecoming: New York” — getting the OG cast back together?
Maybe. The thing about it is, especially with that group, you know, Jo [De La Rosa] moved to New York, Kimberly [Bryant] moved to Chicago, Jeana [Keough] and Vicki [Gunvalson] still see each other. Lauri [Waring] ... I don’t know. I don’t know how climactic it would be. If you look at the New York Housewives, they all generally still see each other, which is incredible. Maybe them.
Could you see the “Housewives” going that long? Thirty years?
I could, yeah. We’ve been very careful to keep these planes in the air. You know, you take someone out and you put someone in, and it adds a whole new life to it, and you bring someone back. On the other hand, we’re living in a time where celebrating people who may not understand political correctness may have a shelf life.
I wanted to ask about that. Looking at Twitter, and also talking to friends and family who are fans of Bravo shows, it’s been interesting to see how politics and the views of talent have come to a head, most resoundingly last year.
I did notice it. A lot of people say, “Well, we don’t want politics in our shows” or “We don’t want to cover social issues.” But last year was a year unlike any other. We are in a global pandemic, you had a reckoning of race relations and you had a highly divisive presidential election. So it would have been really hard for reality to not seep into reality shows, especially these docuseries that were not, you know, a competition reality show where you’re making dresses, or something that would be easier for that not to happen.
You saw people who had been celebrated for their outspokenness now being taken to task for their outspokenness. And I don’t know, it’s a delicate balance. My thing that I keep coming back to is these are not elected officials. They’re Real Housewives, not Barack Obama. What standard are you holding them to?
But for instance, Kelly Dodd — the things that she was putting out there, whether about the coronavirus or her lack of empathy toward the Black Lives Matter movement — really upset a lot of people. Some viewers boycotted the season.
I thought that was such an important exchange we had at the reunion when I said, “I get DMs from people saying, you should be fired for promoting not wearing masks” and she said, “I get DMs from people who think you’re un-American because you don’t like Trump.” I was glad she said it, because I bet she does get a lot of DMs from people who feel that way. And that is the exact representation of the country we live in. I’ve got 50% of the people saying she’s behaving terribly, and she’s got 50% of the people saying, “Your boss is an ass.” So I thought that was really important and really just very reflective of where we’re at.
There have been some pretty shocking developments in the “Housewives” universe through the years — Taylor Armstrong [“Beverly Hills”] dealing with her husband’s suicide, Joe and Teresa Giudice [“New Jersey”] going to prison. The recent split between Tom and Erika Girardi [“Beverly Hills”], as well as the allegations and revelations about him were shocking. Were you surprised by all of it?
Very. Very. We were already in production on “Beverly Hills” not only when Erika announced she was leaving him but when all of these accusations about Tom’s business came into light. So you will very much see that reflected this season on the show.
Did you expect her to continue on with the show?
It was already out there. Was I surprised she kept going? No. Ultimately, no. I thought she would stay. I think people will be surprised by her because the whole story is developing in front of you as it’s happening.
You ask questions for a living — sometimes outrageous or uncomfortable ones. What did you think of Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry?
Oh, I thought it was brilliant. I was emailing with Gayle King about it the other day and I was saying, “Why are people so surprised at how brilliant Oprah is? Why is that even a story?”
I am a huge Oprah fan and probably saw every episode, or maybe 80% or 90%, of every Oprah show for 25 years. Literally, I recorded it during college or while I was at work, and I came home and watched it on the VCR. I absolutely loved it.
I think what’s been interesting [afterward] is for a lot of this stuff to be put in context. Like every great interview, your opinion changes over time. I was all up in arms about the security issue, for example. And then I found out, well, no great-grandchildren of the monarch get security. And when the monarch dies, Archie would have gotten [the title] automatically. So that made me think, “Well, that’s interesting.” But I loved it. I thought it was great. Many people are always tweeting me saying, “We want every minute of every reunion show.” And I was like, “I want every minute of that.”
Is there a question you would have asked?
I was very curious to know: Where is Meghan’s relationship with Kate today? And William today. And I wanted to know more about Harry’s relationship with Kate and William.
A question that has seemed to have taken over “Real Housewives of Atlanta” is: Who slept with the exotic dancer Bolo? Do you know? I don’t want or need to know but I am curious to know if you do. And what do you make of the commotion?
I don’t. I have a theory about it. And I actually had dinner with Porsha Williams recently. And I wanted to ask her but I purposefully didn’t to protect her because I was like, “Anything you say to me can and will be used against you at the reunion.” So I just purposefully left it. But I’ve talked to production about it, and I will get into it at the reunion.
The truth of the matter is, I don’t really care. I think it’s actually an invasion of privacy. They were at a bachelorette party and they felt like the cameras were off. I hope they all slept with Bolo if they wanted to. I hope everyone got what they wanted out of that night because everyone deserves to get exactly what they wanted out of that night. And if it was a piece of Bolo, great, and if it was a piece of cake, great.
Are you surprised by what Bravo has been able to do in this pandemic, in terms of keeping the shelves stocked with programming?
Well, that’s another thing about [“Real Housewives of Orange County”]. We were just kind of getting rolling into the season and things were really happening — that show was shut down so many times. People really rag on that season. But it’s amazing we got a season at all given everything that was going on. And then you’ve got “New Jersey,” where it doesn’t look like there’s a pandemic. They went to Lake George [N.Y.], then they go to the Jersey Shore. We got them in other places, which was really good. But we had to shut down for two weeks after Cynthia’s wedding in Atlanta to make sure everyone was OK. ... We couldn’t shoot [the wedding]. They used footage from Cynthia’s wedding videographer because the production company couldn’t do it.
So yeah, there were so many stops and starts that are not represented when you see the show. It was really, really challenging.
With more than 40 series in production at one time, no network has had to adapt to the coronavirus outbreak quite like reality TV powerhouse Bravo.
Take me back to your experience of those early days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
I remember everything like it was yesterday. The day we announced we were doing “Watch What Happens Live” from home was the day I got my COVID results. I had been feeling funny. And I had my nanny here and [my son] Ben here. I had just gone to great lengths to get us tested — my nanny and I. I did not think that I had COVID. I don’t even remember the morning. I just remember everything that happened once I said I had COVID.
Were you trying to retrace your steps?
The thing is, if I look at that week before, I rode five subways, I was at Sirius Radio, I was taking pictures with audience members. I was onstage at 54 Below. I flew to L.A. for 24 hours to be on celebrity [“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”]. I’m surprised I didn’t get it five times over.
Did you have any long-term COVID effects? Any memory issues?
It took it out of me for a few months, I would say. I was having some [memory stuff] too. About eight months ago, there were a couple of reunions that I was doing, and I was like, “Wow, these words are not coming to me in the way that they used to.”