“I wanted to work at the State Department” is not something you’d expect to hear from the showrunner of Bravo’s off-the-wall late-night gabfest “Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen.”
But that was Deirdre Connolly’s first career ambition. She studied political science at Boston College and was planning to move to Washington, D.C., to forge a career in the federal government. But an internship for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in her final year of college left Connolly at a crossroads.
“As much as I admired him and it was amazing and it was such a gift to do, it kind of turned me off of politics as a job,” she says.
Still, it proved an invaluable experience: When Kennedy’s head of communications left for MTV, it occurred to Connolly that her intense love for pop culture could be her meal ticket.
She eventually went to MTV, too. A job on “Total Request Live” kicked off her career in live television. It’s a fitting backstory for Connolly, who, as the mastermind behind “Watch What Happens Live,” regularly has to deal with another high-powered Kennedy — this one of the Bravo-lebrity variety: James Kennedy of “Vanderpump Rules.”
”Watch What Happens Live” launched in 2009 to little fanfare, but it has become a key player in the late-night arena, attracting A-listers like Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Lawrence.
“Deirdre understands my voice perfectly,” Cohen says. “She has made sure that the culture at ‘Watch What Happens Live’ — a little show based around fandom — has remained the same as it was when we started. We can be shady, but we’re ultimately positive and we’re ultimately fun. She’s been a great co-pilot with me as we do this.”
To be celebrating the series’ 10th anniversary is a trip for Connolly.
“It is insane to think about. It really is,” she says. “I started to realize that I’m measuring my life in seasons of ‘Housewives.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I was doing that around the time the spinoff for ‘Bethany Ever After’ started or whatever thing. So yeah, that’s what 10 years of Bravo does. It’s a good thing.”
From her diminutive office in New York, Connolly talked about her early days at MTV, leading without toxicity and rolling with the blunder of live TV.
‘Total Request Live’ as a training ground
I think my first production assistant job was on a show with Tommy Lee called “Return of the Rock.” And then that led to other shows, and finally, after probably two years at MTV, I wound up at “TRL.”
[M]y really big shutdown-of-Times-Square memory was Eminem. I was a segment producer at the time, and I think it was the “Marshall Mathers” album that came out, and he came and we had the shades up, and the police would eventually tell us to put them down if things were getting too out of control out in Times Square. We had Justin Timberlake when he had his first solo album. I wasn’t that much older than the people who everyone was freaking out about. ... It was really exciting to be on the inside and seeing it up close.
MTV put a lot of trust in young people. We were in our mid-20s producing shows, and doing them from top to bottom ... and it felt like a lot of responsibility, but it also felt like, what a great way to learn, to actually just be thrown something and just figure it out. ... That’s what live TV really is. It’s just knowing that you have a plan and you hope it goes that way, but what happens if it doesn’t, just having a plan B and C.
I have a procrastinating nature. I might leave everything to the last minute. So having lots of crazy deadlines actually is when I rise to the occasion and I become laser-focused. And I discovered, from working there, that live TV provides that for me, on a daily basis, so it’s a good fit.
De-stressing the work environment of live TV
With live TV, I worked in a lot of what I call “high-octane environments,” where there was a lot of stress and there was yelling. It rattled my confidence. And I thought that eliminated me from being a live TV showrunner because I wasn’t really comfortable doing those things. It’s not my default. So meeting Andy and getting onto this show and realizing I would look like a crazy person if I was yelling about this stuff, it kind of felt like, “Oh, wait, I am now in control and I can set the tone here and it can be something completely different.”
Management is not something that is always taught. It’s just something people take for granted that you’re able to do. And truthfully, I don’t think a lot of people are great managers. For me the No. 1 thing is embracing confrontation and not feeling like that’s a bad word. It’s understanding that confrontation is actually the most compassionate way to solve a problem. If I’m internalizing something and I’m upset the way that something’s happening, and I’m allowing it to take up so much space in me, who does that help? For women it is harder because we’re trained to be polite and nice. We’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to, I’m sorry.” [I’m] over apologizing and I just don’t do that anymore.
On late night’s woman problem
Our staff is 75% female. I’ve certainly made it a priority to hire women when possible. And I look around and I am very proud of our group who we have working here, the different voices that are here, different perspectives. I hear other things about late night. It’s not exactly my experience, but I do know — just from what I’ve read and what I hear from a few friends — it’s very male-dominated. But I do think that behind the scenes it’s changing, and hopefully that means there’ll be more and more opportunities in front of the camera for women to get shows and get out there and be seen as just as capable. Andy’s the only gay talk show host in late night. And I think that’s something really positive and something that we should be really proud of.
I think you 100% have to be conscious about it, because if you’re not, no one else is going to be for you. People hire what they know. I have blind spots myself and I certainly work to make sure that I’m reaching beyond my small network of people.
How being a boss changed her view of her capabilities
I started to feel more confident and being much more decisive in general and knowing that not every decision is going to be the right decision, but you just have to make them and live and then you learn. ... If something doesn’t work, you just don’t do it again. You can’t waste time getting bogged down in it. Probably the thing that’s built my confidence the most and the thing that I’m most proud of here is my management style and just being able to have a better understanding about what motivates people and knowing how important keeping morale up after all this time is...
Andy’s is obviously our most important voice, but [my task is] finding people who are like-minded and who are curious and compassionate, and then making sure that the people who are working for me know that they are in mentorship roles to other people on the staff as well. So that there’s always kind of a trickle-down of feeling responsible for the people who are coming up under you and knowing that their success contributes to your success.
How Patti LaBelle and a plate of crabs became an a-ha moment
Andy actually loves a live TV crisis. It is very energizing to him. There was this moment a little bit early on, and my reaction was like, “Oh my God, the sky is falling.” Because he gave Patti LaBelle a plate of crabs, and our lighting guy tried to do a lighting cue, but for whatever reason, all the lights went out except for this weird light that shone on the crabs themselves. And I was like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to go to break. This is a disaster. We’re in the darkness.” And Andy was like, “Did the lights just go out? Oh my God, what’s happening? This is amazing,” you know? And I thought, how funny and unique to respond to it that way. It made me think, there’s really no real crisis that could happen, because it’s live TV. That’s why people are watching. Watching the polished stuff as well as the things that go wrong is what makes live TV live TV, you know? So it was kind of a good lesson for me to actually relax a little bit and just think, “You know what, roll with it.”