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Watch what happens when Andy Cohen goes on TV live

By Frazier Moore
AP Television Writer / April 2, 2012
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NEW YORK—Andy Cohen has a very nice office. A piece of corner real estate at 30 Rock, it is comfortable and of sufficient size to reflect Cohen's status as a key executive at Bravo who, the past seven years, has helped mastermind his cable network's winning slate of shows including "Queer Eye," "Project Runway," "Top Chef" and the "Real Housewives" franchise.

But Cohen's office has a more notable story to tell. While short of ginormous, it nonetheless exceeds the square footage of the studio where Cohen performs his other role at Bravo: hosting "Watch What Happens: Live," his saucy, unbridled late-night talk show.

"Isn't that funny? It's so true!" Cohen says with some amazement, surveying his digs and mentally comparing them with the Clubhouse, the tiny storage-bin-like fortress from where "WWHL" originates for 30 minutes Sundays through Thursdays at 11 p.m. EDT.

"This office IS a little bigger," he concludes, which as a host may make him unrivaled in TV history. (Imagine if David Letterman's office were bigger than the Ed Sullivan Theater!)

Expanding to five nights a week this past January, "WWHL" has grown from two nights, and before that one night, and before that a blog Cohen posted about the shows he stewarded in his executive day job. It has brought him increasingly into public view, while revealing him to be a skillful host and sly interviewer with the gift of spontaneity required for live TV. In his hands, "WWHL" is reaching nearly 1 million viewers a night and has emerged as solid competition against such rivals as TBS' "Conan" and E!'s "Chelsea Lately."

The intimacy of the show, secluded in its Clubhouse, is part of the charm. So is the free-flowing alcohol for anyone who wants it -- the studio audience of less than two dozen, as well as the guests and, of course, Cohen himself. So is his eagerness to solicit input from his viewing audience -- through phone calls, tweets and email -- who, in the Eastern U.S., are really seeing what happens live (albeit with a 7-second delay).

Originally conceived as an "after show" for hashing over and hyping Bravo's reality fare, "WWHL" now welcomes guests beyond Bravo's homegrown talent pool to its anonymous headquarters in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. By now, the 43-year-old Cohen has learned the trick of making "WWHL" matter by acting like it doesn't really matter, it's just all in fun. And in doing so he is game to schmooze with almost anyone -- major stars and micro-celebs are equal in his sight.

"I have a deep appreciation for both high and low culture," Cohen says. "I love having Diane von Furstenberg in the Clubhouse as much as I appreciate Tamra Barney from `the `Housewives of Orange County.' I have great enthusiasm for both, and for Ralph Fiennes talking about `Coriolanus,' which was a profound experience for me in the movie theater. But I could have a similarly energetic response to an episode of `Tabatha Takes Over.'"

Even so, he cautions, "There is an essential buy-in that I have to have for every guest. I always want to be excited about the people in those chairs next to me. I stand and stare at the (upcoming schedule) grid, and if I have a weird feeling about a name that's up there, I say, `Can we take it off?'"

Among others he has chatted up, and sometimes tippled with: Sarah Jessica Parker, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Jerry Seinfeld, Patti LaBelle, Anderson Cooper and Neil Patrick Harris. One night, Cohen threw an on-air pajama party with Fiennes and Holly Hunter. And the sky's the limit: He dreams of receiving Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin.

As if arriving for a Christmas office party, guests and audience members linger at the bar set up by the receptionist's desk, then pass through a warren of cubicles and down a cluttered hallway to the Clubhouse, whose setting is a fancifully tchotchke-stocked den, with, yes, its own on-camera bar and bartender.

"Andy -- you're so skinny!" one visitor calls out to Cohen as he squeezes into the room and takes his seat just before airtime. He grins wide and cocks his head, puppy-like, at an adorable angle. He is bouncy and jazzed as he inquires gleefully, "Are you ready to have a fun show?" More drinks are being served. He already knows the answer.

"The studio is crucial to the vibe of the show," Cohen says, back in his office on another day.

He is perched on the edge of one of his two red couches at 30 Rock, natty in his Ralph Lauren suit, claiming to be tired but clearly buzzing with energy. "The size of the studio is one of the reasons the guests feel so comfortable and are willing to be so open. I'm hosting a cocktail party. I mean, what's more fun than that?"

Cohen is openly gay, but the show he hosts isn't, he insists.

"I probably celebrate Jackie Collins in a different way from how Letterman might," he muses. "And maybe being gay affects my passion for my guests and the things I want to ask them about. But that's about it. This is 2012, and I think that's how gay people are: Being gay is just one of the things that we happen to be."

For all its freewheelingness, the show sports a reliable, tightly packed format. Cohen presents three "things I'm obsessed about" observations at the top of the show. He leads party games including "Take the Fifth," where each guest is plied with a triad of potentially embarrassing questions.

He has a version of picks-and-pans. In the latter category the night after the season premiere of "Mad Men," he brings up "Zou bisou bisou," a sexy, silly song performed in the episode: "I went to bed singing it. I woke up singing it. I slammed my head in a taxi door five times and I'm still singing it!" And can't help loving it, he adds.

Booze lubricates the show. Cohen's cocktails of choice: Maker's Mark-and-ginger, or Fresca and tequila. But even though he has a bar in his office that would shame Don Draper, he says he never indulges before show time.

"If I'm drinking on the show, I don't start until 11 o'clock -- I don't pregame," he declares. "But people at home will never know which nights I'm drinking and which nights I'm not. Last night I was drinking a Fresca without tequila. I have friends who say, `I can't really tell the difference.' I think that's because I'm an enthusiast. And I'm a very loud talker!"

Indeed, he has a memoir titled "Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture" due out in May. He began writing it last August and finished in early January. On the heels of that project, "WWHL" expanded to five nights per week.

Since then, the very busy Cohen has relinquished his oversight of Bravo's current programming outside of "Top Chef" and the "Housewives" portfolio, while remaining involved in overall development.

Even so, he retains the dual roles of talent and "suit" (specifically, Executive Vice President of Development and Talent) -- an odd, even counteractive blend, it would seem, in network circles. But he says each job serves the other.

"As a network executive, I have a sense of how far is too far as a host on my show and for Bravo in general," he explains, though adding, "My parents are at home in St. Louis watching, so that's also on my mind."

He says that, growing up, he had "the happiest" childhood. "I was in the closet, which was a struggle. But I was president of the student body. I was a popular kid. I wasn't being bullied. So I had it pretty easy."

All the while, he adored watching TV, which he experienced "as a portal of happiness."

Getting into TV news with the idea of being an on-air correspondent, he spent a decade at CBS News, mostly behind the cameras as a senior producer of "The Early Show." He was also a producer for "48 Hours" and "CBS This Morning," where he produced live segments, celebrity profiles and covered breaking news including the Oklahoma City bombing and the crash of TWA Flight 800.

He joined the Trio cable network as vice president of original programming in 2000, then came to Bravo five years later.

"But I think my training at CBS News was so key," he says. "I think that's why, now, I'm not afraid of live TV. And why we're able to cram so much into my show."

He grew up wanting to talk to the stars, and now, doing it on "WWHL" in the age of texting and Twitter, he sees himself as the proxy for his Internet-linked viewers who watch him, dreaming the same thing.

"But it was a dream that I had long ago given up. That's why being on the air now," he says with typical enthusiasm, "is so MENTAL to have happened!"

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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier

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