Every week on late-night round-up, one of our writers watches a week of one late-night talk show. This week, Meredith Blake on Watch What Happens Live. Next week, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
Given the sheer number of late-night talk shows currently on the air, it’s odd that the format itself is so hidebound, and that comedians with sensibilities as different as David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson all try to work within its fairly rigid parameters. Bravo’s fledgling late-night program, Watch What Happens Live—excuse me, “L!ve”—is that rare exception: a show with a format that is a perfect embodiment of its host, Andy Cohen.
Though he has a “real job” as vice president of programming for the network, Cohen has effectively functioned as the public face of Bravo for the past several years. Cringe all you want, but he's good at it. Cohen is neither a comedian nor a journalist, but he is a consummate schmoozer. Cohen’s greatest skill as a talk-show host is his ability to get his guests to speak off the cuff and tell them things they’d never reveal to, say, Jay Leno. Unlike the pre-scripted interviews and canned anecdotes that make most talk shows feel like an endless press junket, Watch What Happens Live—henceforth known as WWHL—actually feels spontaneous. Of course, it helps that it’s the only live show in late night. Most nights, nothing outrageous happens, but the sheer possibility that it might adds a dose of excitement to the proceedings.
Mercifully, the show dispenses almost entirely with the conventional interview format, replacing it with a variety of quizzes and games. Each and every guest is subjected to a round of “Plead The Fifth,” a game in which they’re asked three highly personal questions, and are allowed to opt out of one. With a talented and charming guest like Alan Cumming, “Plead The Fifth” is a treat. (He readily confessed that Christina Aguilera is a far bigger diva than Cher, a nugget of celebrity gossip that I rather enjoyed.) And even with dreadful guests, like Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills “star” Brandi Glanville, who confessed to a week-long tryst with Gerard Butler, the game can yield some fun dirt.
Other games are loosely inspired by Cohen’s guests—emphasis on the “loosely.” Because Cumming is a pet owner, he and his fellow guest, Emmy Rossum, were asked to act out famous movie lines using animal voices. It’s not exactly Fresh Air-levels of intellectual stimulation, but it’s hard not to enjoy the sight of Alan Cumming woofing, “You can’t handle the truth!” or Emmy Rossum clicking her heels together while mooing, “There’s no place like home.” Like his frequent guest Jimmy Fallon, Cohen knows that games are a much more effective way to get celebrities to open up than asking them to set up a clip from their latest movie.
Cohen is superb at creating the illusion of intimacy. At its best, WWHL feels like a grown-up pajama party at a fabulous-yet-cozy Montauk beach house. Booze, or at least references to it, plays a big part on the show. There’s a guest bartender every night, and a drinking game every night in which viewers are supposed to drink at the mention of a designated “secret word.” Even the show’s no-frills production value and tchotchke-filled set work to its advantage; you feel like you’re literally in the “Bravo Clubhouse.” It’s a little like Wayne’s World, only in this case Wayne is a gay Jewish guy who talks about plastic surgery instead of heavy metal. The guests on WWHL also seem physically closer and less blindingly attractive than they do on other shows; if you look close enough, you might even spot a few pores! Viewers can also call in or Tweet their questions, adding to the show’s carefully cultivated aura of coziness.
The New York Times ran a profile last year which portrayed Cohen as a guy who’s friends with lots of celebrities because he treats them with an automatic familiarity, and I had that in mind as I watched him interact with his guests this week. On Tuesday night, he welcomed Mary J. Blige, someone he’d never met before. Cohen’s lineup tends to skews heavily toward “Bravo-lebrities” and his own personal cadre of fabulous New York pals like Sandra Bernhard, so it was interesting to see him interact "cold turkey" with a bona-fide star. As insufferable as I find Cohen’s schmoozing, I could immediately see why he’s got the job he does. All of two seconds into the show, Cohen told Blige how outraged he was that the song she wrote for The Help had been snubbed by the Academy. “Today must have been a really hard day,” he said, frowning and tilting his head the way you might when talking to an upset third grader. Amazingly, Blige readily confessed that it had been, sounding as if she had just lost a dear friend rather than being left out of a notoriously meaningless Oscar category. “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” she gushed.
WHHL is broadcast from what Cohen calls the “Bravo Clubhouse.” Unfortunately, at times the name can seem entirely too literal. When Cohen hosts actual performers like Cumming or Blige, WWHL is a quick, mindlessly diverting half-hour of television. On the nights when Cohen welcomes his fellow Bravo personalities, WWHL feels way too much like a cheap platform to promote the network’s lineup—which is exactly what the show was until its recent move to five nights a week. Even for someone like me, who’s spent more time tuned-in to Bravo than probably 85 percent of the American public, the entirely Bravo episodes of WWHL are a slog. On Wednesday, for instance, Cohen welcomed Top Chef personalities Gail Simmons and Fabio Viviani. As an occasional viewer of that series, in theory I should have been amused by the montage of Fabio mispronouncing the word “burger” (he says it “borgor”—can you believe it?!), but instead I felt liked I had been teleported into the three-dimensional version of some sad BravoTV.com fan forum.
At this nascent stage, Watch What Happens Live has more potential than you might expect, but Cohen needs to branch out beyond the Bravo “family” and his clique of swishy friends. Whether or not swarms of A-listers are likely to subject themselves to “Plead The Fifth” remains to be seen, but I like to think they might.