It’s a mess, sure, but there might still be reason to watch ‘Watch What Happens Live’

Andy Cohen with guest Kathy Griffin (Bravo)
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Being parodied on "Saturday Night Live" doesn’t feel much like a pop-cultural anointment anymore—the show’s way too hit-or-miss for that.

But the April 7 episode scored a direct bull’s-eye on a target that’s been ripe for ages: Bravo’s "Watch What Happens Live," the three-year-old Sunday-through-Thursday “talk show” starring one of the network’s vice-presidents, Andy Cohen. The sketch was a triumph for two of the show’s featured players: Taran Killam as Cohen, and Kate McKinnon (in her debut episode) as hairstylist/TV-host Tabatha Coffey.

Granted, it doesn’t take that much to parody Cohen—which isn’t to take away from Killam’s wicked mannerisms, such as constantly shifting in his chair. Unsurprisingly, in the week following the sketch, Cohen began sitting a lot stiller.

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Cohen, in fact, loved the "S.N.L." bit, and said so the night after it aired. Who could be surprised? It isn’t simply that "S.N.L." cast members appear regularly on "Watch What Happens Live," as do all manner of people occupying 30 Rockefeller Center. (NBC owns Bravo.) If Cohen has any draw as a TV personality—and in a way he does—it’s due to his clear, obvious—and, initially at least, rather likable—craving for attention of any sort, a trait he shares, unashamedly, with the reality-TV stars his network has sired.

Cohen began his on-air career by acting as mediator for the endless parade of post-season reunion specials for Bravo’s reality-show phalanx ("Real Housewives" franchises from Mars to Jupiter, "Top Chef"). In such company, Jabba the Hut might appear levelheaded, too.

But Cohen’s chatty style served him well as a network talking head. In print, Cohen had a memorable cameo in Susan Dominus’s 2008 New York Times Magazine profile of then-Bravo head Lauren Zalaznick, talking about his “Fit-n-40” exercise tape (“I was being ironic!”). On TV, he memorably appeared on "The Colbert Report" in 2010, reading "Real Housewives" dialogue with the host to great comic effect.

No one should be surprised that Cohen gave himself a show, and not just because he’s so clearly in love with the camera. (Nothing wrong with that, by the way, unless you’d prefer to watch someone that doesn’t want to be on television. Sadly, I have found no .gifs of Bon Iver's Grammy Award acceptance.)

It has long been Bravo’s policy for popular personalities from regular series to star on spinoffs, from "Tabatha Takes Over" (Coffey was a contestant on the first season of "Shear Genius") to "Bethenny Ever After" (from "The Real Housewives of New York"). Cohen was sort of a star already, right?

Boom: Five nights a week, he and a couple of guests sit down and run through 30 minutes that are unrehearsed, unwritten, and generally fueled by cocktails prepared by a guest bartender. As often as not, at least one person on camera with Cohen is from a Bravo series. Regular elements include “Plead the Fifth” (a guest is asked three gossipy questions and can flatly deny to answer only one) and “Name That Celeb-Write-y”: Thursday’s guests, Cheryl Hines and Rachel Dratch, read each another excerpts from star memoirs and had to guess who wrote them. (The latter segment is mostly a thin pretext for Cohen to plug his own memoir, Most Talkative, out May 8.) There is a celebratory group shot at the end of most episodes. A lot of YouTube videos are repurposed in the name of entertainment value.

So yes, if that all didn't make it clear, "Watch What Happens Live" is a disaster. But it’s not the type of disaster to make you lament the gross misallocation of corporate funds—clearly this thing costs almost nothing to produce, a wise decision all around. It doesn’t even make you wish they’d put something else on in its place—what, even more reruns of all those reality shows? It’s more like meeting someone at a party and thinking they’re cool at first, then getting to know them better and finding them to have a number of annoying traits; and yet, the person still has their moments. You just learn how infrequently those moments actually come—and how much they’re lessened by the endless false starts that surround them.

What sort of annoying traits? On Monday, Cohen’s guests were Tony Award-winning actor John Benjamin Hickey and R&B singer Monica. The host cooed over Monica’s top: “Herringbone!” After a couple minutes, Cohen asked: “What is herringbone?”

“It’s a pattern,” Hickey offered.

Cohen waved it away: “We’re going to Google it.”

They didn’t. No matter—on with the show! That sort of haste is routine, and sometimes necessary, as when Cohen boldly offered that Wicked should follow the example of The Wiz and revamp itself with an all-black cast, titled Blicked. (Monica very politely rebuffed this.)

And it infects even the moments when things actually work, where you see that person you thought was so cool at first glance. Thursday, for instance, Cohen asked Hines to name the oddest thing she did while working as Rob Reiner’s assistant. After mentioning her confidentiality agreement, she offered that she once “drove a long way to bring him melon balls.”

“And melon balls means cocaine!” the host crowed. Not bad, but not as funny as he thought it was. And so it goes, five nights a week.