How Andy Cohen Charted His Own Course in Late Night

In showbiz, longevity matters.

If your Broadway show is shuttered after five months: failure. After five days: flop.

If your movie is shoveled from theaters to a streaming service with the same parent company, you are the new version of “straight-to-video,” a cinematic throwback to the precipitous judgment of the vaudeville era: give ‘em the hook.

TV shows—with some famous exceptions—traditionally tended to get longer runs: one season before cancellation used to be relatively standard. In prime time, that is. In late night the call of fate often came much faster. Chevy Chase got six weeks in 1993 before the Fox network opened the trapdoor and he disappeared.

So let’s give credit where due: If you can last 15 years hosting a late-night show, you are more than a success. You are a candidate for the Pantheon.

Or maybe you have an argument, at least.

Andy Cohen likely remains outside those mythical temple gates, where names like Carson, Letterman, Leno, O’Brien, Kimmel, Colbert, and Stewart (among others) are enshrined on golden cue cards. But stats are stats. Cohen’s Bravo series Watch What Happens Live is this month celebrating 15 years on the air.

And the end is not in sight. The show has a deal with Bravo through next year.

In the past, when I have spoken to Cohen about being in the late-night mix, he has expressed a “don’t get no respect” frustration with routinely falling outside the discussion about stars of late-night.

His point: He isn’t a comic, so he—and his show—are judged differently. This is both fair and accurate.

Broadly speaking, Cohen is in the same category as all those famed comics who have hosted late-night shows. He fronts a “talk” show, where guests appear and regale an audience about incidents in their lives—and often pitch whatever they’re doing lately to make money.

But fundamentally, Watch What Happens Live is its own creature. It is live, unscripted, unrehearsed, and sometimes unhinged, which is by design. Guests are often mispaired and overserved (from the on-set bar). Spontaneity is encouraged.

Of course the show very often explores the world of reality TV with its deep connections to the Real Housewives’ now-international universe of female “interactions.” This provides both an entry and exit to WWHL

If you’re into the Housewives version of the human experience, there is a lot of extra, connected content on WWHL to feed your voracious interest. If you would rather be staked out, spread-eagled somewhere in the Sahara covered with anthills than be in a room where any array of these “housewives” are expounding on their romantic and heavily accessorized lives, you may not be a regular or enthused viewer.

But the guest list attests to the show’s cross-genre appeal. Stars and celebrities at all levels of entertainment, politics, and even newsmakers have dropped by the show’s cozy, lived-in looking set, and done the conversation thing (and often the liquor thing) with Andy and other guests. Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, and Conan O’Brien have all dropped by the Bravo Clubhouse.

WWHL is really not modeled on anything else—certainly not what Cohen has called the “shiny-floored” late-night comedy shows. That because the host is not known for his standup, sketch, or any other form of comedy, other than what gets generated on the fly.

He is, instead, what once was defined in television as a “personality.” The easy joke for the definition of that term was “somebody on TV with no discernible talent.” But that’s both unfair and inaccurate.

There is a long tradition in television of hosts who were basically personalities instead of entertainers. Many of these occupied chairs in late night, with varying degrees of success.

Pat Sajak and Magic Johnson managed to land late-night shows without being experienced in comedy—and neither one lasted long.

But Tom Snyder broke through as a long-term, talk-centric late-night host with stints at NBC (The Tomorrow Show) and CBS (The Late Late Show) that totaled more than 12 years. His idiosyncratic style made a deep enough impression to inspire a classic Saturday Night Live impression by Dan Aykroyd.

Bob Costas built a storied career as a sports announcer but flexed his “personality” (and interviewer) talents in an NBC show called Later, which followed Late Night with David Letterman from 1988 to 1993 and Late Night with Conan O’Brien from 1993 to 1994. Costas departed the show in 1994, but NBC liked the format enough to insert another regular personality, Greg Kinnear, as host for two years (with guest hosts filling in after that until 2001).

That led into probably the biggest “personality” success ever in late night: Last Call with Carson Daly, which, thanks to that host’s affability and professionalism, ran for 17 years. (Dick Cavett definitely does not count. Though he was a spectacular interviewer with a more serious-toned late-night show, Cavett was a standup and a superb comedy writer before he ever hosted.)

Andy Cohen will almost certainly become the “personality” with the longest track record in late-night TV as Watch What Happens Live continues its run. 

Even if he has to settle for the “personality” Pantheon, that’s not bad. He’s in good company with Regis, Dick Clark, Phil Donahue and Oprah, for starters.

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