The first time I saw this guy on TV, he was running one of the now-famous (if not infamous) Real Housewives reunions. I immediately asked the wife two questions: a) who is this guy? and b) why is he being so mean to these women?
For those of you who don’t know, (I’m still trying to figure this out) Andy Cohen is the executive producer behind Bravo’s hit shows such as Top Chef and the Real Housewives franchises. He has also recently made a turn as host of the reunion shows and his own weekly program, Look What Happens: Live.
(for more explanation as to the who, The New York Times does a better job of explaining here.)
What is interesting to me about his turn as a host is just how similar his on screen role is to previous talk show hosts like Jerry Springer, game show hosts like Bob Barker, and reality tv show hosts like Jeff Probst.
Aside from each of these people carrying around ubiquitous blue cue cards with their names on them, these figures are, as my friend Eliot describes them, actually axial characters.
(note to Eliot – feel free to correct me if I’m misquoting you and mad props to you and your theory!)
In the traditional sense, an axial character is the person who the entire show centers around. They’re the actors with the most close-ups and the characters who are most often privileged with the main story (or, at the very least, who get the last credit in the opening sequence).
In his astute analysis of reality tv (what he calls the “reality-tv-show-ification of genre”) Eliot has argued that we actually watch reality tv for is its bizarre combination of game show, talk show, people in a house show, and ultimately its host, who becomes the figure that we latch onto and who we actually want watch.
So just like I Love Lucy (which centers on Lucy) or a gazillion shows which feature comedians as stars (like Gallagher! or Carrot Top – to name a few of the shows I’d like to see) we watch The Real Housewives, Survivor, The Bachelor(ette) for the host, to see what they would do and to hear their thoughts as they comment on the action.
Which brings me back to Andy Cohen. What strikes me is his willingness to jump in on the action, and also his snarky habit of commenting on it. This raises my original presumption of his mean-ness, even though he seems only to be channeling questions that we want to ask the real housewives, et. al. In this fashion, he seems more like a surrogate figure, but one that brings out the worst in people’s natures (which makes for great TV) rather than the better.
In this way, the shows become a high-end Springer, who is not only the anti-Oprah in so many ways, but still somehow manages to fit in his final thoughts, no matter what occurs on the stage in front of him.
On that note, a final thought about Cohen’s own show, which looks extremely cheap and made on the fly. In this way, it almost functions as the opposite of the slick production values of the various Bravo shows, perhaps revealing the schism between Bravo’s perceived production of what I will call “quality reality tv” and the reality of its small-scale production.
In a lot of ways, Watch What Happens Live struck me as a kind of high-end Wayne’s World where people sit around in cheap looking chairs, a low-end dark wood set, and despite their stardom (or popularity) famous people visit the set and speak uncomfortably about being there, as Jerry Seinfeld recently did.
(note how the first thing Jerry says in the clip is “why am I on this show?”)
Perhaps part of the appeal is still the show’s lack of slickness, possible spontaneity, and star drawing power (last night Naomi Campbell called in to talk to Teresa Guidice, the famously hot tempered NJ housewife), but more to the point, we are drawn to Cohen’s personality as the axial character and man who explains it all for us.
Until next time, take care of yourselves, and each other.