Men With Blue Cue Cards: Andy Cohen, Bob Barker and Jerry Springer?

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.

(Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I’m still mad at Anderson Cooper, who, despite all the good he’s doing on CNN, was a much more interesting character as the host of The Mole).

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.

WWHL's cheap-looking set

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.


4 responses to “Men With Blue Cue Cards: Andy Cohen, Bob Barker and Jerry Springer?

  1. Well, I guess I better watch this then, huh?

  2. As you’ve alluded, I think think you’re really talking here about the talk show derived reality shows most of all. Thinking about the relationship between the “axial character” of narrativized reportage and the attendant roles of host, news anchor, correspondent, etc. let’s think about the tv aesthetics of the “judge shows,” which have always had a fairly complex formula for quickly traversing exposition and getting to narrative conflict. Those “correspondents” with the cue cards, et al. exist a realm far outside the court arena, and necessarily so. In the court room, the axial character is clearly spatialized and narrativized as the judge him or herself–with bailiffs obviously enacting the Ed McMahon role. The space of the court room is a variation on the talk show stage–but specifically allows for constant tension between judge, plantiff, and defendant rather than host, guests, and audience. The host/correspondent here is today obviously an extension of the news magazine reformulation of an earlier news-oriented artifice of roving reporters and correspondents. And yet, shows
    following Big Brother (such as The Biggest Loser) have taken this host-correspondent rather than the talk show host proper–and therefore serve to reveal their TV news documentary roots. Strikingly, the dividing line between the news correspondent host and the more generic television “announcer” is rather flimsy due to the expository nature of both roles. What this comes down to is that I think when we consider hosts–there may be an ingrained understanding of the status of hosts based on their relationship to the show’s arena of conflict. But note that the axial character can also traverse arenas (talk show host Jerry Springer’s final thought is set apart, the judges often have cut-aways to private quarters where they answer questions or chat in denouements) while the newsy host-correspondent cannot (you don’t see Harvey Levin in the street). Please note that at the moment I don’t see any specific relevance to any of these rules or conventions, but they do seem to be consistent formal choices. One upshot is of course to confuse the differences between entertainment, news, documentary, fiction and non-fiction on the level of form if not content and it’s really part and parcel of what makes TV programming so reassuringly familiar.

    • I totally agree. There’s seems to be a strange, cordoned off space for these hosts. At the same time, what I was trying to get to is they’re increased sense of agency and their ability to comment on the action for the audience.

      To me, Jeff Probst is the quintessential example of this (or even the terrible host of Biggest Loser) as they seem to actively editorialize the action as it occurs (or occurred). Probst is always saying stuff like “This is the most divided that I’ve ever seen a tribe before,” or “how does it make you feel, hearing ____ say that about you.”

      I also wonder if a reunion show format allows the host to narrativize and subtly editorialize the content for the audience, serving as an extra layer of editing, so to speak.

      Anyways, thanks for letting em play around in your Reality TV “sandbox”!

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