Andy Cohen talks about his life behind the scenes of reality TV shows

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First aired on Q (16/07/12)


Whether you look at this past decade's obsession with reality television as a guilty pleasure, a pure delight or whether you try not to think about it all, you've got Andy Cohen to thank for much of it. As an executive vice president at BRAVO! USA, Cohen has been the driving force behind reality TV staples such as Top Chef, Project Runway and the many Real Housewives shows. Cohen spoke to Jian Ghomeshi on Q in a recent interview about his new memoir, Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture, and why his career is so fitting. As a child, Cohen once spent hours in the back seat of the family car with a hairbrush for a microphone, narrating every twist and turn of the road trip.

Cohen has recently emerged from behind the scenes, hosting the nightly talk show Watch What Happens Live on BRAVO! (He still keeps up his Emmy and Peabody Award-winning work behind the scenes too.) If one thing is obvious from the story of Cohen's life, it's that he loves TV, and has since childhood. So why write a book? Why not produce a made-for-TV movie? "I kept journals for years, ever since I came out of the closet," said Cohen. "I have so many details of stories from my early career at CBS News, and internships I had, and trouble I got in, and trouble that my mouth got me in. Those details just leant themselves so beautifully to making this book as colourful as I think it is."

Of course if it ever is turned into a TV movie, Cohen is well placed to cast whomever he wants to play him. "People say Mark Ruffalo and I look similar to each other," Cohen joked.

Cohen grew up in front of a TV screen in St. Louis, and loved soap operas in particular. "What I loved was that these were larger than life characters, dressed to the nines, saying things to each other that you couldn't imagine anyone actually saying in real life," said Cohen. "Now fast forward all these years later, and you've got this tribe of Real Housewives dressed to the nines, saying things to each other that you couldn't imagine anyone actually saying in real life -- except it is real! And now I'm the ringleader who's sitting in the middle, sometimes pulling the strings. What a wild turn of events for me!"

Cohen regards his career with a sense of wonder at his good luck. "I always say, you don't work in TV, you get to work in TV," he said. "And that attitude has helped me be the best that I can be in every job that I've had in my weird and wonderful and outrageous and shocking 23 years in this medium."

Cohen also shared a few little known facts about reality TV. Did you know that each hour of a Real Housewives episode is edited down from 80 hours of footage? "The thing about the Housewives, which is potentially an easy punching bag for people to say, 'it's the downfall of civilization!,' is that at its best, it's archeology of the rich, or sociology of the Nouveau Riche," said Cohen. "I love human behaviour....[The Housewives] becomes this weird, guilt-free place where you can gossip and talk about it, much like I did with All My Children 25 years ago."

And how does Cohen respond to criticism about the shallow nature of celebrity that reality TV contributes to? "Look, we live in a time where you can become an instant celebrity if you get a million hits on a Call Me Maybe parody video," he said. "Yes, these people are becoming celebrities...I would encourage anyone who has a problem with that to change the channel and watch something else."