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NPR Arts & Life

The King Of Housewives Dishes Pop Culture's Delightful Dirt

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Andy Cohen, as many of you know or maybe won't admit that you know, is the host and executive producer of "Watch What Happens Live." That is Bravo's life talk show. He's also overseeing much of what happens in America after dinner from the sublime to the ridiculous - "Top Chef," "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy," "Project Runway." And Cohen created "The Real Housewives" of pretty much everywhere.

His new book is called "The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look At A Shallow Year." It is based on the published diary of another pop culture carnivore, Andy Warhol.

ANDY COHEN: When I read it, I just thought this is this pop culture time bomb or a pop culture time capsule. And I thought, wow, that's a world that I would like to be in. And now, 25 years later, I've found myself going through a lot of the doors that I think Warhol, if he were alive, would be going through today. And so I just thought, I'm going to take a stab at writing my version of, you know, my diaries. I think if Warhol were alive, he'd be painting housewives, by the way.

MARTIN: (Laughter). How did you get to this place? I mean, because you are now this pop culture icon. You are the guy at the center of a lot of conversations about pop culture. But you started out as a hard news reporter, right?

COHEN: I was a producer at CBS News in New York for 10 years. And how I got here is, man, you know, heck if I know almost. It was not deliberate. And, you know, my work at CBS News informed my work as a producer on all the nonfiction reality shows that I've been an EP on.

MARTIN: Where do we see that imprint? Where is the news?

COHEN: Well, I think, at the core, it is storytelling. And if you're producing an hour for 48 hours and working in an edit room, that's not that different if you're shaping a 13-episode season of "The Real Housewives Of Orange County" in an odd way. The subject matter is different, but they're character-based reality that's generated in the field and then finessed in an edit room.

MARTIN: What was it about that world that attracted you because it is different from being a news producer at CBS to being the guy who created some of the most significant reality shows that we see that are often maligned in a lot of public discourse?

COHEN: Absolutely. Absolutely. What attracted me is that I always had a great love of two things - soap operas and sociology and human behavior. And a lot of very smart people both subscribed to, say, The New Yorker or listen to NPR and also watch "The Housewives," believe it or not. And I think the reason they...

MARTIN: Oh, I know many of them.

COHEN: Right. I think the reason they do is because it's fascinating to watch and critique human behavior. There's a play along, play at home element where you can say, I would never do that, or I would do exactly the same thing, or this is hilarious, or this is gross. You know, people feel connected to the story. And, you know, some people say to me, oh, my God, that's your show? And I say, look, don't blame me. Either turn the channel or get on board.

MARTIN: Just recently, Joe and Teresa Giudice were sentenced to jail for mortgage fraud, stars on "Housewives." And how do you see something like that unfold, and what are the conversations that you had with your produces about if this is something that you want to happen, that this creates drama or...

COHEN: No, we would never want that to happen. And that was not a win for anybody. And there was a question of do we keep filming these people...

MARTIN: Yeah.

COHEN: ...As they're waiting to be sentenced. They've pled guilty. And the answer for us was simple because these are people that we've watched in their real lives for five seasons. Now, they're facing the biggest, you know, challenge they've ever faced in their lives. And, you know, we're not making a value judgment on it. We're just showing it. And it's up for the audience to say, oh, my God, I feel bad for them, or I don't feel bad for them at all.

MARTIN: So much of the book is devoted to the fun that happens in your life and in making these shows and the relationships that you have. But in particular, on "Watch What Happens Live" because it is live...

COHEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Can you talk about what it is about that format that's exciting to you?

COHEN: It's so exciting. And I love - there are times where you have guests on who - there are certain areas that you've agreed not to talk about or you know are going to be sensitive, but you go there anyway. You know, Mariah Carey, I got her really talking about "Glitter," the great failure of her career. And it wound up being a great conversation, but there's a dance that you're doing and one that the subtext of is fascinating.

MARTIN: And you're dancing was no net. I mean, if you say something wrong...

COHEN: Right, you know, and I often do say exactly the wrong thing on live television. And I talk about that a lot too. But I'm fascinated in the machinations behind television and how it really works. And the celebrity culture is so odd and random.

MARTIN: There is also a randomness to your show in this great way where it's this marriage between high and low culture, for lack of a better descriptor, but surprising combinations.

COHEN: Unbelievable combinations. I've had - I had James Frey and JWOWW together. I had Jenna Jameson, the porn star, and Clay Aiken. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it's always amusing, at least to me. If I leave amused, then I have to assume that most of my audience is too.

MARTIN: We will leave it there. Andy Cohen, his new book is called "The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look At A Shallow Year." Andy, thank you so much for talking with us.

COHEN: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.