I Got Drunk on Bravo: My Night Bartending on ‘Watch What Happens Live’
On Sunday night I drank four cocktails, waved at Andy Cohen, and learned that Watch What Happens Live may secretly be the most influential show in late night.
“Sadly, it’s a Kardashian.”
With four words, and on my fourth cocktail, I joined the ranks of Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey, countless Real Housewives and, somewhat inexplicably, Dan Rather. I drunkenly spoke to Andy Cohen on his boozed-up carnival of a late-night talk show, Watch What Happens Live, on Sunday night. I was his “guest bartender.”
For just over five years, Bravo’s scrappy, flamboyant little talk show has been broadcasting from a cramped tchotchke-adorned studio affectionately dubbed the “Bravo Clubhouse.” It began in July 2009 as a once-a-week “aftershow” for the network’s popular Real Housewives series hosted by Cohen, the man who shepherded the Ladies Who Lunch (and Flip the Tables They Ate On) franchise to zeitgeist-phenomenon status.
They gabbed. They gossiped. They played kitschy games. They pounded cocktails. “We quickly realized, as we knew when we went into it, that the format works for no matter who’s there,” Cohen told me before we went live on Sunday night.
With the yucksters on late-night broadcast sticking to a traditional script—hammy monologue, pre-canned banter with celebrity guests, musical performances—Watch What Happens Live was like the low-rent party down the street. It was non-conformist, unapologetic, and where everyone was having more fun.
Audiences were both baffled and delighted by the show’s random talent pairings (Meredith Vieira and Samuel L. Jackson? OK. Lisa Rinna and Dakota Fanning? Sure, why not!) and gleefully scandalized by typically buttoned-up celebrities loosening their collars, swilling some libations, and actually saying interesting and often surprising things on a talk show.
Five years later, and especially since graduating to five nights a week in January 2012, the show has not only increased in prestige, attracting A-list talent like Queens Winfrey and Streep, but also in mainstream popularity.
With the late-night landscape changing on a seemingly daily basis—welcome to the new Daily Show—the show that broke the mold with its steadfast mission to be proudly silly and proudly itself may now be the one with the most influence on tradition.
(Anyone who thinks James Corden, whose show I adore, is the first late-night host to serve drinks in his studio needs to drop everything and immediately watch Regina King and Jackée Harry bombed out of their minds and giving what could very well be the most entertaining late-night interview of all time to Cohen back in 2011.)
In order to get a better understanding of what makes the TV funhouse click, I entered the Clubhouse—to my own extreme excitement, along with that of all my gay friends and especially my Aunt Colleen, who squealed when she heard that the reporter, as Cohen put it, had become part of the entertainment.
For those unfamiliar with Watch What Happens Live, on most nights the show has three guests. Two of them are typically very famous; they sit next to Andy Cohen and give interviews. On Sunday night, those two people were Neil Patrick Harris and Whitney Cummings.
The third person is usually considerably less famous, in this case with fame that does not even register, who is also there to promote something. That person is the guest bartender. On Sunday night that person was me.
The guest bartender, you see, is a bit of a trophy position.
I did not make a single cocktail, mercifully for everyone involved. All that’s required is to stand and wave energetically at the audience a few times when Cohen says your name, a bit like a tipsy pageant queen. At one point I made some goofy gasping face when Andy introduced me and did a cheesy “cheers!” motion at the camera. I deeply regret this.
Because my role was basically to be the jovial mute who stands there smiling and only occasionally speaks, I spent every third minute since finding out I would be on the show frantically fretting about what to wear for this television appearance. As this was booked in mid-August, I spent roughly six weeks of my life in a constant stress loop.
The end result: I wore… a white dress shirt and a tie. I know. Someone call GQ, I think we’ve just discovered the next style icon. Actually, my outfit ended up being essentially the same thing Neil Patrick Harris wore. He loosened his tie. I did not, dammit. He’s so cool.
To be clear, being the guest bartender is a great gig. Andy and the show do an excellent job promoting you. I got solid screentime during the broadcast—especially when I couldn’t, try as I might, get out of the frame while Harris acted out a charades game punnily titled Best Mime Ever.
He even asked me a question on air—“Which celebrity gets the most traffic on The Daily Beast?”—which led to my iconic spoken-word debut, a line-reading for the ages, a moment so captivating that it will no doubt lead to my own reality show on the network, a second career as a so-called Bravolebrity, and a life of attending launch parties for new organic snack food products.
“Sadly, it’s a Kardashian,” I said. Television will never be the same.
Do I have juicy secrets to share from the show? Not exactly, but that’s the WWHL brand. All the fun stuff really is unscripted, and it really does happen live on air.
I can tell you that there is a lot of passion in that building for getting people drunk. I was handed my first cocktail minutes after arriving at the studio. As they say, when in gay Rome have a drink with a really gay name, so I chose Andy Cohen’s noted favorite, the “Fresquila.” It is Fresca mixed with tequila. It tasted like garbage. By my third one, it was my favorite drink.
Everyone gets drinks—the audience included—and several of them. At each commercial break, all were handed fresh beverages. Neil Patrick Harris drank Old Fashioneds. It’s unclear what Whitney Cummings drank.
The thing most people (read: three people and my mom) wanted to know after my appearance was whether I became best friends with Cummings and NPH. Of course not. But they were both very kind. Harris came up to chat with me after the first commercial break and we—I kid you not—talked about office workflow. Cummings gave me a wave, was super sweet, and gushed about how it was nice to meet me in person.
I had interviewed both actors before, and the pieces that resulted are actually two of my favorites that I’ve written. With Harris, I was the first to get him to speak on the record about showing his peen in Gone Girl (sorry, Neil!), but I also wrote a deeper profile of him pegged to the release of his memoir, Choose Your Own Autobiography.
I spoke with Cummings when she was promoting her comedy special I Love You, and found that her brash and raunchy comedy stylings are complemented by a very intelligent showbiz savvy and an impressive amount of thoughtfulness and earnestness when it comes to the issues she mines comedy from.
They are both very thin. Whitney Cummings is very tall. On a commercial break, they discussed multi-cam sitcoms. They seemed like excellent people and it was a ball to stand three feet from them and sip nasty tequila drinks while they held raucous and revealing conversations with Cohen.
Those last two adjectives, really, are the Watch What Happens Live calling card.
WWHL guests, against talk-show tradition, are not pre-interviewed before going on air. Showbiz secret: Those stories that Kate Hudson tells Ellen, Jimmy Kimmel, and the like about that hilarious snafu she had while skiing in Vail last weekend are typically pre-rehearsed with producers beforehand, and the host is prompted by producers to ask her about it.
Because they’re not pre-interviewed, and because they’re liquored up, the WWHL guests show up expecting the unexpected, and typically divulge more about themselves than they would on any other program. Ever wonder if Neil Patrick Harris has had a threesome? Now you know!
In fact, much like it does with Howard Stern’s radio show, this has the effect of guests showing up for WWHL almost eager to spill the beans about scandals, secrets, and themselves—and leaving with their image revitalized. By being real, they seem more fun.
“I think publicists realize this is a great place to promote projects because people come off in a different light,” Deirdre Connolly, the show’s executive producer, tells me. “It’s not canned. It’s not staged. Clients come out of here and the public is like, ‘I never knew so-and-so could be so much fun!’”
For Connolly, Gwyneth Paltrow is a great example of that. “She’s somebody who people perceive as being icy, and I was one of those people,” she says. “She came on and seemed so cool and had so much fun and really dispelled that rumor. Anyone I talked to was like, ‘Wow, she was so much fun on that show.’”
But it’s a bit of a marvel that WWHL has reached the status where Gwyneth Paltrow would come on—not to mention other A-listers like Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Neil Patrick Harris, and me, the second-most famous Fallon to ever appear on late-night TV.
Connolly remembers the ambitious little show’s beginnings, with a staff of just five that has grown to 20.
“It’s something where, when you look back, you realize what you were doing, but when it was happening the truth is that we were under a lot of limitation,” she says. “You’ve seen the clubhouse. It’s a small room. That first summer we were on a pretty shoestring budget. So it’s almost like our limitations became our greatest assets because we rose to the occasion and figured out ways around them.”
Cohen tells me that he “was leaning on the kindness of my friends” when the show first started trying to attract talent outside the Bravo universe. He remembers booking Sarah Jessica Parker. And then Jerry Seinfeld, and Liam Neeson. “That was a very big deal for us, to show people that these people will come to our little studio,” he says. “I think Meryl Streep was a huge turning point for us.”
Now the show is a destination. Stars want to stop there. We want to see them there, throwing back drinks, “pleading the Fifth,” and turning red when Cohen asks if they’ve ever “taken a dip in the lady pond.” It’s used its own goofiness in its case for legitimacy, even if more staid culture circles see that goofiness as a liability.
Cohen was sorely missing from a recent Vanity Fair spotlight on late-night TV hosts, despite having hosted a very popular one for five years. (“Entertainment Weekly thought I was valid enough to have me on the cover,” he says when I ask him why he might have been left off. “You’d have to ask them. I don’t get it.” Connolly calls the omission “shortsighted.”)
But the beauty of WWHL is that it’s an exemplary case for why goofiness and seriousness don’t have to be—and maybe shouldn’t be—mutually exclusive.
It’s also the reason why appearing on the show—waving like a fool at the camera a handful of times and having old high school friends on Facebook “like” a shoddy screengrab of the appearance—was such a thrill for me.
I’m a sucker for unabashed enthusiasm. It’s why I love WWHL. I’m not embarrassed about being obsessed with pop culture and vapidity and Real Housewives. It’s akin to the appeal of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight show. There’s a similar joy to what Andy Cohen is doing. Just a bit more deranged. And certainly more drunk.
Before I leave him, I ask Cohen if people think he drinks more than he really does because of his show.
“Yes, for sure,” he says. “People are always sending me drinks. I’ll be somewhere at 10 in the morning and someone will send me a shot of tequila. I’m like, ‘I’m not drinking this right now.’ It’s fun. It’s fine that they think that. Let that be the worst thing they think.”
Cheers to that. (I’m so hungover.)