Apocalypse Now: The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the "Watch What Happens Live" Studio

by Austin Dale
April 24, 2012 11:35 AM
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Are you there, Andy? It's me, Austin.
Are you there, Andy? It's me, Austin.

"Watch What Happens Live" is on the cutting edge of the craptastic. It is in the major leagues of mush. It is the créme de la crazy of the soulless slate of reality programming on Bravo. If TLC has become America's least grand freak show, the housewife-loaded Bravo (rebranded by producer-at-large and "WWHL" host Andy Cohen) is our most compulsively, shamefully watchable. "Watch What Happens Live" isn't even really programming; it is straight-up filler in which Cohen (hereafter referred to as the Angel of Death) makes small talk with celebrities both minor and less-minor and shows clips from his other shows. For an hour. And that's it. And it's live. And sometimes it's not even live.

Yes, really.

There is magic in the make-up of the "Real Housewives" series. I started watching occasionally around the time of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." Women, cloudy-headed from mid-morning cocktails of alcohol and prescription drugs, improvise dialogues worthy of Pinter about subjects of "Aventurera"-caliber stupidity. I don't remember why Teresa flipped the table, I can't recall why Sheree flipped out at the party planner, and I have no idea exactly what happened with Camille's divorce. But that doesn't matter. I keep watching, pausing on reaction shots (which are themselves more sublimely captivating than any of last year's Oscar-winning performances), chain-smoking with anticipation during commercial breaks, and shaking with glee whenever one of these ladies is moving throught the drivel-loaded stages of a breakdown. These women get it; they are what Bret Easton Ellis would call post-Empire. Forget about famous-for-being-famous. Bravo is not the foul-mouthed spawn of Brenda Frazier and the Astor girls. Bravo is restaging the Tate/Labianca trial for the 21st century, and NeNe, Adrienne and all the rest are Cohen's hypnotic gang of Manson Girls, virtuosically performing as societal spectacle's prettiest wreckage. His nightly "Watch What Happens Live" is Bravo's news hour with nothing to report on except his Bravo universe of cocktails and crazies. And, oh, sweet shit, it is riveting.

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived at the program's South Village studio and was whisked up in the elevator next to Jaleel "Urkel" White, one of Episode 667's two esteemed guests. In the receiving room, there are some people standing around the desk waiting, and a minibar with a hostess. Drinks are free. Everyone on the show seems to be drinking, and they definitely want the audience members as drunk as they can possibly get during mid-afternoon. In keeping with the lightly poisonous atmosphere, I had Skinnygirl margarita after Skinnygirl margarita, and by the time we were called in to watch the Angel of Death interact with Urkel and the "talk show pioneer" Ricki Lake, I was as sloshed as a Real Housewife and as confused as their accountants.

Now folks, don't let the magic of TV fool you. This three-camera studio is about the size of the elevator. The dozen-or-so audience members, invited by friends of the staff or sponsors, are seated a few feet from His Holiness, brought another round of drinks, and instructed to be loud and enthusiastic. The celebrity guests are seated and, for whatever reason, Urkel's "Dancing With The Stars" partner, who may or may not be on loan from Madame Tussaud's (the Vegas museum, not the New York one), is plopped behind a minibar. There, she pretends to slice limes and is almost completely ignored.

A word about the set decor: Yikes. Okay, moving on.

Today's was a taped show. Yes, it would appear that sometimes, "Watch What Happens Live" is not, in fact, live. This means that whatever pressure normally associated with a live show is nullified and everyone can really cut loose. Just kidding. This show's content is about as risky as wearing stilettos in a sandbox. These interviews have precicely one tense moment; one of Master Monster's trademark games is "Plead the Fifth," during which the guests are asked hard-hitting questions like "Which two actors hated each other on the Family Matters set?" and "What did you hate most about the Hairspray remake?" Then they'll take a couple of calls ("Boxers or briefs?" "What was it like working with Johnny Depp?") and show some embarrassing clips of the guests from the archives of the damned. This stretches on for an hour.

I sat there drunk and hypnotized. I doubt anyone screeched applauded harder than me. Something happened there, in the epicenter of American anti-culture. I sat wondering about exactly what kind of people watch this show. Do they love their spouses? Are they members of PFLAG? Did they march on Birmingham? What were their Confirmation names? Are they high-functioning addicts? How are their credit scores? Are their parents living or dead? Are they pet owners? Do they know the Village People were gay or are they blissfully unaware? What possible demographic could this kind of show reach? And then I realized that this is really successfully aimed at everyone. Think about it: There's not a single person in the viewing audience who doesn't at least know who Ricki Lake and Jaleel White are. Not a moment of this entertainment would go over anyone's head. And someone else watching might even be able to draw Beckett comparisons or something. With its complete absence of actual content, "Watch What Happens Live" achieves a kind of nirvana.

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