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The Last Inappropriate Man on Television


How Andy Cohen survived the ‘Reality Reckoning’ (at least for now).

Andy Cohen thinks about his cancellation a lot. What will it look like? When will it come? “It’s fascinating to me, the idea that you could say something and everything would be pulled away from you,” he says. It was a bright afternoon in May, and we had been talking about an event he had coming up, “An Evening With Andy Cohen,” at the 92nd Street Y.

Cohen had been thinking he might read an excerpt from his 2012 memoir, Most Talkative, but now he was having second thoughts. “It’s called ‘Cry Indian,’ and it’s about a prank I played on my parents where I convinced them that I thought I was a Native American,” he says. It was a sweet, relatable story — about a joke gone too far and how being funny can sometimes tip into being mean — but he worried that the title and nature of the prank wouldn’t land with a 2024 audience. “You have to be smart about what you say because there’s no nuance anymore,” he says. “People are just waiting to be outraged by every little thing.”

This a is healthy concern for any public figure to have, particularly one who, like Cohen, has built his career skipping up to the line of propriety. As the host of the reunions for the various franchises of The Real Housewives, which he executive-produces, a daily live radio show, and the nightly Watch What Happens Live, he’s known for his willingness to go there, plowing into sensitive subjects, addressing unspoken issues, and asking devilishly impertinent questions with his charming, crooked grin.

“I mean, he asked Shaq how — big he is,” sputters Anderson Cooper, who often plays the straight man to Cohen’s instigator, most famously on the duo’s annual New Year’s Eve broadcast from Times Square, during which Cooper once memorably held Cohen back by his collar as he ranted drunkenly against outgoing mayor Bill de Blasio. “I would never in a million years ask that question or even think to ask it,” Cooper continues needlessly. “But Shaq not only answered; he gave a really funny answer. With props.”

Cohen wouldn’t have it any other way. “I like being provocative,” he says. “It makes me feel alive in a weird way. It’s dangerous. It’s spontaneous. I think it sometimes gets to the heart of who a person is. If you navigate it well, it can become something incredible and intoxicating. It’s like dancing on the water: Are you going to go over or not?”

On the whole, Cohen has navigated it very well. Since leaving his desk job as a Bravo executive over a decade ago, he has managed to ascend to a level of fame that feels increasingly difficult to achieve. He’s America’s gay best friend, as his friend John Mayer put it. Sesame Street had him on to define popular for Elmo. In the weeks I spent with him, nearly every stranger who approached him began with some version of “I love you.”

Still, he worries. “Sometimes at night I’ll be in bed and I’ll think, Huh, did I say something?” Cohen says. “I’m always waiting for the thing that’s going to make it all fall down.”

Earlier this year, it seemed as if that time might have come after attorneys for former Real Housewives filed lawsuits against Bravo and its parent company, NBCUniversal — the product of a long-simmering “Reality Reckoning” that pointed to Cohen as, among other things, an “omnificent ringleader” with a “proclivity for cocaine usage” whose “discriminatory and retaliatory conduct” created a “rotted workplace culture.”

“It is inconceivable that Mr. Cohen remains in his post in spite of this behavior and harkens back to the bad old days of Matt Lauer and NBC News when profits were prioritized over people,” wrote Bryan Freedman, one of the Los Angeles entertainment lawyers leading the Reckoning. There would be more lawsuits to come, he added, telling Variety, “This is going to end up being a war, and I’m going to lead the war.”

NBCU and Cohen’s lawyers sent out the usual statements denying the accusations, specifically demanding a retraction of the cocaine allegation. But to a casual observer, it looked like the beginnings of a familiar story: the unraveling of a powerful man in an industry that was already widely regarded to be toxic and depraved. Lord knows it wouldn’t be the first time Elmo had put his furry mitts in the wrong hands. NBCU announced it was conducting an investigation, and rumors swirled that Cohen was hiring a crisis-PR team and negotiating a “departure package.” Chairman Frances Berwick delivered a chilling line: “Andy is a very sort of specific and exceptional talent, and he really is the face of the network,” she told Variety. “But I’m also happy to say that — and I think we’ve proved this over and over again — we’ve got 160 talents here who are also big faces of the network. And we’ve also been able to replace them.”

But then nothing happened. Instead of quietly disappearing while the courts worked out his fate, Cohen kept up his regular patter on the radio and on television. He went to parties, posed for pictures, helped Sarah Jessica Parker see her way down the red carpet at the Met Ball, and continued asking impertinent questions.

“The other night, we went to a party for Stephen Colbert,” his friend Amy Sedaris recalled recently. “And I turn around and he’s asking Colbert, ‘Is there anyone in your family that you don’t get along with?’”

Eventually, Bravo and NBCU announced that Cohen had been cleared in their outside investigation and that they were renewing Watch What Happens Live, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this summer, through 2025. Although no retractions of any legal claims were issued and the lawsuits were still pending, Cohen reacted as though that were the end of it, appearing on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter straightening his tie above the headline WHAT, ME WORRY?

Still, maybe it’s better not to tempt fate: “I was thinking about reading an excerpt from my first book,” Cohen says to the audience at the 92nd Street Y in a way that suggests he’s still considering it. But then he changes his mind. “Saturday, January 1st, 2022, New York City,” he reads instead. “Claire McCaskill texted the trashing of de Blasio was epic …”

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