It's the little late-night talk show that could. Next week, Watch What Happens Live — the kooky, wildly unpredictable chat-fest hosted by Andy Cohen — marks its fifth year on the air. That's no small feat, considering its very humble beginning as a shoestring web series anchored by a largely unknown Bravo network executive. Since then, plenty has changed. For starters, Cohen has become a celebrity in his own right, with one bestselling book down and a second due in the fall. And the ratings have grown. About 334,000 people tuned in for the first televised episode in 2009; this spring, WWHL hit an all-time high of 3.9 million viewers, and it's up 7 percent over Conan this season. The star power is also higher wattage. Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan and Oprah Winfrey are among the guests who have partaken in the mélange of parlor games, free-flowing cocktails and general pop-culture revelry that's made the pint-size "Bravo Clubhouse" ground zero for countless watercooler moments. We sat down with Cohen in his Manhattan studio to relive the wild ride.
TV Guide Magazine: Five years! When you look back on that first televised show — The Real Housewives of New Jersey's Danielle Staub was the guest — what goes through your mind?
Cohen: I rewatched that a few months ago. It felt quiet. There was no audience then — even though we only have 22 people now watching in a teeny studio, weirdly, they count.
TV Guide Magazine: In the early days, your guests were primarily Bravo reality stars. How did you graduate to A-listers?
Cohen: I started booking friends, like Kelly Ripa, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Jessica Parker. That helped with making it about something more than just Bravolebrities.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you still get involved in booking big names?
Cohen: With some. I emailed Meryl Streep and made a case. She had a movie coming out [Hope Springs], and I basically said that a s--tload of women watch my show — and that's the truth.
TV Guide Magazine: People do and say shocking things in the Clubhouse. Has that always been your goal?
Cohen: It's just who I am. I'm nosy and very curious and not afraid. The show I most identify with is Howard Stern's show. I think people expect questions here that are a little more risqué and on the edge. Also, we view these interviews more as a career retrospective than just "Let's talk about [your latest project]." Mariah Carey hadn't talked about Glitter publicly in, like, 10 years, and I really got her going about it and it was great.
TV Guide Magazine: If the guest is a personal pal, are you more brazen or less?
Cohen: I feel I can go to places that nobody else would. But I'm very protective. I can talk to Kelly Ripa about her sex life with her husband [Mark Consuelos] more than David Letterman would, because I happen to know that those two do it like bunnies. I remember with Sarah Jessica, I started asking her about dating John Kennedy — which I had talked to her about privately — and she looked at me like, "What are you doing?" But usually I get it right.
TV Guide Magazine: What are some of your favorite "only on this show" memories?
Cohen: There are so many. I think we opened up a different side of Martha Stewart — like her saying that she's had a three-way and sexted. I've been slapped and spanked so much — by Martha, Oprah, Cher, Susan Lucci, Lucy Liu. The "Plead the Fifth" game [in which celebrities are asked three questions and may pass on only one] has been a gift: everything from Nick Lachey trashing his ex-father-in-law to Cameron Diaz admitting she's gone swimming in the lady pond.
TV Guide Magazine: And if someone doesn't go with the flow?
Cohen: Well, typically, it means they just shouldn't be here. You don't want to turn on a guest, but sometimes people's energy is off. Abby Lee Miller, the Dance Moms lady, made me feel like a little girl trying out for dance auditions, and I wasn't a good dancer.
TV Guide Magazine: When things go off the rails — like Shemar Moore getting frisky with YouTube sensation Sweet Brown — what goes through your head?
Cohen: That one with Shemar Moore was just fun. But sometimes I don't realize something [uncomfortable] is actually amazing. When Jackée and Regina King were on for the 227 reunion and they were so drunk, I was thinking it was terrible because I couldn't control them. Then, during our first commercial break, I saw we were trending worldwide on Twitter. It's one of our most famous episodes.
TV Guide Magazine: Does the party continue when the cameras stop rolling?
Cohen: The night John Mayer was on, we partied till 3:30am. We went deep! Oprah had another drink. Gaga stayed and didn't want to walk through our offices to go to the bathroom, so she peed in a trash can.
TV Guide Magazine: This is an unconventional place: You have a tiny staff, a studio in the back of a production office that's smaller than some of your Housewives' closets, a bartender rather than a sidekick. Do stars ever get caught off guard?
Cohen: So many people are like, "Where am I? What am I doing here?" Oprah was really blown away by how small it was — for someone like her, where everything is perfect and the biggest, it's a completely different experience.
TV Guide Magazine: You're currently under a two-year contract for the show. How long do you think you can keep this up?
Cohen: Right now I can't see a moment where I wouldn't want to keep doing it. The 11 o'clock thing is challenging, but I love that it's live, so it's a catch-22 — and I've always been nocturnal. Like I always say, I didn't move to New York to sleep.
Watch What Happens Live airs Sunday-Thursday at 11/10c on Bravo.