"It's game time!"
Of all the changes Bravo's late-night series Watch What Happens: Live has seen through the years — adding an audience, scoring big-name guests and airing nightly, among others — one thing that has remained constant is host Andy Cohen's love of games. Whether it's "Plead the Fifth" with Lindsay Lohan, messing around with a Real Housewife or getting an A-list celebrity like Liam Neeson to suck helium, viewers watch Cohen not only have a (sometimes drunken) blast with guests, but get them to reveal juicy scoop or drop some major shade.
Just like the show's teeny, tiny studio space, so is the creative team behind one of late-night's biggest success stories. Co-executive producer John Jude calls the group of about 15 a "small but passionate, smart, pop culture-obsessed, twisted team of researchers and producers." And then there's Cohen, who has the ultimate say on what makes it to air. "For every show, we probably pitch Andy 10 to 15 game or segment ideas," Jude tells TVGuide.com. "So with over 700 shows, that's 7,000 games we've thought of!"
But that's not to say it's always literally fun and games. The daily grind of keeping it fresh and original has its challenges. "It's hard to not get in a rut where we come up with the same types of games," Jude says. "Making something unpredictable is harder than it sounds. No one wants to feel like they're going to watch our show and know what's going to happen. You have to watch to see what happens — it's the title of the show!"
As tough as the job might be at times, Jude says watching the "little late-night show that could" grow since its 2009 debut has been incredible. "Back in the day, I didn't know who was watching it. We were in our own bubble, doing our thing and slowly but surely more people started to talk about it and it became a thing," he says. "I used to work on TRL and it's kind of the same feeling where it's become a bit of pop culture history. To be a part of that, I feel so incredibly lucky and proud — it's an exciting feeling."
Check out seven behind-the-scenes secrets, scoops and biggest successes (and flops) Jude shared with us below:
1. What's in a name?
Just about every game is tailored to the guest, which means the brainstorming begins the moment the person is booked. But the name actually comes before the content. "We love a pun, so we can sit around all day and come up with puns or silly rhymes of guests' names or projects they're promoting," he says. "More than half the time we start with the title and then create a game around it." Some of my personal favorites include "Hoda Lay He Who" — about who Hoda Kotb would sleep with, natch — and "Coco-T or Coco-A," in which Ice T's wife has to guess if the picture is her T or A.
2. The exception to the pun
Not every game name has to rhyme. "We also try to capitalize on skills or attributes a guest is known for, so that starts with our amazing research team. When we had Shaq on in Austin during SXSW, they discovered there are hundreds of pictures online of Shaq lifting up different fans and celebrities, cradling them like a baby. So we thought it would be funny if we blindfolded him and had him lift up audience members and ask him to answers questions based on how they felt like [and guess] what color hair they had."
In another recent episode, Jude says, "Carol Burnett was on All My Children and Andy was a huge fan. So that didn't start with a title — we had our talent team book Susan Lucci to come in and surprise them and do a trivia contest."
3. Anything goes
"An idea isn't weird or [too] out-there, so it gives us carte blanche to come up with ideas that on most shows we would never dream of pitching; it's a really freeing place for us [and] there's no line we don't cross," Jude says. The only exception, he adds, is if the idea has already been done or something Cohen could see on another show. "It has to feel like us. Andy has created a strong identity for himself and the show, so it's clear if it'll be us or not." Although the options are endless, they won't purposely go too far. "[Andy] really wants to keep the integrity of the show and I don't think he would ever compromise like that. There are some celebrities, like Oprah or Meryl [Streep], that we're not going to embarrass. So we might tone it down a bit, but we'll still going to play a game. But for the most part, everyone comes in ready to play. Some people may not be that familiar with the show, but after the first five minutes of sitting there, they get the vibe and get Andy and see he's not there to embarrass anybody — he wants to have fun. It's refreshing for a lot of people and different from most other talk shows on the circuit."
4. The genesis of Plead the Fifth
One of the show's most popular — and juicy — games, "Plead the Fifth" is generally saved for bigger names. "It all started when we went five nights a week and we were trying to come up with segments that had to do with the number five. So we brainstormed random words and 'Plead the Fifth' came up. We thought it would be a fun way to ask those really scandalous questions that might normally be a little off-limits, but if the guest has the opportunity [pass on a question], it's still funny to watch and the guests take it so seriously," Jude says. "We save it for guests where there is a huge pool of facts and interesting stories they have to draw from and someone a little more established or who has been known to be controversial. Like with Meryl Streep or someone like Lindsay Lohan, where you want Andy to ask all of these questions, but we want to give her the option to not answer." Streep famously shared who she'd shag, marry or kill out of former co-stars Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman. Spoiler alert: She'd kill Hoffman.
5. Once in a while, there's a flop
Not everything works as well as the producers hope for, or it just becomes overdone. "We used to play 'The Poke'y all the time, which is when someone pokes the other guest and they have to guess what they're being poked with. We got into a run when we were playing it almost every week and Andy was like, 'No more!' We also thought of something with the word 'ball sack' — juvenile, but fun — and so we played 'What's in the Ball Sack?' a few times where guests would have to reach into a sack and pull out an object and guess what they were. That's something that sounds more fun on paper, but it's actually not that fun to watch people pull [balls] out of a sack."
6. Baio doesn't love crotchy
Sometimes the game might be great and the viewers are none the wiser that the guest is actually pretty annoyed by it. Case in point: Scott Baio and Abby Lee Miller. "There's an infamous story with Scott Baio where we played 'Andy Loves Crotchy' and Scott had to identify male celebrity crotches. For whatever reason, he wasn't in to that," Jude reveals.
"We had Abby Lee Miller and played a game of 'Abby Lee or Chimpanzee?' where she had to identify the sound as her own voice screaming from her show or [a chimp] and she didn't find it that amusing," he says. "But I think we're lucky in that we don't pre-interview our guests. It's only when we need to find out if they can sing or do an impression that we're relying on for a game, so every guest comes ready to play. [Andy] creates an enthusiastic and open and safe environment for the guest."
7. The staff's favorites
With so many great ones, it's hard to choose. "We love to break glasses over Andy's head and Andy loves it being done to him — I don't know what that says about all of us! It's get such a hilarious reaction and something you don't see every day," he says. "We have [celebrities] stand in front of a background, like 'In the Shower with Matt Lauer' or 'In the Lake with Ricki Lake.' 'Patti LaBelle in a Jail Cell' is probably my favorite. We have an amazing graphic designer who happens to be obsessed with retro game shows and it's his dream job. He can make any insane idea, like Kris Jenner hanging over an abyss in front of Kim Kardashian."
"I love when we have huge stars doing things you'd never expect," he adds. "We had Liam Neeson and he played 'Fun with He-LIAM,' where he sucked helium and recited intense action lines. For me, that was the epitome of our show: seeing a huge A-list star sucking up helium, laughing and saying lines. That's what it's all about."
Watch What Happens: Live airs Sunday through Thursday at 11/10c on Bravo.
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