I used to think that being a woman meant that I was simply too polite to handle the craziness of live, late-night TV, but my experience at Watch What Happens Live completely erased any doubts I had.
It’s 10:57 p.m. on a Tuesday night, the show goes live in 3 minutes, and Mariah Carey is still not in the building. Mariah has been “1 minute away” for the past 30 minutes and as the executive producer, it’s time for me to accept that she’s not going to make it for the beginning of the show. Having worked in live television for 15 years, this is not my first time at the “big celebrity guest is late, now what?” rodeo. But there are two different ways an EP can handle this type of development: You can freak out, get flustered, and waste time being angry, or you can calmly go to Plan B. That’s my approach. In a split second, Andy (Cohen, the host) and I decide to bring out the drag queens! It is Watch What Happens Live after all, so naturally we have three Mariah-themed drag queens waiting in the wings for our “First Annual Miss A-Mariah-ca Drag Queen Pageant.” These gals will gladly strut their stuff until Mariah arrives.
While many producers would find the unpredictability of live television stressful, my team and I thrive in the fun, fast-paced environment of Watch What Happens Live—where there are no second takes, re-shoots, or do-overs. After producing over 1000 episodes of WWHL, there is very little that phases me, even a tardy superstar. But early on in my career, I doubted that I truly had the right DNA to be a successful live EP.
Prior to WWHL, many of the shows and live events I worked on were creatively run by men and often had high-octane control rooms that featured lots of shouting and flared tempers. I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of having to yell at someone—nor did I want to—so I assumed that made me ineligible to helm a live show. Growing up as an Irish Catholic girl in Boston, I was taught that being polite, congenial, and “nice” were keys to success. But after my early years working in television it seemed abundantly clear to me that those kinds of agreeable qualities didn’t mesh with the aggressive fortitude required for the high-pressure environment that is live television.
However, when I met Andy, my perception changed. I realized right away—to my relief—that he had no interest in creating an overly intense work environment, so I set out to foster a tone that felt different from what I had known in my professional past and instead felt right for our cocktail party of a show. For me, it was an incredible opportunity to cultivate an atmosphere where professional toughness, tenacity, and directness didn’t have to come at the expense of kindness, compassion, and respect for others. In fact, I’ve found that my “female” personality traits are actually the qualities that have made me a more effective manager, and I’ve surrounded myself with a staff that embodies these attributes as well. Our team is made up of some of the funniest, most interesting, supportive, creative, and kind people I’ve ever worked with in the entertainment industry. And from what I’ve heard, our merry band here at WWHL might be an anomaly in the late-night landscape: our leaders, creators, and most valued voices are largely female and largely gay.
Although most of my day is spent overseeing the creative content of our show, I also spend a great deal of time managing my staff. And I take my role as leader seriously. The WWHL hours are generally 2 p.m. to midnight, which can definitely take a toll on one’s personal life. I try to be sensitive to each individual staff member’s needs while not sacrificing the quality of our show. On one day this could mean creating a flexible schedule for a new mom so she doesn’t feel like having a family is in direct conflict with this job. On another day it could mean working to keep up team morale, which was most certainly low in the wake of the Orlando tragedy. Given the makeup of our staff, there was a particularly strong connection to the victims so we—as a team—walked away from the office and attended the vigil at Stonewall Inn as a family.
Kindness, compassion, respect for others. I’m happy to say that rather than abandoning my female traits to succeed as an executive producer, I’ve doubled down on them to not only create an environment and team that I am extremely proud of but also a show that is completely unique in the late-night universe.
WWHL has broken the mold in many ways—not only do we have a shoebox-size studio and free-flowing booze, but we have a funny, smart, pop culture-obsessed host who just happens to be the only gay voice in late-night. As I look around, I am optimistic that the success of hosts like Andy and Samantha Bee means that more women and diverse personalities will continue to shake up the old late-night formula.
Speaking of shaking things up, back to Mariah. She arrived right before the drag queens made their entrance. And at 11:04 p.m., strode through a calm, cool, and collected control room and right into the Bravo Clubhouse where a fresh cocktail was waiting for her.