Television, if you think about it, is really little more than a wilderness of yentas. The meddlers, the busybodies, the gossips—they are the engines that push plots forward and keep us entertained, week after week, for years. Lucy Ricardo is a yenta, and so are Ralph Kramden, Barney Fife, Miss Piggy, Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver, and Dr. Who. Which, maybe, explains how Andy Cohen, a middle-aged network executive with no previous experience on camera, managed to break on through to the other side of the screen with his nightly talk show on Bravo TV, Watch What Happens: Live: Cohen is a marvelous yenta.
Trying to describe the show to those who have never seen it is a little bit like being 14 and trying to describe a slumber party to your parents the morning after. None of the hilarity survives, and the breakdown, delivered after the fact, makes the whole thing sound trivial. On the show, Cohen staged a wedding between the pets of two reality television stars. He played a beauty-queen-themed guessing game with Joey Lawrence and Steve Gutenberg. Why would anyone watch that?
For a thorough answer, we’d do well to look at some of Cohen’s ancestors and the way they shaped their medium. It’s a history that probably begins with the ur-yenta, Molly Goldberg. On radio first, and then on television, Goldberg’s creator, Gertrude Berg, realized the inherent weirdness of her craft. Unlike novelists, dramaturges, or Hollywood screenwriters, Berg had to create weekly (and, later, daily) installments of entertainment based around the same characters. And while other media allowed their writers closure—even Charles Dickens’ serials eventually formed a coherent story with a clearly defined ending—she had to keep on squeezing more meaning from the same people and the same premise.
Under such circumstances, plot is pretty futile; viewers would accept only so many tribulations and wacky occurrences before deeming the whole thing too unrealistic and tuning out. But give them someone with a talent to turn the quotidian into the stuff of great drama, someone who can insert themselves into the affairs of everyone around them, someone with the sort of incurable curiosity that leads to trouble and mayhem and revelations—in short, give them a yenta—and they won’t be able to look away. “For millions of Americans,” Life concluded in 1949, “listening to The Goldbergs has been a happy ritual akin to slipping on a pair of comfortable old shoes that never seem to wear out.” As American life got more urbanized and further removed from the old ways of small towns and large families, more people took comfort in fictional figures who suggested that it was still possible to form a community, even if only on the screen, where everybody knows your name. Bud Collyer, The Goldbergsannouncer, captured it best in his introduction of Molly. “There she is, folks,” went his line, “that’s Molly Goldberg, a woman with a place in every heart and a finger in every pie.”
Gender differences aside, is there a better way to describe Andy Cohen? Presiding nightly over his coterie of real housewives, millionaire matchmakers, and other assorted celebrities, he is not only one of television’s very few openly gay talk show hosts, but also the first to largely do away with the genre’s painful artificiality. Instead of politely smiling as some actress recounts some mildly amusing and clearly rehearsed anecdote to promote her new film, say, Cohen will force her to play a game of charades focused on famous people who had recently said or done wildly embarrassing things. And when you hear Rashida Jones, trying to describe Mel Gibson without saying his name, yell, “He hates Jews!” you realize that you’re no longer in Johnny Carson territory.
Watching Cohen in action is a lesson in the fine mechanics of yentahood. There’s a common mistake about yentas, namely that they’re blabbermouths in desperate need of an audience. Real yentas are actually the opposite: They are not as interested in talking as they are in getting others to talk. As the nerve centers of their closed systems, they exist to extract information. Watch, for example, the inane Jay Leno interview American Idol’s Adam Lambert, asking nonquestions like “How has your life changed since Idol.” Then watch Cohen ask Lambert to say three nice things about fellow Idol Clay Aiken. Lambert, with what appears to be a genuine mix of mirth and malice, can’t think of any. It’s great television.
Of course, no discussion of Cohen is complete without mentioning his network, Bravo TV, and its brand of reality programming, the high-octane hooey Cohen so winningly proselytizes. It is common in most intellectually well-heeled circles, when referring to the real housewives et al., to say things like “It’s so obviously fake” and “I don’t understand how anyone can watch this junk.” But to dismiss Bravo’s fare is to miss the point of television: At its best, it creates an intimate, hermetically sealed world in which every action is amplified and time stands still, which is to say it’s a lot like life, another enterprise that features the same faces, week after week, with little happening that’s truly new or exciting. We all know that what happens on reality shows is scripted; no one thinks that Teresa Giudice and Danielle Staub are any more real than, say, Meredith Grey and Dr. McDreamy. We pay attention not because we’re enticed by ephemera, but because we understand these shows to be modern-day parables, simple stories involving moral dilemmas and their consequences. The genre entertains us, sure, but it also warns us of bad behaviors by offering other people’s lives, no matter how contrived, as examples.
According to a recently released study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, gossip serves an identical purpose. Titled “The Virtues of Gossip,” it argues, in the words of its co-author, Robb Willer, assistant professor of sociology at U.C. Berkeley, that “we sometimes need to trade information with third parties about people who aren’t around in order to learn from other people’s experiences.” For that to happen, we need someone to process and present the information, a master communicator, a yenta. We need Andy Cohen, because Cohen, both on and off screen, knows the true value of gossip.
His entertaining new book, Most Talkative: Stories From the Front Lines of Pop Culture, offers a glimpse of how he got this way. “My talking was legendary among my extended family,” he writes in one amusing anecdote.
Once I talked for two days straight in the backseat of my uncle Stanley’s station wagon as it careened toward the west coast of Florida. I was probably fourteen, on a road trip with my sister Em and our cousins, and in my boredom, I came up with the brilliant idea of using Em’s hairbrush, with its clear plastic handle and black bristles, as a microphone into which I did a constant play-by-play of the trip, with no commercial breaks. I sang pretty much every mile marker—“mile marker two-hun-dred and sev-en”—from Missouri to Georgia. I did the weather, monitored goings-on in other cars (“Hairy man in pickup truck to our left is picking a winner! Does he have a problem?”), and interviewed the other passengers. I “reported” on various tidbits of information I’d picked up at Camp Nebagamon that summer, like the rumor that Diana Ross was actually a bitch to the other Supremes.
A yenta, then, is not made; he is born. And if all the gossip strikes you as snarky and malicious, consider Cohen’s Mazels, occasional shout-outs he gives to people who have done nice and decent things. Like Molly Goldberg at her window, he reins people in but also rewards them when necessary. And like Molly and Lucy and so many others before him, he proves again that if you want to make great television, all you have to do is put a yenta on screen and watch what happens.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.