It’s before noon on a weekday in late March, and Andy Cohen walks out onto a massive set with possibly the most dramatic entrance ever. “Here’s your host, Andy Cohen!” the voiceover shouts, as the TV personality is unveiled from giant bridge that lowers as he graces the lit-up stage.
Though the environment is familiar to Cohen with a live audience and a cushy couch for conversation with guests, this is not “Watch What Happens Live.” Rather, the Bravo personality is taping an episode of “Love Connection,” the revival of the dating game show, which premieres Thursday night on Fox.
“Love Connection” shot over a period of about one week, bringing the New York-based Cohen to Los Angeles to do what he does best: prod into people’s personal lives.
Within minutes of introducing the second contestant — whom Cohen dubbed “buff Jesus,” thanks to his large stature and long mane of silky hair — the host asked about the size of his manhood.
“Listen, I ask the questions we want to know,” Cohen says with a laugh, chatting with Variety after taping that scene. “I’m very true to myself on the show, so when there’s a hot guy on the show, I say, ‘Wow this guy is really hot,'” he adds, noting that a gay man would not have been tapped to host a national TV show back in the ’80s when Chuck Woolery emceed the original series. “I don’t think that would have happened years ago,” Cohen admits.
“I’ve always wanted to host a game show and this is the perfect one for me because it mixes what I already do, which is ask really personal questions,” says the television-executive-turned-celebrity, who used to head development at Bravo. “It capitalizes on everything that I love to do — digging for personal details is something that I started doing with the Housewives many years ago.”
Funny enough, Cohen says when he was in charge of programming at the NBCUniversal cabler, he tried to nab the “Love Connection” format for the net with plans for someone else to host, since he was in the midst of his executive days. Then years later, the format was pitched to him, but he couldn’t do it. And then, again, the format floated by him and this time it worked — because “The Bachelor” creator Mike Fleiss and reality TV honcho Mike Darnell were on board.
“It’s just this incredible confluence of incredible talent and a great format and a concept that happens to be perfect for me,” Cohen says, admitting that hosting a shiny-floor game show has been a “fantasy” of his.
“He’s amazing, like a glove,” Darnell raves of Cohen. The Warner Bros. head of unscripted and alternative television echoes the host’s sentiment that everything fell into place at the right time. “He really belongs with NBC because of Bravo,” Darnell shares, “but he wanted to do it so badly that he went all the way to the top to get permission.”
Aside from Cohen’s flair, the show will feel a bit different to original viewers with the implementation of modern-day changes such as the splashy set, a 1-10 ratings scale, and a money prize where contestants choose love or money at the end of each episode. Plus, in addition to having a gay host, the contestants are much more diverse than the flagship show with interracial couples, gay couples, straight couples, young couples, and elderly couples. “The cool thing is that we’re not making a big deal of it,” Cohen says of the casting.
Despite all of the new additions, Fleiss and Darnell say the core of “Love Connection” is still there, especially due to the “he-said-she-said” element.
“One thing we really wanted to preserve was not being there on the date because what made the show so charming was the he-said-she-said,” Darnell explains of the format, which focuses largely on the daters chatting with Cohen on set about their date, rather than having footage of the actual date like other dating shows, including “The Bachelor.” However, each couple does take a selfie video during their date, which is shown to the live audience. “I didn’t want actual producers out there with actual video because then the he-said-she-said doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “When you’re talking to your girlfriends, you’re talking about your perception. You’re not showing them video. That’s the magic.”
“Love Connection” is coming at a time when the return of classic game shows seems to be the new TV trend with “$100,000 Pyramid,” “Match Game,” “Celebrity Family Feud,” “Battle of the Network Stars,” and “The Gong Show” all at ABC and the upcoming “Joker’s Wild” hosted by Snoop Dogg at TBS. But Fleiss says the revamped “Love Connection” is not a game show.
“Yes, there’s a game, but it’s really a relationship show and it’s comedy,” Fleiss says. The executive producer likens the growing game show trend to a follow-the-leader mentality, recalling all of the networks that have tried to copy-cat “The Bachelor” with similar dating shows over the years, but have failed to find a hit.
Darnell agrees. “Obviously there’s been a resurgence right now of game shows, but this is really not a game show,” he says, also categorizing “Love Connection” as a comedy show, such as Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots” at NBC. “Right now, in both scripted and unscripted, everyone is so ratings-challenged that if there’s a brand to it, it helps bring people there,” he explains.
In fact, Darnell says that he was looking at reviving “Love Connection” at Warner Bros., long before other networks began to greenlight game show reboots. “It’s a trend, but since I got here, we’ve been trying to figure out if we should bring it back in syndication or in primetime,” he says. “The trend just hit at the right time.”
“I think that they always worked,” Cohen chimes in, speaking of game shows. “There’s a reason that these shows have been on forever, and they will be forever.”
Regardless of the broadcasting trend, Fleiss, who knows a thing or two about summer programming with his hit spinoff “Bachelor In Paradise,” boils “Love Connection” down to one thing: “It’s really super simple. It’s hearing about first dates and it’s really just the most universal topic.”
“Love Connection” premieres Thursday night at 9 p.m. on Fox.