Chelsea Handler: Leno's Naughty Rival
Chelsea Handler's bawdy talk show is the perfect antidote to the boys' club of late night and the shrill biddies of daytime. Caryn James on TV's smartest blonde.
Let other talk-show hosts play nice. I’m addicted to Chelsea Handler and here's why.
A typical moment on Chelsea Lately, Handler’s talk show on E!: Handler will start talking about Star Jones’ new “positivity blog,” then toss aside the card she’s reading from and say disgustedly, “I can’t even finish this.” About a rumor that druggy Amy Winehouse might want to adopt, she guesses that Winehouse heard there was a crack baby up for adoption and “thought it was a baby made of crack.”
[#AD-BV21#]Irreverent, smart, sometimes crude and often hilarious, Chelsea Lately is breaking up the boys’ club of late-night, but that’s the least of it. She’s doing for pop culture what Jon Stewart’s Daily Show does for—or to—the news. She sends up the idiocy of our obsession with Lohans and Kardashians while indulging our endless fascination with them, the way Stewart mocks the media’s lunacy while giving us some updates we can really use. (Handler’s timeslot is directly opposite Stewart’s, one more reason to love your DVR.)
Although her show is steadily gaining popularity, Handler, an actress and stand-up comedian, may still be best known for her books of comic essays, My Horizontal Life and Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea (still on the Times bestseller list after nine months). Her strategy in these wickedly funny autobiographical pieces, mostly about her drinking and dating and sleeping around, is to co-opt an attitude no one would blink at if she were a man, as if she were a smart-ass frat boy in a hot blonde’s body. She’s carried that persona to television, where it’s morphed into a contemporary version of a 1930s broad: sharp-witted, blunt about sex, refusing to fade into the background (fart jokes and all).
Mentioning an E! report that Lindsay Lohan’s friends claimed she was the victim of a “smear campaign” by ex-girlfriend Samantha Ronson’s allies, Handler sneered, “like Karl Rove’s involved.”
The centerpiece of the show is a roundtable conversation with guests who are usually other comics, better known in nightclubs than on TV; their contributions are basically stand-up delivered sitting down. What makes this format work is Handler’s droll attitude as she announces pop-culture topics and deflates their pretensions, tossing grenades from inside the walls of E!’s celeb-central. It’s jarring to see promos for E! News during Lately, because they include the kind of dopey celebrity items—sometimes the very same items—Handler is making fun of. Mentioning an E! report that Lindsay Lohan’s friends claimed she was the victim of a “smear campaign” by ex-girlfriend Samantha Ronson’s allies, Handler sneered, “like Karl Rove’s involved.”
Her occasional sketches are hit-or-miss, best when they have some sly subtext. Recently she staged a parody of E!’s reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians on the same night Khloe Kardashian was a roundtable guest. Khloe wasn’t in the sketch, but Mom Kris was. The appealing message—one that doesn’t insult the viewer’s brains—is that we all know no one takes this stuff seriously. Even the Kardashians know that they are a joke.
The E! demos say that women make up nearly two-thirds of the Chelsea Lately audience, and the show is especially popular among young women. The 34-year-old Handler is clearly a welcome change from the sameness of the suit-and-tie guys on late night, especially the network guys who strain so hard to seem cool. (Jimmy Fallon may Twitter, but that only makes him a guy in suit and tie who Twitters.) But I also think the secret of her appeal to women is that she is such a great relief from the earnest ladies of daytime talk shows, from The View with its creaky wisecracking, to Oprah to Ellen (you’ll find no self-help tips from Handler).
Handler has just signed a new three-year-contract with E! (On the show she sometimes mentions her boyfriend Ted, who is Ted Harbert, CEO of E!’s parent company, Comcast Entertainment Group. Professionally that makes him her überboss, but I’m sure she was funny before they got together.) And a third book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, is set to be published next year.
Success means moving in new directions, though, which can warp the formula. Each Chelsea Lately includes a one-on-one interview, and recently Handler has landed some big-name guests like Tracey Ullman. But those segments have always been best when Handler walks the tightrope of interviewing D-list celebs she should be making fun of. After talking to Aubrey O’Day, the rarely clothed singer kicked out of the girl group Danity Kane, Handler said cheerfully, “You’re a lot less stupid than I thought you were going to be.” Actually, O’Day was inane, saying she posed for Playboy to raise her self-esteem, but never mind. Handler’s line worked so cleverly because she acknowledged what we were thinking—another bimbo guest—without either insulting O’Day or becoming a total suck-up.
After talking to Aubrey O’Day, the rarely clothed singer kicked out of the girl group Danity Kane, Handler said cheerfully, “You’re a lot less stupid than I thought you were going to be.”
Still, Handler has made some odd recent choices. She’s in the current Allure magazine, posing nude in a feature that includes celebs like Padma Lakshmi. What a women’s magazine like Allure is doing with that article is another question. (Strategically posed to avoid full exposure, the women also look Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives; is this supposed to be inspiring?), but Handler is on record there announcing “My boobs... are real.” Maybe the bright side of the feature is that it proves—and this shouldn’t be such a stretch but often is—that women can be funny and genuinely sexy.
What I’m really worried about, though, is Handler’s recent Larry King appearance, where she and Candy Spelling took a tour of Spelling’s gauche $150 million house. When Handler teased the spot on her own show the night before, she assured viewers it was all a joke, explaining that when the King people called she thought, “This is too stupid not to do.” Maybe, but on the tour she couldn’t quite make fun of Spelling’s special gift-wrapping room to her face. She couldn’t be as delicately snarky as she is to her own ridiculous guests.
Larry King Live lets her reach a bigger audience, of course, but his show is lethally uncool. Handler is facing the dilemma so many cable personalities do when they leave their niches and work for producers who don’t really want them to be their irreverent selves. (Jon Stewart at the Oscars, this means you). For now, I wouldn’t miss Lately. Best to catch Handler while she still has an edge.
Chelsea Lately is on E! weeknights at 11 p.m. and repeated as if it were Law & Order.
Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She is film critic for Marie Claire magazine and contributes to The New York Times Book Review. Formerly, she was a film critic, chief television critic, and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew .