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By Rachel Sklar
Photographs by Robert Erdmann | September 29, 2011 | People
In Washington—perhaps more than in any other town, and definitely at the start of election season—the best strategy is to be underestimated. Michele Bachmann knows this. Sarah Palin knows this. Mitt Romney learned it the hard way the last time around. In the realms of television, publishing and mass media, Chelsea Handler has mastered the message.
Handler is the late-night host you never hear about. She gets the same A-list guests—Aniston, Paltrow, Rihanna, Bieber—and they gush over her like they do over Jon Stewart. She goes on sold-out tours, minus the fanfare of, say, flooding the Washington Mall or working out angst about Jay Leno (find her in Kansas City, Minneapolis, Houston or Anchorage). There were no fawning headlines when she joined Twitter—though she is beating Conan by more than 200,000 followers. Oh, and she also beats him in the ratings, just like she regularly beats Letterman, Fallon, Ferguson and Kimmel. No matter that it’s only for the dream 18-to-34 demographic, especially the female half of that equation (you know, the spenders)—she beats them all. That, by the way, is just for Chelsea Lately, the weekday half-hour at 11 PM on E! (plus umpteen reruns). There is also After Lately, the spinoff reality show set behind the scenes of Chelsea Lately and starring Handler and her writers.
Once you turn off the television, Handler is there on your bookshelf with four best sellers, waiting to regale you with tales of her one-night stands, a normal-to-dysfunctional New Jersey upbringing, adventures with misfit friends and an affinity for midgets. These are not best sellers in the respectable, erudite sort of way—they are best sellers in the blockbuster, three-books-on-the-New-York-Times-best-seller-list-at-the-same-time sort of way, the coming-to-NBC-soon-as-a-prime-time-series sort of way. Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea is the title that shares both distinctions, headed to the Peacock as a midseason replacement. It stars That 70s Show’s Laura Prepon as Handler, living large with friends and family—including her Mormon older sister, played by... Chelsea Handler.
Handler: Tell It Like It Is
If you’re thinking that this seems like Handler is quietly orchestrating a takeover of the world, well, you’re not far off. Because although E! may be known less for the Kennedys as for the Kardashians, Handler will soon be turning her gimlet eye away from celebrity froth and toward that other news cycle, the one that keeps those other cablers churning—and Washington’s ears burning. She may not have a giant branded bus like Sarah Palin, but she is coming for you, America, and I am pretty sure she could also kill a moose with her bare hands (or, at least, beat Karl Rove to number one on the best-seller list. Talk about underestimating someone: Do you think the Beltway’s most legendary strategist thought Courage and Consequence could be undone by Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang?).
No one is safe.
And that’s just how Handler likes it.
“If I started apologizing, I’d be really busy all the time,” says Handler, airily dismissing a question about offending people, groups and the entire nation of Serbia. She is on the phone from her studio in LA during the early afternoon hair-and-makeup before her taping. It’s a narrow window in which to talk, but Handler is a pro, and her chatter is easy but practiced, fresh and spontaneous when the conversation calls for it but with certain recognizable phrases and themes recycled from other interviews. You could call her Chelsea “Done A Lot Of Interviews” Lately.
Handler is used to dismissing criticism about how she might offend people. Following her hosting gig at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, The New York Times fretted about her “brief, alarming flashes of off-color racial humor,” based on a bit where a series of rappers smacked her on the rear as she walked through a hallway while delivering comments such as, “It’s time to address the big black elephant in the room. Where’s Kanye?”
“I can give you a lot more off-color racial humor,” warns Handler. “But that’s just an example of it; that’s open-minded, equal opportunist.” This shtick is familiar to regular viewers of Chelsea Lately—she has rappers on her show all the time (including 50 Cent, whom she briefly dated), and she even dared to bash Beyoncé, prompting a flood of hate mail.
No doubt Handler will be similarly unapologetic when complaints roll in about this interview. I ask her what her take is on Michele Bachmann, and she immediately submits her opinion of the Congresswoman’s intellectual prowess. It is unflattering, to say the least. What about Sarah Palin? “I think Sarah Palin is a little bit more frightening than Michele Bachmann.” Why? “Well, she’s dumber.”
A Journalistic Turn
It’s a no-brainer to ask Handler about Bachmann and Palin—it’s an instant sound bite—but there is a larger point here, because Handler’s contract with E! is up in 2012, and she is currently in the thick of renegotiations. As they wear on, she has made no secret of the fact that, after lacing into celebrities nightly since 2007, she is looking for a new challenge. “I just want something more well-rounded,” says Handler, who has used the word “journalistic” to describe her new hankering. And while she shies from comparisons to Bill Maher, who uses the roundtable format that is an element of Handler’s own show, it is somewhere in that ballpark: “Just a little bit more serious, still have the tone of who I am, but be able to talk about other topics and have more responsibility about what I’m talking about rather than just talking about celebrity.”
Handler signing autographs at her late-night talk show Chelsea Lately
|André Balazs and Handler celebrating the launch of Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me at the Boom Boom Room in New York|
This new Untitled Journalistic Chelsea Handler Project won’t just be a tweak of her current show, either (though surely there will be a place for Chuy Bravo, her beloved height-challenged sidekick). “I don’t want to do it on E! You know, E! is not the right network for what I want to do with regard to the new show,” she explains. It’s pretty clear that Handler is serious about being taken seriously.
And why not? She is at the age at which one is dogged by constant questions about marriage and children. However, it’s not as if she is lacking in bona fides. She has a well-established show (this is the third renegotiation), firm friends (writer-regulars Bravo, Brad Wollack, Sarah Colonna, Heather McDonald, Chris Franjola, Jeff Wild and Steve Marmalstein all have careers because of her), a book imprint (called Borderline Amazing/A Chelsea Handler Book; she decided that she would publish her fourth best seller, Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, herself) and an eye-opening bank balance (reportedly north of $20 million).
Then there are the A-list friends (Jennifer Aniston is one; Reese Witherspoon, with whom Handler stars in the upcoming This Means War, is another) and the A-list boyfriends (the aforementioned 50 Cent; Ted Harbert, then Comcast CEO; and now hotelier André Balazs). Put all that together and it certainly is one heck of an arc—especially for someone who just a few short years ago was still cracking wise as a talking head on shows like 101 Most Sensational Crimes of Fashion.
This seems like as good a time as any to go back to the fact that Chelsea Handler is a woman. If you return to the opening point about how she has flown under the radar for so long despite her ascent to ratings and multimedia dominance, that might help explain it. The fact that she is blonde, bodacious, sexy and gorgeous (per the New York Times’ Cathy Horyn: “Below the neck... her body has the pre-silicone lushness of a ’60s Playmate”) has certainly helped garner attention, but conversely, respect has been slightly harder to come by.
Nell Scovell, longtime Vanity Fair writer and fixture of many a television writers’ room, including Letterman’s, has watched the latenight landscape evolve and thinks that Handler is something special. “Like Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels, Chelsea started her talk show with no franchise and no lead-in. It’s through sheer force of talent that her show’s a success,” she says. Scovell also points out that, while Handler’s soon-to-be five-year stint is dwarfed by Letterman and Leno’s three decades behind the desk and nearly two for Conan, she is clearly approaching that next level. “Awareness is building. When she hosted the Video Music Awards, the show scored the biggest audience for any MTV telecast since 2002. She has an upcoming sitcom. My husband has read all her books,” she says.
Sean McCarthy, a former reporter for the New York Daily News who writes the definitive comedy blog, The Comic’s Comic, tracks ratings among the late-night shows and noticed something interesting: Comedy Central’s ratings press release broke out total demo numbers (18 to 34 and 18 to 49) and demo numbers for men, which Comedy Central targets. Flipping the data revealed that Handler was number one in the demo for women (and, though Comedy Central doesn’t seem to care, Jon Stewart was number two). “She’s definitely in the same league. Her format may be different, but she’s definitely in the same league,” said McCarthy. “Her May numbers were on par with Conan, and she beat him in June—and when you look at the younger viewers, she does better than Fallon, who’s getting all of the hip press.” (Also note: Fallon, Conan, Stewart, Colbert and Maher all got Emmy nominations.)
For all of the women-aren’t-funny brouhaha that female comedians have to fight, Handler dismisses the notion as any other phantom roadblock in her life. “I don’t give much credence to any of that, because that whole ‘women aren’t funny’ thing is so stupid. Either people are funny or they’re not. There are plenty of men who aren’t funny, either.” Her approach: “Just ignore it and continue along your way. Which is a better attitude in my mind.”
Kate Bosworth with Handler as a guest on Chelsea Lately
|Chuy Bravo and Handler at the LA Pride Festival Parade|
|Jennifer Aniston and Chelsea Handler pose at Aniston’s hand-and-footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre|
Or, as she said above: Be an “open-minded equal opportunist.”
Whatever Chelsea Wants...
If Handler succeeds in making the switch from celebrity potshots to skewering the news cycle, she will be entering a crowded market but, lucky for her, one ripe with targets. And one that may also be ripe for a new voice. The 2012 presidential election is little more than a year away, and already the crescendo is rising. Could Handler’s voice rise above the din?
“I think she can do whatever she wants,” says Jonathan Wald, the executive producer of CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, on which Handler was a guest this spring. During an hour-long interview Handler kept the host on his toes, if not slightly exasperated. (Sample repartee: Morgan: “We’ll take a break and when we come back, I’m going to ask you if there’s any line you wouldn’t cross in comedy.” Handler: “Having you open for me.”) Wald, who as former executive producer of Today and NBC Nightly News and an executive at CNBC knows a thing or two about good television, says Handler was someone they wanted on the show right from the start. “She’s sharp, sexy, funny and never boring. If she wants to become the female Bill Maher, she’s certainly got the smarts and the wit to do it. Or she could be the thinking man’s Ann Coulter,” Wald says.
Or she could simply be Chelsea Handler, and shake up DC the way she has shaken up Hollywood. There would be nothing quite like her—a fearless comedienne who loves bawdy humor, comes from a family of Jews and Mormons, was the grand marshall of the LA gay pride parade, has publicly (and unabashedly) admitted to having an abortion and accessorizes her all-American blondebombshell look with good-girl icons like BFFs Witherspoon and Aniston—parsing the thorny issues of the 2012 campaign. “Please, Chelsea, go to Washington,” says Wald. “A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
On the plus side, Handler admits she loves this town. She is now a veteran of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, having attended two years in a row, this year with beau Balazs; she performs here a few times a year; and she thinks “it’s all beautiful,” claiming she had no idea the city’s other moniker is “Hollywood for Ugly People” (“I thought that was radio”). She even name-drops some favorite political-journo personalities, among them Katie Couric, Brian Williams, Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough. (“I don’t watch Morning Joe, but I know Joe Scarborough,” she explains. “I did his show a couple of years ago, before it was Morning Joe.”)
But perhaps the most compelling argument for Chelsea Handler to join the national news conversation can be found in her latest best seller. In Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, her writers, colleagues and employees—aka her friends—reveal secret truths about their boss. In the introduction, After Lately cast member Johnny Kansas distills Handler this way: “She is most dangerous when she is bored or has a little free time and is looking to entertain herself.” Here’s hoping Handler is pretty darn bored. Our time for change has come.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRANDON HICKMAN/E! ENTERTAINMENT (STUDIO); PHOTOGRAPH BY GETTY IMAGES
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