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.”

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