Given Chelsea Handler’s boozy persona, it’s perhaps not surprising that E!’s queen of late night got her start in comedy at a court-mandated alcohol education class. When the story of her driving-while-intoxicated arrest left her fellow convicts in stitches, it inspired the then-struggling actress to pursue a career in stand-up. These days, Handler has reformed. (She can now afford a chauffeur when sloshed—“I pay [drivers] double because they have to put up with me, or Chuy [Bravo, her 4-foot-3 assistant] fills in,” she deadpans.) But she’s still quite literally the poster girl for vodka: Belvedere even sponsored her current Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang tour, which included a recent stop in Atlantic City.
That brazen willingness to discuss just about any topic, coupled with her unfiltered, often raunchy humor, has made Handler wildly popular among young women, while her acerbic wit has charmed a discrete demographic: television critics. The eponymous force behind the top-rated show on E!, Chelsea Lately, Handler hosted last month’s MTV Video Music Awards, posed on the cover of Playboy and toured the country doing stand-up—surprising versatility for someone who specializes in “shadoobie”-laden gross-out humor.
Handler’s quirky outlook—(likes: little people, rappers, obese little people; dislikes: Paris Hilton, John Mayer, red heads)—has also put her writing career on a rocket-like trajectory, with three best-selling memoirs in the last five years.
Handler ignores all boundaries in her quest for laughs, but one thing she’ll never do is pander. For example, South Jersey Magazine asked, “What’s the best thing about growing up in Jersey?” Handler’s answer came without hesitation: “Leaving.”
Handler’s Livingston, N.J., childhood is a recurring topic in her writing, even if it’s hardly cast in a halcyon glow. Before a recent comedy stop at the Borgata, she said on Chelsea Lately: “I’m going back to New Jersey to perform, and there are a few things I like to do to prepare myself for reentry into my motherland. First I visit my storage unit to retrieve my parachute pants, and then I encourage my herpes to flair up. Then, I watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
But we won’t hold it against this Jersey girl. After all, just as often her jokes are aimed squarely at herself, or even at E!, the very network that made her a star. She ridicules her colleagues regularly, and frequently implies that the joke is really on her viewers—for being sucker enough to tune in. When President Obama told her she was “very funny,” her reaction was reportedly one of horror: “I hope the Obamas do not watch the show,” she told a reporter, “because that is just so embarrassing."
SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: Have you been surprised by the success of Chelsea Lately?
CHELSEA HANDLER: I’m always surprised by any success I have. I don’t really take myself that seriously. Whether [the show is] good or not, or whether it’s successful or not, it’s just an added bonus. We just have a lot of fun here. We all know how stupid the show is, so any recognition it gets is amusing to all of us. We’re just happy people are watching.
SJM: Your books are filled with cringe-worthy moments, but is there anything you’re holding back?
CH: There’s a chapter in my first book called “Skid Marks,” so after that it was pretty much an open book! I think it’s a good way to get people to understand who you are and it’s a great way to date people, because that way they can’t act surprised when they find anything out or say that you didn’t tell them up front—because it’s all right there in the book. So it’s a good introduction to people.
SJM: You think people you date actually do go out and read your books first?
CH: Oh yeah, I advise them to.
SJM: Speaking of which, how’s dating Animal Planet star and animal handler Dave Salmoni playing into your longtime quest to own a pet dolphin?
CH: He hasn’t been helpful at all in getting a dolphin. But he is helping my dog learn how to swim, so that’s a bonus. He’s also teaching Chuy how to swim, so he’s an amazing animal trainer.
SJM: How does it feel to have your dating life be tabloid fodder?
CH: I usually try to announce anything personal on my own show, so that anything that’s in the tabloids is just kind of an afterthought.
SJM: So no paparazzi?
CH: I do get paparazzi, but I think the paparazzi think I’m on their side. They’re pretty cool, and if I ask them not to take my picture they usually don’t—unless I’m with someone really famous and then they ignore me.
SJM: Do you ever regret revealing too much?
CH: No, I’ve always been this way. I’ve always had a big mouth, and I’ve always talked pretty directly. It’s who I am, so it was kind of a lark that it turned into a career. So I’m really grateful and I try to stay true to that. I try to make sure that I am direct, that I don’t beat around the bush and I say what I mean. And it’s coming from my point of view, not somebody else’s.
Nobody really puts words into my mouth. [On the show,] we don’t write things unless I have an opinion about it.... When you’re a comedian it’s really important to have your own voice and stay true to that, and not just say what you think is going to make people happy. It’s OK to ruffle feathers.
SJM: Because you’re so open, many fans feel very close to you. What do you feel is your relationship with your fans?
CH: I think it goes back to the same thing with just being honest and forthright about everything—and saying what a lot of people are thinking and don’t necessarily have the audacity to say. It’s like what you and your girlfriends sit around talking about. Like, [I’ll say] that Paris Hilton’s an idiot. I don’t really want to have her on my show and then sit and pretend we’re on The View and tell her how wonderful she is. That’s a ridiculous person, and you should call her out on it. I think if you’re going to say something behind somebody’s back you should say it to their face—or at least say it on camera in front of a million-plus viewers.
SJM: Do you ever respond to fan e-mails?
CH: I Twitter, and I try to do Facebook and send messages back when I can. We always send [fans] a signed headshot. But it can be a little bit overwhelming.
SJM: And you’ve been tweeting for your dog, Chunk, as well—he has more than 75,000 followers.
CH: I don’t do my dog’s Twitter. Chunk does.
SJM: Oh. How’d he get into that?
CH: I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. He’s right here, but he doesn’t speak. He just Twitters.
SJM: One hilarious aspect of your latest book Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang is, in the scenes from your childhood, how precocious you sound. Was that really what you were like growing up?
CH: I had five older brothers and sisters, so when I was 15, I was like 35. When I was 5, I was like 15. So I grew up very quickly, and I was very sarcastic and very outspoken. I’ve always been this way so it was nice to finally grow into myself. It’s a little more acceptable now that I’m 35 than it was when I was 5 walking around and telling everybody to [expletive] off.
SJM: What was the best thing about growing up in Jersey?
CH: The best thing about growing up in New Jersey was graduating from high school and leaving. It was just so cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, so I was happy to get to a milder climate.
SJM: When you come back to New Jersey is there any place you like to go?
CH: There’s one place I like to avoid, and that’s my father’s house.
CH: Because my father’s there.
SJM: His portrayal in your books isn’t too flattering—but you’ve said he likes the attention?
CH: My father says he’s getting too famous and that he has a hard time even going to the grocery store. I say to him, “How are you introducing yourself, as Chelsea Handler’s father? Because nobody recognizes you!”
SJM: What about your other friends and family members who appear in your books and comedy?
CH: They’re pretty much used to it. If you’re a friend or a family member of mine, you basically have to take into account that you’re probably going to be spoken about in a negative fashion. They’ve warmed up to it a lot more in the last couple years than initially. But yes I have lost a couple of friendships.
SJM: Can you tell us about the making of your show?
CH: I get in at nine and we have a morning meeting and we discuss what we’re going to make fun of and who we’re going to make fun of that day, and all the writers weigh in. I sit there reading the paper and eating my arugula and Parmesan salad. Then I usually go to the gym around 11, I come back to work and we go through all the motions of the show. We do a promo for the show. I pick out all the jokes. I go through all the interview questions. My brother comes by and makes lunch, we eat that and we go by each other’s desks and gossip about Lindsay Lohan, and sometimes I’ll Tweet. Then Chuy comes in around 1 [p.m.] to give me a kiss, and sometimes I’ll tell him he’s late. But that happens every day so I guess his new call time is just one [o’clock].
SJM: So it’s a pretty informal work environment?
CH: It’s pretty informal except for the fact that I wear a tux to work.
SJM: Any guests that really stood out for you recently?
CH: We just had Eva Mendes on, and that was a really good interview. Kathy Griffin was on [recently], and that was really fun. We had a great time together. I usually don’t book people unless I really want them on the show, so I avoid people who are really difficult. The only one who really stays in his room a long time is Snoop Dogg.
SJM: When Snoop Dogg keeps you waiting, do you just let it go?
CH: No, I go into his room and I say, “Come on, lets go [expletive] film the show. Put your joint out.”
SJM: What celebrity meltdown do you most wish would happen for the sake of your show?
CH: I would like Spencer Pratt, David Hasselhoff and Heidi Montag to do a musical together. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen in my lifetime.
SJM: You’ve given a lot of exposure to other comics on your show—is that important to you?
CH: Whatever business you’re in, you should try to help other people succeed in the same business. It’s good if you’re a woman to help other women, if you’re a comedian you should try to help other comedians. The nature of the show is to have funny people on, so it’s easy to do.
SJM: You might be the first late-night host to also grace the cover of Playboy. Do you see yourself a new type of female comic?
CH: I happen to have blond hair and blue eyes and I’m not obese, so luckily it worked out for me. Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin have paved the way for me in terms of looks and comedy.
SJM: Is it harder to shock audiences now that they know more about you?
CH: I’m not really trying to shock them. I just kind of tell the truth about where I’m at in my life, what’s going on in my personal life. I tell them about my dating life, and about my family. It’s just more about revealing what I find funny, and who I find ridiculous and who I find annoying, and that comes pretty easily to me.
SJM: How is writing different from performing, creatively?
CH: [With my first book, My Horizontal Life,] I just was talking to my girlfriends at dinner, and they thought it was a really funny idea for a book, about all my one-night stands. So I jotted them down on paper and this book agent ended up selling it within three days. So that’s how my writing career started—and it’s not that dissimilar from my stand-up because I write like I talk.... It’s a really good way to exercise your brain.
SJM: Do you think you’ll ever make the move to network TV?
CH: [Right now,] it’s much nicer to be on cable and only do a half-hour show, and I can get away with a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t be able to get away with on a network. But I will be a couple years older when my contract is up, and hopefully I’ll be a little more mature, so I don’t really know what I’m planning on doing. But [network TV is] not out of the question.
SJM: Do you ever worry about being politically correct?
CH: I don’t say anything too politically incorrect to be taken seriously. And if people are taking me seriously then they have other problems.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 7 (October, 2010).
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