All of this is a big surprise to a woman who appeared to be in television purgatory two years ago, relegated to a low-budget hidden-camera show on Oxygen. “I didn’t really expect to have a ridiculous show on E! and a New York Times best-seller,” Handler says, sitting in her office upstairs from her studio in Los Angeles while a hairstylist preps her for the day’s show. “I mean, you hope for that, but you don’t actually believe that that’s going to happen.” Then she adds, with deadpan delivery, “Especially because I’m so stupid.”
Born in Livingston, New Jersey, 33 years ago, Handler is the daughter of a Jewish used-car salesman and a Mormon housewife. Though pretty enough to become a finalist in the Miss New Jersey pageant when she was 15, she insists she still always felt like an outsider. “We lived in this nice Jewish neighborhood,” she says. “Everyone had Mercedeses and Jaguars, and I was going to school in a Pinto.”
At 19, Handler moved to L.A. to pursue an acting career, though she’s since come to realize she was mainly in search of attention. “I never really had a passion for acting,” says the perpetually annoyed Handler, whose lack of enthusiasm for just about everything is her most marked characteristic. “I was just like, How can I get in front of people? Oh, acting. Then once I lived out here, I was like, Wait—this is so annoying. These auditions are humiliating and demeaning. You have to go in and read other people’s lines.”
So she began to try her hand at stand-up and scored a gig at the Improv, where she drank “like, 15 margaritas” and won over the crowd with a set about life as a waitress. “I got fired from every job I had,” she recalls now. “I once waited on a group of 10 people, and one guy collected the money from the check and tipped me $20 on $600. I told him in front of everyone, ‘Jews like you give Jews like me a bad name.’ That was my last waitressing job.”
Within a few years she became a fixture on the stand-up circuit. In 2002 Oxygen cast her in Girls Behaving Badly, a kind of Punk’d for women, in which Handler and four other comedians played pranks on people all over L.A. In 2005 Bloomsbury released Handler’s first book, My Horizontal Life, a collection of essays about the author’s one-night stands. Then Jay Leno gave her a spot as a correspondent on his show. Not long after, E! tapped her to do a weekly sketch show but decided after a few months to reformat it as a daily wrap-up of the tabloid press.