Late-night talk-show hosts don’t generally slag off their guests, but when it comes to Perez Hilton, Chelsea Handler can’t really find anything nice to say. There’s the celebrity blogger’s name on the dry-erase board displaying the taping schedule, and whom is she kidding? “He’s less disgusting than he used to be,” she says in an apparent reference to Hilton’s dramatic weight loss over the past year. “But he’s still an a--hole. I don’t like it when he draws coke out of people’s noses who clearly aren’t doing coke. Like, why are you doing that? But people are interested in him, and he has good gossip, so we sometimes have him on.”
Handler (at right) on her show with Jenny McCarthy, one of many B-, C- and D-list guests.
Of course she does—after all, her program, Chelsea Lately, on E! Entertainment Television, is a welcome mat for reality-TV show winners, second-string sitcom players and anyone else with a tenable connection to Hollywood. Handler accepts that she’s going to have to occasionally hold her nose. An ironic deconstruction of everything that passes for celebrity today, Chelsea Lately begins with a roundtable of comedians and culture pundits dissecting the day’s celebrity stories, then moves to a traditional talk-show format, albeit with a sidekick midget named Chuy and far less famous guests than the ones her major-network counterparts reel in. While David Letterman gets Madonna, Handler has to settle for Christopher Ciccone on what New York magazine’s Jonathan Van Meter dubbed the “Bite the Hand That Feeds Me book tour.”
Not that she’s complaining. “The worse the guests are, the more pathetic they are, the funnier the show is,” she says with a shrug.
Viewers seem to agree. Since its debut a year and a half ago, Chelsea Lately’s audience has grown to more than 500,000 viewers a night, making it one of E!’s best-rated programs (if teeny by network rating standards). Moreover, the show’s viewership is composed largely of 18- to 49-year-old women, hitting the sweet spot with advertisers. On the stand-up circuit, Handler is flown to Las Vegas to skewer everyone from Matthew McConaughey (“McCona-gay,” in Handler parlance) to Angelina Jolie’s adopted son Maddox. (“He probably thought he was scoring the biggest deal of his lifetime, getting adopted by this famous movie star who was going to rescue him from his third-world Cambodia,” Handler joked in a Comedy Central special, “only to find out she was going to take him to every other third-world country in the world. He’s probably like, ‘When are we going to get to Malibu?’”) Meanwhile, the comedian’s book of essays Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea has sat on The New York Times best-seller list since May.
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.
Handler had reservations. “TMZ is so disgusting,” she says, again employing one of her two favorite adjectives. (The other is “ridiculous.”) “Star magazine is so disgusting. You have these weight-loss stories with captions on the photos saying, ‘142 pounds in this picture and 114 in this.’ How do they know this? Do the Star reporters walk around with a scale? There’s an article in there today saying Suri Cruise’s doll is the only person she can trust. Did the doll call Star magazine and provide them with an exclusive interview?” Handler didn’t like the idea of joining these ranks.
Second, she was concerned that E! is a central player in this tabloid vortex, that it’s the television network that most earnestly addresses celebrity news as a matter of national importance. “I said to E!, ‘There’s no way I could report on this stuff seriously. If I do this, I’ll have to go and make fun of everything that E!’s all about,’” she says.Thankfully the suits at the network thought this was an excellent idea, perhaps because they are well aware that the celebrities on their shows—Dina Lohan, Pamela Anderson, et al.—exist mainly to be made fun of.
It also may not have hurt that Handler’s boyfriend happens to be Ted Harbert, president of Comcast Entertainment Group (which oversees E!), though the couple insist they did not begin seeing each other until after Handler got the show. Handler says dating Harbert has just given him opportunity to complain when she mocks the network’s talent. “My boyfriend calls me screaming, like, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you? I told you to lay off Denise Richards,’” she says. “I’m like, ‘Denise Richards is a ridiculous person, and it’s your fault for giving her a show.’”
Other favorite subjects for Handler are the Jonas Brothers (“Until they penetrate, who knows what side of the seesaw they sit on?”), Tori Spelling (“She looks like a man”) and the Olsen twins. When it broke that Ashley was dating Lance Armstrong, Handler joked, “It’s pretty serious, ’cause he gave her one of his Livestrong bracelets, which she’s using as a belt.”
Does Handler ever feel bad for the targets of her broadsides? “We’re just making fun of people who act like idiots,” she says. “It’s not like we’re making fun of Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Garner, who know how to comport themselves.” It’s a formula that’s worked for her, taking her from flailing TV stunt comic to late-night cult figure, albeit with a more commercial appeal. Says Brad Wollack, a close friend and a writer on her show, “She says what every other girl wants to say but hasn’t said for fear of reprise.” And her agent, Jim Wiatt, CEO of the William Morris Agency, admits that her good looks don’t hurt. “She’s like a beautiful sorority girl. Even though she has an edge, it doesn’t feel like it—she appeals to everyone.”
With Conan O’Brien taking over Leno’s slot next year, there’s room for all the networks to try to move in on the 12:30 a.m. time slot. In October the New York Post speculated that the networks were considering Handler for a late-night hosting gig. But she professes not to be eager to make a move. “My contract [with E!] goes for two more years,” she says. “And I’m very happy here. You can get away with a lot more on cable.”