Chelsea Handler has never been an explicitly political comedian. But as the 2016 election gets closer, she has been using her Netflix talk show, simply titled Chelsea—as well as a partnership with Rock the Vote—to educate both herself and viewers about what’s at stake for the country this fall.
An avowed Hillary Clinton supporter, Handler has tried to get conservatives, including those who support Donald Trump, to appear on her show and defend their side. This past week, she landed one of his most vocal media boosters, Ann Coulter, who ended up canceling her appearance just a few hours before showtime. Even if she was “sick,” as she claimed via an email to the show, Coulter may have regretted staying away, given how Handler spent much of the episode tearing her to shreds.
After the taping, during which comedian Fortune Feimster stood in as a barely exaggerated version of the right-wing pundit, I meet Handler in her well-appointed backstage dressing room at the show’s Sony Pictures Studios set to talk politics. She is still wearing that day’s T-shirt, featuring one heavily mascara’d eye, and nursing the knee she injured at the end of the episode when she attempted a Colin Kaepernick-esque kneel on her desk.
“People are always like, ‘You never bring any Trump supporters on,’” Handler says, still frustrated over Coulter’s last-minute cancellation (mainly because she spent the morning reading her entire book, In Trump We Trust, which she proceeded to call a “piece of shit” on air). “We do try, but people don’t want to come on and talk about Trump on this show.” One problem is that Trump’s celebrity surrogates are few and far between, as quickly became evident during the Republican National Convention.
Speaking just two days after Clinton’s decisive victory over Trump in the first debate, Handler says she’s trying to stay positive, keeping in mind something President Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau assured her: “The country that elected Barack Obama is not going to elect Donald Trump.”
She holds on to that because she believes a Donald Trump presidency would be “the end of our civilization.” And while that type of “mayhem” could happen, she says she ultimately feels “hopeful” that the country is capable of electing its first woman president directly after its first black president. “It would mean we overcame so much in a relatively short period of time,” she says.
Handler was also impressed with Clinton’s performance in the first debate, saying, “I don’t know how she was able to comport herself when he interrupted her over and over and over again.” But, she adds, there’s something inherently odd about comparing someone who has had “30 years of experience” in government to a “hotelier” who “has no political experience whatsoever.”
“So I don’t feel comfortable with that,” she continues. “I don’t feel like that can happen. I’m just always apoplectic, I can’t believe this guy has gotten this far.” At the same time, she’s doubtful that the uproar this week over Trump’s fat-shaming of a Miss Universe winner will change the trajectory of the race.
“It’s just more of the same thing with him,” Handler says. “He constantly says things that are so inappropriate and insulting to women.” She thought his campaign might be over when he said “that thing about Megyn Kelly and her period,” so if people didn’t abandon him after that, she doesn’t think this will do it either.
Given the trouble she has had booking Trump supporters, it is highly unlikely the Republican candidate himself would ever appear on her show. But even if he reached out to her and asked to be a guest, she says she would never let him in the studio.
“We can’t just have people on for ratings,” she says. “If he volunteered himself I would say no. I don’t care. And that would really be TV worth watching. I mean, I probably know more about policy than he does. I’m sure I do.”
Handler says she was “surprised” that Jimmy Fallon hosted Trump on his show at all this past month, regardless of how softball the questions were. “Now that there’s a chance that he could win, and people are nervous, we need to be more responsible. It can’t just be a ratings thing.” While she said “no one’s watching Jimmy Fallon for political reasons,” echoing Seth Meyers’s defense of his network-mate, she still does not think Trump should be getting a platform like The Tonight Show.
“When I was growing up, I never understood, why is this so important?” Handler says of her more apolitical upbringing. But when she sees people like Ann Coulter still talking about wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade, she realizes what’s at stake. “Why are you still talking about that?” she asks. “It’s the past, we have to move forward. The world is different, so let’s adapt.”
As for Hillary Clinton, Handler says she would “love” to have her on the show, but not in a live interview setting. As she did so effectively on her Netflix documentary series Chelsea Does, Handler says she would want to host a dinner party with the candidate. “Something more intimate” that could show off the side of her that doesn’t come through in big, public spaces, much as her “Between Two Ferns” appearance revealed her more subtle comic chops.
“She is a really wonderful person, and a mother, and a caring grandmother, and all of those things that we don’t really get to see. And it’s the very thing that everybody seems to take issue with,” Handler says of Clinton. “I don’t see Donald Trump being a caring father, just because his kids show up everywhere he goes,” she adds, suggesting they might be “scared” of him.
Handler says she “understands” that a lot of people don’t love Hillary Clinton as much as she does. “But Trump is not an option,” she says, and those who think a third-party candidate has a chance are just deluding themselves. “Hillary may not be the best option, but she’s a better option than him.”