Introducing the final episode of her long-running E! channel talk show, Chelsea Handler marveled at her once-unlikely run on Chelsea Lately, calling it “seven years of ridiculous stupidity.” Chelsea Handler is nothing if not self-aware.
“And I am very impressed with myself,” she continued, addressing her E! audience for the last time before she heads to Netflix for a lucrative stand-up and talk show deal. “Way to go, girl.”
Here’s the crazy thing, though. As exhibited through Tuesday night’s star-studded final hour of Chelsea Lately, Handler’s nightly show—which mixed a panel of comedians riffing on the most vapid of tabloid culture, superfluous and silly skits, and free-wheeling, often ribald celebrity interviews—was just exactly what she called it: ridiculous stupidity. And for that, believe it or not, she does deserve credit.
Handler, you see, might have been the first late-night host who got it. She got that we’re tuning in to her show bleary-eyed and exasperated before bed. She got that we wanted idle chatter about the world’s most base-level news: celebrity gossip. She got that we carried a little bit of shame about having that craving, and she not only internalized some of that shame, but openly admitted it, even mocking herself for making money by telling jokes about Paris Hilton and Honey Boo Boo.
She seemed like she couldn’t believe that this was her job for seven years, to joke about Kardashians and Biebers and Lohans. And that’s precisely why we loved listening to her talk about them. She took those things just about as seriously as we do—which is to say not very—but understood that, for some reason we can’t explain, we still lived for talking about them. (Compare her attitude to the often insufferable self-seriousness of her E! channel colleagues Giuliana Rancic or Jason Kennedy, for example.) She was a funnier version of our own inner monologue.
It’s that irreverence, too, that made Chelsea Lately one of the more popular stops on celebrities’ press tours.
Fatigued by an endless onslaught of carefully controlled interviews monitored by helicoptering PR chaperones and delivering answers that were practically scripted to the same batch of questions asked ad nauseum, celebrities found Handler’s couch to be an oasis for even the biggest A-listers. Sometimes Handler didn’t even bother to ask her guests what they were promoting, mostly because she just didn’t give a shit. It was a win-win attitude. We didn’t give a shit either, at least most of the time. And as for the celebrities, they were sick and tired of talking about it anyway.
The result was that the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, and Jennifer Aniston could chat with Handler and seem looser and edgier and more real than the public perception of them might indicate, all while being relieved from the pressure of “performing” that can accompany the major network talk shows. In all likelihood, Handler was going to ask them about pooping or bikini wax or binge drinking—and that’s a whole lot more fun of being asked about their “process” or how much of a prankster George Clooney was on set for the umpteenth time.
To wit, Aniston, Sandra Bullock, and Mary McCormack appeared together for Handler’s last episode for a group interview that doubled as a fake intervention—either for her drinking problem or for adopting a ho-hum healthy lifestyle, depending on which actress was talking. Handler told the world that she’s “going to Netflix for a little while,” McCormack said, joking that the streaming service is actually just a euphemism for rehab. “Netflix is a wonderful facility that will give you all the help you really need.”
The bit started funny, and was the perfect example of the genius of her show: a safe space for stars of Aniston and Bullock’s caliber to let their hair down and do something as ridiculous as a fake intervention. But, as with most bits on Chelsea Lately, it went on for way too long.
Chelsea Lately, it must be said, for its modest-to-impressive audience (roughly 570,000 a night last year), was often not funny. She said herself Tuesday night that she loved “putting comedians who shouldn’t be on TV on TV” on her show, parading out the panelists who would rotate delivering jokes each night on her roundtable.
A number of those panelists have springboarded to bigger things, Whitney Cummings, Ross Matthews, and Silicon Valley’s T.J. Miller among them. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that more of the stars didn’t break out, as the jockeying to deliver clearly pre-written eye-rollers about Miley Cyrus twerking often made for the most awkward, most stilted, and most fast-forwarded through segment of Handler’s show. Too silly and too scripted, those segments paled in comparison to the ones that Handler helmed solo. Left to her own devices, the host always proved a bit of an unpredictability that made for the best comedy and the show’s best moments.
On the finale, for example, there was a performance from her ex-boyfriend, 50 Cent, which was infinitely less entertaining that Handler's flustered banter with him before his song started. “I haven’t seen you since we stopped seeing each other,” she said, barely able to stifle her red-faced giggles. “So I’m assuming that your new album is about me?”
One of Handler’s best attributes is that you could always tell when she veered off script, her wily mind choosing mischief over the rehearsed line of questioning in interviews. Those unfiltered insights into Handler’s mind produced gems of hilarity, including her barely under-her-breath mutterings to 50 Cent about how she knows he changed his number because she’s been trying to text him about appearing on the show. The laughs mined from her off-the-cuff quips clearly trumped the scripted groaners remixing the staid “once you go black…” adage about their relationship.
But beyond the execution of her show on a nightly basis, Chelsea Handler as a late-night host at all was revolutionary. Sure, because she was a woman. But also because of her point of view. Perhaps more than any of the white men in suits before her, she was a host for whom it wasn’t just acceptable, but expected, to have an opinion on.
There are a lot of people who don’t find Chelsea Handler humorous. They find her comedy too offensive, or, worse, they find it faux-offensive: a type of comedy inciting instant pearl-clutching built merely because of a mythical reputation for being racy or button-pushing, but in execution is actually pretty bland and staid. This is to say that Handler is, at the very least, a polarizing personality. She certainly was the most polarizing personality in late night. She might even had been the only one, too.
Think about it. Does anyone really hate Seth Meyers, the way so many do Handler? (Just Google it or check Twitter for confirmation of the latter.) There are plenty of people who don’t love him. Who have no passionate feelings about him in any way. But there’s no one who really hates him.
And while there are people who are exuberant about their obsession with Jimmy Fallon, those who don’t share their uber-enthusiasm typically aren’t vehemently opposed to his existence the way Handler’s detractors are about her. They merely don’t like him as much as others seems to. Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman: they have passionate fans, sure, but they don’t really have passionate haters.
But it’s the wildly opposing opinions of her—and her knowledge of those opinions’ existence—that’s always made Handler exciting to watch. Remember when Jay Leno was pissed off at NBC and every monologue of his was laced with bitterness? Remember how fun that was to witness? That’s Handler every day.
She’s made her brand the middle finger. She gives it to the hand that feeds her, the E! Channel, and the insipid programming it produces and she’s asked to promote. She gives it to the celebrity culture that fuels her show’s entire existence. And she gives it to the people who think she’s too acerbic, too sloppy, too edgy, or too whatever to enjoy—because she thinks she is all those things, too, and doesn’t give a hoot about it. Each day, she gives the middle finger to herself.
It’s a lack of self-seriousness that’s been really pretty refreshing. Barbara Walters might invite Academy Award winner Michael Douglas to be her final interview subject when she retires from television. Chelsea Handler asks Miley Cyrus to appear.
The show ended with a group musical number featuring cameos from Gwen Stefani, Fergie, Gerard Butler, Melissa McCarthy, Kate Beckinsale, Anna Faris, Selena Gomez, Tim Allen (!), and a red carpet’s worth of major Hollywood stars, proving how popular she and her show became as a press stop. And so quickly after the song ended, Handler, for one last time, showed off why she’s become so popular in those circles. In an industry that thrives on ass-kissing, sucking-up, and stroking egos, Handler rejects it all.
“I’ll see you on Netflix!” she bellowed, plugging her new outlet while still on-air on the one that made her a star. It would’ve been a crippling faux pas for anyone else, but it was a cherished moment from Handler—flipping the middle finger until the bitter end.