One hundred days into Donald Trump’s presidency, Saturday Night Live is enjoying its highest ratings in years. Stephen Colbert is poised to beat Jimmy Fallon for the season. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is regularly beating Fox News’ 9 p.m. hour in the key demo.
There’s an upside to being part of the resistance. And over on Netflix, Chelsea Handler is seizing the moment.
Heading into its second season, the team at Chelsea has made some big changes, which Handler and her showrunner Sue Murphy chalk up to the growing pains and learning experience that comes from being the first “late-night show” on a streaming service.
Whereas the show launched last year by streaming three half-hour episodes each week, they have moved to a new hour-long format that appears just once a week on Fridays. Netflix’s data showed that viewers were essentially bingeing all three shows on Friday anyway, so everyone agreed it made the most sense to do one big show when the audience was telling them they wanted to watch.
The new format allows Handler to go much deeper with her guests, spending the time necessary to have a real discussion instead of the hurried, promotion-driven segments that have become so common on other late-night shows. “With someone like Van Jones, I want to sit and talk with him for 15 minutes, not six minutes,” the host tells The Daily Beast in a recent phone interview.
“In the climate that we’re in and the stuff that I really feel passionately about, I don’t want to be rushed,” Handler adds, saying that so far it “feels really good” to slow things down. Whether it’s due to the Netflix model or just Handler’s laid-back personality, Chelsea has always felt a little more casual than other late-night shows. The host wears vintage T-shirts and lets her dogs wander around the set. A recent episode found her friend Charlize Theron stealing her phone and reading embarrassing texts the host has sent to her assistant. The new, longer format is only adding to that laid-back vibe.
But that doesn’t mean Handler can’t get fired up when she needs to. In each of the first three episodes of the new season, Handler has opened her show by looking on the “bright side” of Trump’s presidency. And it has been vicious.
First, it was the supposition that the president has syphilis. Then, it was her screed against Steve Bannon’s “bloated, gin-soaked face.” And finally, this past week, Handler made the convincing case that if Trump spent even more time playing golf, we’d all be better off.
After a first season in which Handler was still finding her way, having Trump in the Oval Office has helped focus her energy like nothing else could have. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and for Handler, that has meant leaving behind much of the frivolity that defined her seven-year run as host of Chelsea Lately on E! and pivoting to something more meaningful — even if there’s still room for jokes about Sean Spicer washing Trump’s “balls.”
Deciding which Trump stories to highlight each week can be a challenge, given the “never-ending” flood of material, so Handler says she chooses to focus on her “general disdain for him and his complete incompetence and unfitness for the job.”
Chelsea showrunner Sue Murphy, speaking to me in her office before a recent taping, says the focus on politics comes directly from Handler. “That’s what she’s interested in, that’s what she wants to talk about, these are the conversations that she wants to have,” Murphy, who also served as an executive producer on Chelsea Lately, explains. “It got to a certain point where it’s like, we don’t really want to talk about the Kardashians all the time.”
She says that Handler has “grown up” a bit since that show and wants Chelsea to “reflect where she is personally” now. Of the E! Show, Murphy adds, “We had a blast, but that was dumb. This is a different animal.”
Instead of just trying to book the biggest celebrities she can get, Handler says she wants to have conversations with people who are actively trying to “help the world.” Upcoming guests include Amy Schumer, who has used her comedy to take on the issue of gun control, and Rep. Adam Schiff, who has become a major figure in the congressional opposition to Trump.
“It’s definitely a pivot from my last show, but I mean, as it should be,” Handler says. “I’m 42, I was 30 when I started that.”
Last season, Handler invited Ann Coulter to appear as a guest, but then the conservative pundit canceled at the last minute, leading to one of the funnier segments in the show’s short history. “Ann Coulter to me is kind of irrelevant now. She’s been replaced by Tomi Lahren,” Handler says, laughing. But she’s not about to invite that right-wing firebrand on her show. “I’m not having anybody on who’s clearly shouting an opinion just to be paid and be a celebrity,” she says. “I don’t believe these girls believe half of the stuff that they’re saying.”
There is one conservative that Handler is eager to get on her show, however: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, or as she calls him, “my Spicey baked potato.”
“Yeah, I would love to talk to him, that would be really funny actually,” she says. “We’ll have to wait until he gets fired.”
“The offers are out, believe me,” Murphy adds, using one of Trump’s favorite phrases. “We have all those offers out. It’s a matter of trying to get someone to say yes when she said the president has syphilis.”
When we spoke last September, Handler told me she thought Trump’s election would be the “end of our civilization” as we know it and expressed hope that the country would be capable of electing its first female president eight years after putting a black man in the White House. “I’m trying to remain hopeful,” she says seven months later, “because there’s a big movement happening. And the reaction to his being elected has been so major.”
Handler did her part to help lead that movement when she decided to organize a celebrity-filled branch of the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
“Women are under a right-wing political assault,” she wrote in an op-ed at the time, “and I intend to fight back with all my might against a Republican president, a Republican Congress, and the radical, religious right who are drooling to defund Planned Parenthood health services nationwide.”
“We got ourselves into the situation for a reason,” Handler tells me after three months of President Trump. “So everyone’s taking a really good look at themselves and looking at our country and looking at the people who were marginalized and ignored.” She would have liked to see this kind of movement happen before the election, “but, you know, it didn’t happen then and better late than never and perhaps this is a bigger movement now.”
“As long as we keep our voices up and we’re loud and we hold him accountable, we can’t get tired and we can’t get lazy,” she adds. “I think I need to use the show for that. It’s my responsibility as a responsible adult. I’ve been screaming and yelling my whole life and now at least I have a reason to.”
Starting with her Netflix documentary series Chelsea Does last year, Handler has used her platform as a way to educate herself — and by extension, others — about issues she never cared about as a younger woman.
“There were so many things that when I was 18 and I was able to vote, I didn’t participate in, because I just thought about national elections,” she says, citing laws like DOMA and the Violence Against Women Act, “all of these things that I care so much about now but just wasn’t about then, it’s a good reminder to people that there’s not just an election every four years. There are other things you can vote for and you have to get into on a local level.”
To any of her old fans who don’t like that she’s moved in such a political direction, Handler says, “It’s not really my problem. I’m not here to just, like, entertain you.” She avoids reading the comments and responses on social media, adding, “I haven’t spent my career worrying about what other people think, so if you lose a couple of people in the fray of being political, then good. Sorry, this is too important to not say anything.”