Apparently Chelsea Handler isn’t kidding this time.
The 39-year-old comic, whose latest book Uganda Be Kidding Me is No. 3 on the New York Times Bestseller List, is making noises about leaving her E! channel late-night show, Chelsea Lately, when her contract is up nine months from now.
She and her manager claim she’s dead serious.
In a story Sunday on the Hollywood Reporter’s web site, the venerable music and movie mogul Irving Azoff, whom Handler hired as her manager a few months ago, indicated that her current, eighth season will be her last.
"Chelsea intends to leave when her contract expires,” Azoff told the Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters, a former writer for The Daily Beast. “She hired me to figure out her life after E! We have at least seven suitors and many ideas.”
An E! spokesperson refused to be baited, and emailed The Daily Beast: “Chelsea has nine months left on her contract and E! will not comment on the future of ‘Chelsea Lately’ at this time.”
Azoff’s comments—which could either be a deeply considerate form of notice affording E! executives plenty of time to find a replacement at 11 p.m., or else a negotiating ploy to improve Handler’s reported $9 million-a-year deal—were far more diplomatic than her own words a few weeks ago.
“When I came to E! it was a much different network. It was bigger and it was cooler. Now it’s just sad,” Handler said on the March 5th installment of the Howard Stern Show on Sirius XM Radio, as she was launching a 40-city standup comedy tour while promoting her new book. “They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no idea. Everything they do—it’s just a failure.”
Calling the cable channel “a sinking ship,” Handler complained that “there’s no support system. None at all.” She said that when her production company put on After Lately, a weekly, behind-the-scenes faux reality show in the spirit of The Office, “they put no marketing behind it. They don’t help you.”
Handler—whose average viewership has fallen from a high of over 800,000 in 2010 to the current under-600,000 figure (still a robust rating for late-night cable)—blamed the 2013 acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast, E!’s owner when she joined the channel.
“When they merged and Comcast bought everything on NBC, now they’re worried about the other networks. E! is like an afterthought,” she told Stern. “E!’s just become a sad, sad place to live—and that’s where I live, and I might need to get a new house.”
Handler, who hinted that she likes the idea of working with Netflix, the online service that produces big-budget series such as House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black, revealed that she has been in talks with other networks, adding, “I’m not close [to signing with a new outlet] but, yeah, we’re talking. There’s lots of conversations.” She told Stern she hopes to bring with her many of the 150-person staff she has at E! to wherever she lands.
It is unclear how seriously the folks at E! are taking these remarks, or even whether they will try to keep Handler—who admitted to Stern that “they think I’m the biggest bitch”—when her contract expires.
According to one theory advanced by a cable industry insider, Handler and Azoff are smart to rattle their sabers now when she’s hot, and can leverage her best-seller and high-profile comedy tour into a strong bargaining position. E! executives are putting great store by Azoff’s use of the word “intends” in the Hollywood Reporter piece--suggesting that intentions can always be altered by the right incentives.
Yet, in her appearance with Stern, Handler didn’t sound very persuadable. “At a certain point, how many conversations can you have about it?” she said. “Clearly, things aren’t gonna get better.”