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$uccess On Her Own Terms
December 5, 2016
As a stand up comedian, bestselling author, and on TV, Chelsea Handler is brash, outspoken, outrageous and fearless. On her new breakthrough Netflix show “Chelsea,” she has complete freedom to be funny – or not
Chelsea Handler after receiving The Luminary Award on Dec. 4 in downtown L.A.
This article was written for a tribute book honoring Chelsea Handler as she was awarded The Luminary Award for Career Achievement by the Los Angeles Press Club at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
A VOICE FOR HER GENERATION
A few weeks before the recent presidential election, Chelsea Handler stopped visiting her social media except to post promotional items. She consciously avoided reading any of the comments.
Handler was under attack from fans of GOP nominee Donald Trump, who she had repeatedly put down while actively supporting Hillary Clinton. “I’m sure everybody is saying ‘die, get out of here. Nobody likes you.’ So I stopped looking.”
On her Netflix show in October 2016, during an interview with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, Handler declared that she would move to Canada if Trump was elected. She later said she had bought a home overseas (in Spain) and would move there, adding that she wasn’t the only celebrity planning an exodus: “A lot of us are going to want to leave the country.”
Handler didn’t leave but insists she was sincere when she made that threat. She reversed herself the first day back at work after the election. “The people that work in my office, mostly Millennials, were saying ‘you have to stay,’” recalls Handler. “I said, ‘I can’t even do a show. I’m leaving.’”
“They said, ‘you can’t leave’,” she added. “’You’re our voice. You’re the person representing us. We need you now more than ever. We need you to tell everybody were going to fight and not quiet down,’ and if you move to Spain, that’s completely irresponsible.”
Handler indeed felt a “sense of responsibility,” adding that, “there are a few million people out there who want to get their information from me and are trying to understand this and figure out a way forward. I want to be there for them.”
So Handler stayed on at Netflix to finish her documentaries and the first 90-episode season of Chelsea, a talk show that is a breakthrough in how it is done, how it is distributed and for its creative purpose.
Chelsea Handler on the set of "Chelsea" where she is regularly accompanied by her dog Chunk, although she has recently threatened to leave him home. She said he has gotten so cocky he now goes into the audience and puts his butt in people's faces.
SHE HAS COMPLETE CREATIVE FREEDOM AND FINAL CUT
It is rare enough to have a woman fronting a late night talk show but there has never been one quite like Chelsea. A stand up comic, author, actress and veteran of several previous talk shows, Handler has cut an unprecedented deal that gives her complete creative control and pays her $10 million a year (per TV Guide).
The three weekly shows are distributed to Netflix outlets in about 190 countries, and are available on demand for binge watching. Episodes are about half an hour but some run longer than that. Her opening monologue is as likely to be about a medical or cultural matter as a comedic joke-fest.
“It’s nice to be given that license,” said Handler, “to be able to make the show I want and not have them inhibit my creativity. In the beginning I said I want the show to be many different things. Sometimes a dinner party. Sometimes a focus on another country. Sometimes hilarious. Sometimes serious. Sometimes in the studio. Sometimes not.”
During the two years after her landmark deal with Netflix was announced but before the first show aired in May 2016, she was pressured, criticized and endlessly second guessed about her plans.
“Everybody looked at me askance,” she recalled, “and said, ‘its not going to work. It’s not traditional.’ And when it was reviewed they said it was like every other talk show, but it’s not. That’s not my vision…I wanted to create a show that was not on television and I think I have done that.”
Handler on "Chelsea" with another outspoken comedienne, Sarah Silverman
Throughout her career as a stand up comedian drawing thousands to huge venues, as a best-selling author of five books, as the host of Chelsea Lately (2007-2014) on E! Entertainment Television, people have ether come to love the outspoken Jersey girl almost to the point of obsession, or hate her, which is why she stopped checking social media.
NETFLIX WON'T REVEAL RATINGS BUT HANDLER SAID THEY ARE "ON THE UPTICK"
Netflix doesn’t release ratings for Chelsea (or other shows) but it has been renewed, and Handler said, “They’re very happy with it. It spiked in the beginning and then went down a little, but ratings have started to spike a little bit more. We’ve been on an uptick the last few months.”
Through her often-brash comedy, her penchant for unfiltered commentary on almost everything, and her emotional connection with audiences, Handler has emerged as a quirky, often funny, sometimes angry voice for the younger generation, and those who refuse to grow old.
That is why the Los Angeles Press Club presented Handler the Luminary Award for Career Achievement at the 2016 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards. According to the board, the honor, “pays tribute to deserving members of the Entertainment Media,” noting that Handler is “one of the most successful figures in entertainment today.”
The board cited her new show Chelsea, "the first program of its kind for the global on-demand generation. She tackles today’s tough issues with the same acerbic wit and fearless curiosity we all know and love.”
The award is special to her, said Handler: “I’ve never been a critical darling so its not like I’ve gotten a lot of these. So yes, it’s an honor to get any award. I would love to get an Emmy or a Golden Globe, if we qualified. But I’ve resigned myself to being a person who doesn’t get a lot of those so it’s nice.”
Handler frequently wears costumes and goes on location for her comedy
Her show and her life have nearly merged over the years. By choice she has never married or had children, obsesses over her weight and looks, and treats her staff (some of whom are longtime friends or relatives) as her big extended family and remains a self-described “party animal,” who likes her cocktails. One of her two rescue dogs, Chunk, goes to work with her and can be seen wandering the set while she interviews a star or an expert on climate change.
HANDLER SAID HER GOAL IS TO NOT "FEEL LIKE AN IDIOT"
She no longer does stand up comedy and has no plans for another book but still reads voraciously so she can ask smart questions - and to fill a void. “I didn’t go to college,” explained Handler, “so I’m constantly over-compensating for that absence. I want to know as much as I can so when I talk to people, I don’t want to feel like an idiot.”
Being independent fuels her passions. “I view getting married, settling down and having kids as not appealing to me,” said Handler. “It never has been. I look at my friends with kids and love them but don’t want to get up in the morning and get a kid ready for school. I want to get up and read the New York Times and play with my dog.”
“I want my own life and I’ve got it,” added Handler. “I’ve got tons of friends. I have the most fun. I go on vacation and act like an idiot, and I don’t have anybody to answer to and it feels nice.”