Chelsea Handler made headlines two years ago when it came out that she was leaving her E! show, “Chelsea Lately.”
It was the culmination of some unhappiness on Handler’s end with E!’s programming and the pop-culture focus of her talk show. She was yearning to get away from the Kardashians and introduce herself and her audience to new, more useful knowledge.
Soon, she brokered a deal with Netflix that included a stand-up special, four documentaries, and a talk show. In the two years that followed, she ticked off the components of the deal. The stand-up special and documentaries came along, but where was the talk show?
Little did we know that through her other projects, Handler was retooling the talk-show concept for Netflix. It would be a mix of stand-up, sketch comedy, classic late-night interviews, and taped documentary-style segments.
Now, four months after the show — titled simply “Chelsea — debuted, Business Insider talked with Handler about its early days, what she decided she wanted to say, why she “didn’t really have a lot of respect” for her E! job, and who she wants to speak to this time around.
Jethro Nededog: What was it like in the beginning when you were developing the first talk show for a streaming platform like Netflix?
Chelsea Handler: I feel like I was digging into something like unknown territory for me, and trying to kind of do something that was breaking with the format of a traditional talk show. And making a show that was different each night, and that wasn’t traditionally a monologue, and then the guest, and then a music guest, or whatever. I wanted it to be different in the fact that you could turn it on, and you could find yourself watching a dinner party about religion. Or you could turn it on and find an episode that’s all about my visit to Russia. Or you could turn it on and then there are in-studio guests. So I just definitely wanted to do something that would keep me interested and compelled.
Nededog: How did you handle the criticism?
Handler: I think that any time you do something it takes a little bit of ramping up. In the beginning, it took me a little bit of — kind of just stabilizing yourself to figure out, “OK, what’s working? What’s not working?” And how do you just kind of let all the noise not affect you going forward with your mission statement? You’re putting yourself up for critical bashing any time you try to do something different, and you have to say to yourself, “OK, that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t matter. I’m going to move forward. I’m going to do what I want. I know that I can do this.” And that it’s going to become the show that I want, without listening to all the noise. So that’s the hardest part, but once you get into the groove of that, and once you get your feet underneath you and things start to click, then you know you’re on the right path, and you’re doing the very thing that you set out to do.
Nededog: How do you feel about where the show is now?
Handler: So, in terms of that, I think it’s come a long way since we launched — I mean, a long, long way. I feel like we clicked in about like six weeks in. Or I clicked in, personally, on a performance level. And now it’s just everything keeps falling into place… We get to do all these really cool, nontraditional ways of talking to celebrities. I think there are certain celebrities that are great in-studio, and certain celebrities you can get a lot more out of in different environments. And certain celebrities, you’re going to get more out of talking about things that aren’t related to them being a celebrity. And so, for that component, I’m really happy about everything we’re doing. And then also, you know, getting to deal with all the politicians, and getting to deal with science people, and getting to deal with sports and athletes, and learning about things that are out of my comfort zone. I think it’s always fun television for anybody to watch.
Before I was like, ‘Oh, f— this, who gives a shit? I don’t care about anything.’
Nededog: What’s the difference between this and your E! show when it comes to the viewing audience?
Handler: I loved my show on E! for a while and I had fun doing it, but I don’t think I respected the position that much and that’s ultimately why I wanted to leave. I didn’t really have a lot of respect for what I was doing, so it was hard for me to respect the job. And even though it was a silly job and who needs to respect it, at the end of the day you want to be doing something that you’re really proud of. And here I feel like I am doing something much different.
I’m much more interactive online, on Twitter, on Facebook with all the fans and everything, because I feel like there is something of value in what we’re doing. And it makes you want to interact and show your appreciation to the people that are really supporting you and interested. And when they say they’re learning, and like, “Oh my God, I learned more about this election by watching ‘Chelsea,'” you know I love that. That’s exactly what my intention has been. So I think it’s just a different level. I mean I’m obviously a little more mature — not too much more — but more mature than I was when I did that show. I feel much more responsibility with this, whereas before I was like, “Oh, f— this, who gives a shit? I don’t care about anything.” I care a little bit more now about the message I’m sending.
Nededog: How has the process of booking guests for the show evolved?
Handler: The first week of shows, you’re trying to launch it, so you have to get the really big, big stars on. And yes, it’s definitely gotten easier. But also, I had a show on for so long, so it was more about getting those politicos to come on, because they were like, “Well, wait a second. She doesn’t have a reputation for doing anything serious.” So it was about getting like Nancy Pelosi, and Barbara Boxer, and yesterday I filmed something with ex-governor Jennifer Granholm, from Michigan, with Larry King, we did this debate prep. We have like those kind of heavyweights — they needed to see the show before they came on board. And that has definitely changed. So those people are always coming to the show, which is really, really important to me, because it’s an edification for me. I like the idea of constantly learning about the things that we think we know, and we don’t.
Nededog: You don’t hesitate to talk about your personal and family life, and your politics. Do you ever think about pulling back?
Handler: No, I don’t think that. I think if I get self-conscious at all, I think that it’s a vicious circle. And I think you can’t ever do that. And even if you do something, you’re like, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” I think apologizing is a vicious circle, too. You don’t want to get in the habit of apologizing for anything you’ve said.
You don’t want to get in the habit of apologizing for anything you’ve said.
I know myself well enough to know when to stop. And if you don’t know that, then you don’t really have business being on TV anyway, then you’re Donald Trump. So I don’t look back and go, “Should I have done it?” You just try to learn from your mistakes and try to be responsible with what you’re saying, and my opinion is my opinion, so it’s not waffling that often. So you kind of know what you’re saying is how you feel, and as long as you’re confident in the fact that you’re going to alienate a certain group of people — I’m ok with that. I’ve been doing that my whole life, before I was a celebrity.
Nededog: Do you think there’s some truth to that argument that media have helped Trump’s rise?
Handler: Yes, absolutely! Absolutely! I mean, giving him airtime is just like, why? We can’t. We shouldn’t even be talking about it as if it’s a real situation. I was just listening this morning to Ashleigh Banfield on my way into work on CNN, and she’s just going off. Like it’s funny to see how all these journalists just start losing it, and are like, “No. Forget about being a journalist. This is not ok for this to happen.” I don’t understand how Anderson Cooper always keeps his cool. I’m like, “Hey, buddy. We gotta make sure this doesn’t happen. This is terrible for the world.” So I understand the journalistic, professionalism aspect of it, but I don’t have that kind of professionalism, and luckily I don’t have to uphold myself to that.
Nededog: You don’t have to worry about ratings since it’s Netflix, but would you ever have Donald Trump on as a guest?
Handler: Yeah, I don’t need to have him come on for ratings. I’m sorry, that’s not going to be my motivation for something like that.
Nededog: I’ve become pretty aware of how busy you are. But there’s a perception that you left E! and now you’re doing a relaxed schedule with just three shows a week.
Handler: All I can say is I get up earlier than I ever have, and I work harder than I ever have. E!, I was there for three hours a day. Here, I get here at like 7:30. We have a production meeting at 8:30… So it’s not like I’m chillaxing. And I’m happy to work. I like working. You know, you get run down, and you’re exhausted, but it’s good exhaustion. It’s the best kind.
Nededog: I think it’s hilarious how you talk about not having kids all the time because it feels so anti-American in a way.
Handler: It’s very anti-establishment.
Nededog: And it kind of throws people off a little bit, every time you say it.
Handler: Yeah, I’m just saying what so many people are thinking.
Nededog: I noticed that you’ve developed a sort of uniform for the show. It’s typically a band tee and something nice on the bottom. Was that your idea?
Handler: Well, I have a person who dresses me, but I just decided to go with one look and stick with it. I want the show to be about something instead of what I’m wearing. The last show it was all over the map. You know, you’re in one outfit the one day, and then you’re dressed a completely different way the next day. It’s just trying too hard. So I just wanted to find something that was like cool and simple and that I could maintain. And luckily, there are enough band t-shirts to last for the next seven years. So I found something and I’m sticking with it.
Nededog: Is it important to you that you like the band?
Handler: No, not at all. That doesn’t even factor in.
Nededog: Recently, you’ve started closing the show by saying bye in different international languages. Netflix has really been focusing on the international market. Did they ask you to do that?
Handler: No, I was just paying attention to social media and people saying hi from different places. I mean it’s always been on my mind since they announced that they were going into 190 countries. I just want to be mindful of it, because it is such a big platform. And it’s nice to acknowledge those places. You know, Mexico was so appreciative when I did an episode dedicated to their country. So I like to just make sure we’re saying hi to all the different pockets of the world where people may be watching us. And also, part of the show is like trying to talk about different countries and talk about what’s going on in different parts of the world, so they can feel included in the conversation. What I’ve been surprised most about is how interested other countries are in American politics. I’m always like, “Really?” It’s so fascinating that they care so much.
Nededog: In your mind’s eye, do you see who your audience is? Who are you speaking to?
Handler: No, I mean, I’m sure it’s tons of women. I know that. It’s definitely like the 18-to-34 demographic of females, but then there’s a lot of mothers and daughters. There’s a lot of gay guys. There’s a big gay audience, obviously. And then I think older men — old, old men, like in their 80s.
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