Kurt Iswarienko/Netflix
Geoff Johnson/Netflix
Greg Gayne/Netflix
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April 12, 2017

In a New Groove

With a mega-deal at Netflix and a commitment to “something compelling,” Chelsea Handler is groovin’ in a new talk show - 30 episodes per season, streaming globally - and “being a really, really loud voice” politically.

In 2014, when Chelsea Handler ended her popular E! talk show, Chelsea Lately, would you have expected her to be diplomatic about it?

Handler’s appeal is all about the fact that she is tough, unapologetic and seemingly without filter. So why wouldn’t she tell the world that after seven seasons of quasi-interviewing, quasi-hazing famous people, she just wanted more?

“I was just like, ‘This is so dumb,’” recalls Handler, who was quoted as saying — among other things — that she didn’t want to be on the same channel as the Kardashians. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to be in this medium, I’d better do something compelling, something I can look back on and be really proud of.’”

That something turned out to be a deal with Netflix — reportedly worth $10 million — that included a quartet of docu-specials, a special based on her stand-up comedy (Uganda Be Kidding Me), a late-night talk show called Chelsea and Handler’s characterization of her competition as “not interesting.”

What followed was the Chelsea Does series (smartly directed by Eddie Schmidt, who executive-produced with Morgan Neville), the early parting of ways with Chelsea showrunner Bill Wolff and some visible floundering when it came to the talk show’s form and content — until Handler found her groove in politics.

Chelsea — season two drops April 14 — is a mix of pre-taped segments, foreign trips and, while one or two of Handler’s dogs wander around the set, interviews with high-profile guests.

Some of the sit-downs feature movie stars, but the more intriguing ones offer the likes of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, then–California Senator Barbara Boxer, then–New York Secretary of Education John B. King, Chelsea Clinton and Chris Anderson, a curator of TED Talks.

She doesn’t reserve her activism for television, either. On Instagram, she’s one of President Trump’s persistent detractors. (He’s no fan of hers either: in 2012, he tweeted @chelseahandler, “Stop trying to get your hotelier boyfriend back — a lost cause — he can do much better!”)

On a recent morning, emmy contributor Margy Rochlin visited her new offices at Hollywood’s Sunset Bronson Studios. More than a political gadfly, a vigorous Snapchatter and the author of five best-selling books, Handler — in black yoga pants and a Michael Jackson T-shirt — looked like a woman desperate to vanquish a mystery illness.

“We just filmed in India for two weeks,” she said, downing a small bottle of Kor, an immune booster, then disappearing briefly with a nasal spray.

Following are excerpts from their conversation:

Last season your talk show was 30 minutes long and aired three days a week. This season you’ve switched to an hour-long format on Fridays only. What inspired the change?

Our shows kept going longer and longer. Then after the election, I really wanted to do thematic shows. We’d been able to do thematic shows before, but it was sporadic. This way, I can do an entire hour on climate change, on Native Americans, on whatever. I’m sure there will be interviews within the show that aren’t necessarily tied to the single theme. But I want to have stronger themes.

Give an example.

Last night we shot a dinner party about education with Rashida Jones, who went to Harvard, and Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory , whose mother and sister are both teachers. My best friend, Mary McCormack, who went to Trinity, was [also] there and so was Gaby Hoffman, who went to Bard. I didn’t go to college.

It was people from different backgrounds, educationally, and we talked about the merit — does [a college degree] still hold the same merit as it did before? Who enjoys it?

Rashida loved school. She didn’t want it to end. And as soon as I wasn’t legally required to go [to school], I was like, “I’m getting the hell out of here….” I work so hard to be well-informed. I read everything to overcompensate for the fact that I didn’t go to college. I’ve been a big reader since I was a kid.

Can you draw a line between not having a college degree and wanting to use your talk show to educate?

Not going to college, I wanted to make sure I knew what the hell I was talking about. At a certain age, you’re supposed to know how government works, the difference between the Senate, the House and Congress, how a bill gets made and what gerrymandering is.

A lot of people don’t know that. I didn’t know that until I was 35. Some things I just learned last season on my show. So as far as making it an educational show with a lot of humor, that’s what inspires me.

How do you get your news?

When I was growing up, my dad made me read the New York Times and Boston Globe every weekend in my room and then write current-event reports. At the time, I hated it. But to this day, I read the New York Times every single morning. The actual newspaper. And he instilled that in me.

I’m obsessed with the news. I try and watch Fox News once a week. I watch CNN nonstop. I watch BBC World News. I try to see both sides.

Your style of speaking is very idiomatic. How did Netflix tackle the challenge of translating your show into more than 20 languages?

They had, like, 40 linguists working on it for six months before I even launched season one. They had to watch all of my old shows to pick up the way I say things. If I say Pikachu, they need to know that I’m talking about my vagina. They have to pick up on all of my nuances and understand what I’m saying. I do not envy them. They must be so sick of my voice.

There’s an international glossary of Chelsea Handler-isms?

Well, there’s never been an international talk show before. We always say goodbye to a different country every night. When I have foreign actors on, I try to get them to break down the country they’re from. Like Edgar Ramirez broke down Venezuela for me. Diego Luna talked about Mexico. Craig Ferguson explained Scotland.

A streaming international talk show is an experiment both for you and Netflix. How does your show fit into their big picture?

I think we’re learning together. A lot of people come up to me and go, “We miss seeing you on TV,” and I’m like, “What? I’m on Netflix. I just did 90 episodes.” So, yes, they’re still trying to figure it out. But I have faith in them because they get it. The awareness level definitely changed toward the second half of the season — more people were watching and the ratings were going up.

Hold on. Netflix shares their top-secret ratings information with you?

No, I don’t get ratings. They just say, “It’s doing well!” or “It’s steady!” or “It’s going up!” No specifics. More like, “You’re doing a really good job!” or “Amy Schumer’s episode was huge!”

You can’t say, “See you tomorrow,” at the end of your talk show because viewers watch them out of order. What other adjustments have you had to make?

There’s a whole way that it lives on the Netflix site. There are 90 episodes up from the first season. If you’re just coming to my show, it’s like, “Where do you start?”

I told [Netflix], “Let’s take those down. Season two is different.” So we’re constantly talking about what’s right for the show versus what the Netflix model is — plus the show didn’t get to where I wanted it to be until about a quarter of the way in.

Why was that?

We had a rocky start because I had a showrunner that I didn’t want. He didn’t get it or me. He was still around when I started and I wanted him gone. I need to have a really clear head space — because I drink heavily and put a lot of chemicals into my body. [Laughs] And with this show, there’s not a cast. There’s only one person I need to get along with . So it threw me off my game.

Then what happened?

I said, “Bye,” and I said to Sue Murphy, “You’re the showrunner.” She [was an executive producer on] my old show, Chelsea Lately. She was already here [as a supervising producer] and she gets me. I can ask her anything: “Is this funny? …Is this too much?” I trust her.

That’s what you need in a showrunner — someone whose opinion you can rely on. She’s also a former stand-up comic. I’ve known her for years. At a certain point, I said to her, “I’m not feeling it. I know I’m not doing a good job. What am I doing wrong?”

And her answer was…?

She said, “The thing people like about you is that you don’t give a shit. You say whatever is on your mind. And right now? You are giving too much of a shit. You care too much. You’ve got to let it go.” She’s like, “You don’t have time to have your feelings hurt. Do your job.”

The next Monday we did the show and she said, “There you go. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly who people want to see.” And she was so right. And once I clicked in, I didn’t click back out.

How did you come up with the idea of letting your dogs, Chunk and Tammy, roam around on stage?

They were there one day, and I thought, “F—k it. Just let them come out,” and that was it. Chunk’s being replaced this year. He was a little too active. Once he peed on the [stage], right behind Sarah Silverman. Tammy’s more sedentary. She’ll sit next to me and not get up. So she’s going to be the star this year. I want it to feel like my living room, and that’s what would be happening [in my home].

Who are you not interested in talking to?

The Kardashians. Lindsay Lohan or any Real Housewife. People like Ann Coulter and even Piers Morgan, they’re incendiary just to get attention. I’d rather speak to a real ideologue — like [Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan. I’d love to know who he is, what he’s thinking. I’d ask him, “What matters to you? Because I can’t tell.”

What kind of boss are you?

I’m not a very traditional kind of boss. I’m a bad influence on everybody. I’ll be like, “Let’s go to lunch, have three cocktails, then come back to work.” Whereas my executive producer will be like, [sternly] “Do not go to lunch with Chelsea.”

What are your best leadership qualities?

I’m fun. And I hire people to do all the shit that I can’t do.

If you had to state a goal for this season of Chelsea, what would it be?

For me, it’s just being a really, really loud voice right now, and not getting tired, and really sticking my neck out. This year was seminal. I thought, obviously, Hillary [Clinton] was going to win and we’d be done talking about that. Now I feel like it’s more important than ever to focus on galvanizing people, [encouraging them] to get involved. Help them understand local elections and looking down-ballot.

I feel like I have a responsibility: I have a platform, I should use it well and be on the right side of things. Our biggest audience is 18-to 34-year-old women. I want to help people find out how to get involved in local politics and their community. It’s important and it feels good to do it.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2017

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