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April 27, 2021
Online Originals

Sanding Down the Edges

In her new HBOMax special, Chelsea Handler opens up about her, well, "Evolution."

Cecily Knobler

Bold. Fearless. Strong. And of course hilarious.

These are words that often come to mind when one thinks of comedian/author/talk show host, Chelsea Handler. Whether it's one of her TV shows, her stand up, or her six New York Times best-selling books, Handler has year after year proven to be a force in the entertainment industry.

Even when her HBO Max special Evolution was described as deeply personal, it wasn't too surprising, as Handler has never been afraid to venture into forbidden territory. What makes this special different, is that Handler unraveled some of her deepest (sometimes even repressed) memories and emotions until they were purely raw - and then reassembled them for the world to see.

Through therapy (real therapy, not "trend" therapy") she has been able to rewire her mind to be less reactive and to understand, as she says herself, that vulnerability IS strength. All the while, maintaining her brilliant and yes, still edgy, sense of humor in a very intimate way.

Early in your special, you say "Los Angeles is a tricky place if you're going through a vulnerable time." Can you talk more about that?

I think what I'm what I'm referencing is just that everyone here is always on to whatever the trendiest form of healing is. Whether that's in the form of turmeric or yoga or ayahuasca. It's like everything just has so many cycles here, it's really hard to take anything seriously.

And I, being from New Jersey, from the East Coast, definitely was even more resistant than someone who grew up in California. I didn't grow up in an earthy, crunchy place, so for me to even hear these terms being thrown around like "journey" or "kale" - everything's a trend in this place. So it's hard to really separate all of that from actual therapy. Because it all just kind of bleeds together at a certain point.

Speaking of Jersey, you filmed Evolution there. Does it make you feel more grounded when you're on the East Coast?

I do feel more grounded. It's where I'm from, even though I've lived in L.A. now for probably 25 years, which is so weird to even say. And it's just less bullshit on the East Coast and a definite different vibe than L.A., which is very much its own, kind of ecosystem.

There was a running theme, whether it was the bad drug trip or yelling at strangers about Trump, and that was feeling a loss of control. Do you think control has always been an issue for you?

Impulse control, for sure. I'm very reactive. I have a very reactive personality. It was all about reaction, reaction, reaction, instead of response, which is more measured and thoughtful.

So if I had an impulse, I had to meet it immediately. And anger had to be expressed immediately and disappointment had to be expressed immediately. Instead of actually taking your thoughts, taking a minute, having time to contemplate that and then actually responding like a normal, sane adult.

Another theme was no matter how strong or independent you are, you talk about this pull toward men who could "save" you."(The scuba instructor before he took his mask off, Dan your therapist.) Had that ever occurred to you before Dan said it?

With Dan, I was under an agreement where I was paying him a transaction to reveal my shortcomings. Like you're in class, learning about yourself. That's how I took therapy. I'm gonna pay this guy to "fix" me and make me see myself more clearly. I think being really grounded in that just allowed that to happen. You're there for a reason. You're not there to evade, you're there to "get to the bottom of this."

Why do you think the Viktor Frankl quote you mentioned stood out to you?

It's something like "Stop thinking about what you expect out of life and start thinking about what life expects out of you." I had never thought that before I read it!

Some things you've gone through, like the sexual harassment accusation, could have made you resentful. But instead, you took the time to understand that intention has nothing to do with reception. Tell us more about that.

I think for people who are learning about marginalization and understanding what sexism and racism or any type of marginalization is, the first step you have to understand it that your intention is irrelevant. It's the reception that matters.

It's how someone is receiving what you're doing. And that's up to them. You don't have any say in the matter. You can't just say what your intention was, "I didn't mean to," because that's not the point. The point is how it was received. So for me, that was one of those things I never had to be told again. Just like the quote, once I read that, my perspective shifted, and never shifted back.

As you started sanding down the edges, and realizing as you said "vulnerability is strength," did you feel the change in baby steps or did the floodgates just open?

I'd say the floodgates opened, only because I was at a time in my life, I'd reached 39 or 40, where I was ready to hear it. I think if you're resistant to the process of therapy, obviously you're not gonna get a lot of out of it. I was at the end of my own rope, so I was able to hear it and absorb it rather quickly.

You mentioned not liking the word "triggers," but admitted to having them - from the orange to soup to cereal. Do you feel like you're responding better to them now?

Yes. I mean that's the thing about therapy too is it's retraining your brain. You're just basically rehabituating yourself to have better habits, instead of bad habits.

So before, I wouldn't think about Chet, my brother who died. I wouldn't want to talk about it, because I wouldn't want to put myself in a vulnerable situation. But what I learned through therapy is every time you're resisting it, you need to open it. You need to go, "Oh okay. Bad feelings are coming out. I have to sit down with it for five minutes."

That's all you have to give yourself. Five minutes, to sit there, be in pain, maybe cry. The quicker you accept these feelings exist, the sooner they extinguish. The sooner you can go through the grieving process.

Once I started learning about that, all these new habits like "Don't push your feelings away, don't go get a joint. Actually sit here with this uncomfortable emotion." And you do that enough times, and then it becomes your nature to understand, "Oh I'm having this weird feeling. Hold on a second." And not repress or oppress or suppress.

It can be really hard to sit in your feelings.

But say you wake up every day and you're smoking a cigarette and you stop that for five days. On the sixth day, you don't care! You're onto the new pattern. It's so easy to rehabituate your behavior. We all focus so much on diets and food, but it's really very easy if you just make a commitment to yourself to change your habits. Whatever your habits are that are bringing you down - to turn them around to something positive.

A video has resurfaced of you telling Piers Morgan off. Beyond comedy, do you ever envision yourself in any kind of political life?

No! I couldn't survive on that salary! I'm so horrified by the state of politics in this country, I'd never want to have any involvement with it. I couldn't control myself around men like that.

That's why we need you, but we also need you in comedy! To that end, what are you working on now?

I'm starting a new podcast called Dear Chelsea which is an advice podcast. And I'm announcing a stand up tour in the fall. And we're turning my last book, Life Will Be the Death of Me into a TV series with me to star in it.

So in other words, you're taking some time off? Kidding...!

Just gotta keep those juices flowing!

Chelsea Handler: Evolution is now streaming on HBOMax.


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