(Every week on late-night round-up, one of our writers watches a week of one late-night talk show. This week, Phil Nugent watches Chelsea Lately. Next week: Meredith Blake on Watch What Happens.)
Chelsea Handler's talk show has been on the air for four and a half years, and has been written about in high-profile rags (and e-rags) for at least two, but it still has the feel of a public access show with an especially flashy graphic budget. That's not entirely a put-down. Public access shows, which almost by definition tend to be the work of people who really, really want to have their say about something, have been known to possess a raggedy buzz and intensity that cuts against the smooth glibness of most mainstream information dispensers, and sometimes a nationally broadcast show has actually managed to bottle some of that heat. Glenn Beck's Fox News show was basically a public access show—a camera, a man, his blackboard, his tinfoil hat—and whatever you think of the morality of giving a national TV forum to a middle-aged street crazy, the fact remains that the show was one of the major pop-political phenomena of this still young-decade. The major change in Beck's show from its premiere to its final episode was that its host seemed more and more pissed off at the ingratitude of his corporate masters, who in turn seemed increasingly embarrassed to be associated with him.
The biggest change in Handler's show is that she now gets much fancier guests for her interview segments than she used to. And although she's never going to be confused with Terry Gross as an interviewer, she brightens up when she gets to sit down across from a "name" movie actor Kate Beckinsale or Giovanni Ribisi. Not only does she welcome the chance to bask in their star shine, but it's a welcome reprieve from the panel-discussion part of the show, which often feels as fun and playful as a day spent mining coal. Why, when she has other irons in the fire, does Handler keep doing this show, when she looks bored to tears with it, and clearly has no interest in stepping up her game or doing anything to make it better? You might get the answer if you compare the amount of oxygen Glenn Beck was taking up in the national bull session after he retired his Fox News jersey, compared to where he was while his show was still on the air. Clearly a street crazy without a daily TV show is a street crazy with a diminished profile.
Handler may be less interested in her own show now than she's ever been, now that she's branching out to network TV with her sitcom, Are You There, Chelsea? If you haven't been watching this new experiment in confusion and slow torture, some clarification may be needed regarding the use of the pronoun "her". The sitcom, which has so far been leaning heavily on Handler's series of comic memoirs for its material, and whose title is a bowdlerized version of the title of her first book, stars Laura Prepon as "Chelsea Newman", a working-class young woman with a smart mouth and a healthy hedonistic streak; Handler, in a brown wig that looks like it needs an emergency trip to the vet's, plays the supporting role of her doppelganger's prudish, married sister. Handler has spent much of the past two weeks talking about the show, and has done her best to make it clear that she could have starred in it herself if she'd wanted to, but since it's based on her life, she thought it would be boring to do all that stuff she's already done again, on a soundstage in front of a live studio audience.
Just as the raw material of Handler's life was funnier on the printed page, where she had full control over it and didn't have to agree to see it watered down until it met the approval of the Standards and Practices Department, so is Handler herself funnier, and more fully awake, playing the sister than she is on her own talk show these days. She's the closest thing the sitcom has to a bright spot, and the possibility that, for all her jaded-ass airs, she may actually be enjoying doing something different lends a touching cast to how hard she's been working on her own time, trying to talk the sitcom into being a success. This week, she included a couple of Are You There's supporting cast members in her panels, and last week she had Prepon as her celebrity guest. They couldn't say enough nice things about each other, which is too bad, because Handler is most engaging (and believable) now when she acts as if she'd like to be able to pull a lever and drop a 500-pound weight on the head of whichever of her very special guests is irritating or boring her blind.
One of the panelists that night happened to Whitney Cummings, who might have wondered if Handler would get any of the special treatment she got when her NBC sitcom debuted last fall—that is, would there be a string of press notices basically saying, "Yes, without question, this is about the worst thing anybody's ever done, and every line and performance and everything about it makes you want to tear your eyes out and drive steel needles into your ear drums, and if the people responsible for it were all lined up and shot it would be a better world and the air would smell sweeter, and after they die those people will all go to Hell, but boy, I just hate to hear people criticize it, because I know deep down that they'd pretend to love it if they weren't so uncomfortable around strong women!" The high point of that episode was Handler's "WTF?" reaction to Cummings' saying, when the panel turned to the subject of Michelle Bachmann leaving the presidential race, that she didn't know who Bachmann was, but that she'd been diligent enough to Google her when she learned they were going to talk about her, "so you wouldn't think I'm an idiot." That moment, and the contrast between Handler and Cummings, went a long way towards summing up the tightrope dance that is Handler's persona. Because she's on E!, Handler has to pretend to care about the kind of things that E!'s viewership is thought to care about—or at least, to be up for making bored put-downs of those things, while acting as if she doesn't care about anything else. But unlike Cummings, she's not really a moron. She just plays one on TV.
The panels should be what Chelsea Lately is there for, the way that the mock-news segments are what The Daily Show is for (as opposed to the straight interview). Most nights, though, these segments are stone dead, and not because of the teensy-weensy inherent interest value of whatever's being talked about—the Golden Globes, the love lives of Johnny Depp and Arnold and Maria, like that. Whatever she's willing to do to stretch herself in other areas of her career, Handler seems to see these segments as a comfort zone to maintained at all cost. That's my best explanation for the staggeringly lame degree of comedy talent she's chosen to surround herself with. A few performers with sharp instincts and mean mouths on them slip through the net: this week, Loni Love did the sassy, black loose cannon thing that is so dear to Chelsea's skeevy heart, and Kerri Kenney-Silver got off some zingers. (After Handler played a clip of Kelsey Grammar tripping and falling in the middle of a speech, Kenney-Silver said that it bothered her that Boss Frasier was so much more famous than her that he could make news just by falling down: "I fall down all the time, and the only people it's news with is Child Protective Services.") But most of the people cluttering up the dais don't deserve to have their names mentioned anywhere but on a Talent Police hit list. The most memorable moments tend not to be the funnies they crack but the moment when Chelsea, who's been listening to their hacky shit for far too long, cracks herself. When one of them asks if she's ever eaten a deep-fried Twinkie, she shoots back, "No, why the [bleep!] would I?" and she does not sound as if she's kidding around. She really, really doesn't sound as if she's kidding around whem she reacts to one groaner with, "Really? Is that supposed to be a joke? What was that?" The camera briefly catches her victim with a look on his face that a blind man would read as saying, "I would so walk off this show, if there was anyone else in the world who'd have me on."
It doesn't really matter, though, whether the jokes are groaners, or even if it's not always clear that they're even jokes. Throughout the half hour, the studio audience reacts to everything as if the director had one steel-toed boot pressed against the controls to the "APPLAUSE" sign at all times, and the warm-up comedian is packing heat and possesses directions to their parents' homes. The nonstop, appreciative clamor reminded me of those old Garry Marshall shows where the audience would experience a collective applause orgasm every time Ralph Malph or Potsie would make his entrance. (They especially love it when Chelsea makes a naughty reference to her experience with intoxicating substances or, better yet, turns to the audience and accuses them of being high. If Cheech and Chong have one more reunion tour in them, this is the audience they want.) Handler's agreeing to have her material and persona sold at half-strength on something like Are You There, Chelsea? (which Handler assured us "gets better every week," in a statement she uttered at a point when exactly one episode had been broadcast) threatens her stature as an edgy, fringe media figure. At the same time, her own performance on that show, and her promotional appearances on other talk shows (like Piers Morgan's), show more commitment to doing something with her talent and success than than is evident on the one show that presumably has some control over. On E!, she's the female Howard Stern, a never-ending, self-promoting, self-congratulatory exercise in brand marketing, with no clue about what she has to market except her brand.
This is one of the few talk shows I've ever seen where the host and the celebrity guests sit facing each other without a desk or any other obstructions between them, and watching it, I realized that it's the only show of this kind I can remember where wide shots, where you can both of them from head to toe at the same time, predominate, instead of close-ups. What this means is that, during the dull spots, you can keep yourself entertained by admiring and comparing the host and the guests' shoes. If that's a sexist observation, I apologize, I did see some dillies, though.