Why Chelsea Handler Matters

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The comedienne's new sitcom premieres tonight, but she's already made her mark on television by being the first woman with a successful late-night show.

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Chelsea Handler is not a businesswoman. To paraphrase Jay-Z, Handler is business, woman. The New Jersey-born comic is conducting an all-out entrepreneurial assault on American mass media. And winning.

She's written four bestselling books, mostly detailing  her drunken sexual escapades and dysfunctional family. Three of those books went to number one on the New York Times' bestseller list. One of them, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, debuted at number one, and her national stand-up comedy tour in support of the book raked in another $10 million. She has her own publishing imprint, and her own production company, Borderline Amazing. She's been on the cover of Playboy, posing for a non-nude pictorial inside, and Forbes named her one of the World's Most Powerful Women.

Not too shabby for a self-described "drunken slut."

Now the alleged 36-year-old is invading primetime. Coming out of the bullpen as a midseason replacement for NBC, Handler is bringing her boozy, floozie, queen-bee-catty-bitch persona to sitcom-land with tonight's premiere of Are You There, Chelsea?

A sort of reverse-engineered Cheers, the show stars Laura Prepon, another brash, buxom Jersey girl, best known for her role as a convicted serial killer in Karla. Kidding. Prepon, immortalized as "Hot" Donna Pinciotti on That '70s Show, plays Handler's alter ego, Chelsea Newman. She is a wise-cracking, hard-drinking, happily promiscuous, one-of-the-boys barmaid who gets a virginal new roommate, Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus). Handler, channeling a Phyllis-era Cloris Leachman, plays her own older sister.

Like Handler herself, the show's humor is raunchy, and goes for crotch-grab laughs far too often. The pilot has punchlines about chlamydia, dry-humping, and "lady wood," for instance. But the show isn't outlandish compared to other network comedies. Like, say, Two and Half Men.

There is also an undeniable sweetness—a sense that the actors are at least trying to connect as characters, rather than just standing around on stage delivering quips and zingers. As opposed to Whitney, another NBC show, moved from Thursday to Wednesday nights to partner with Handler. That's probably because, also unlike Whitney, Handler's show has an actress instead of standup comic in the lead role.

Whatever becomes of her sitcom though, Handler's main base for her assault on American pop consciousness will remain Chelsea Lately.  Her gossipy, bawdy nightly talk show on the E! Network has seen its ratings rise each year since debuting in 2007,  with an accompanying rise in the lushness of her sets, and a once-C-minus guest list that has risen to a solid B-plus.

Last week, still giddy with a new contract that will keep her on the air through 2014, Handler announced that Chelsea Lately would be moving into bigger digs—the same studio where Conan O'Brien shot his version of the Tonight Show.

Conan didn't exactly build a legend in that sound-stage before getting shuffled off to Turner, and pointing out that O'Brien shot there sounds like a Handler dig. It is, but not at Conan, despite her well-known virulent anti-Gingerism. She was slamming the network executives who ignore her. 

All Handler has done, after all, is build a successful late night talk show on a basic cable channel that had never had one. And she did it in an era when the late night talk format is supposedly doomed, as a woman. In fact, as the only woman.  Not just now, either. Or recently. Pretty much ever, save for short-lived shows starring Mo'Nique and Joan Rivers, in the entire history of American television. Yet, for all this, you almost never heard her name mentioned along with Jay, Conan, Dave, Craig, and the two Jimmys during the latest round of late-night talk wars.

Through her books, talk show, and now as portrayed by Prepon in primetime, Handler has made herself the preeminent voice of post-feminist young American womanhood, shouting down that sappy Carrie Bradshaw. Hers is the same voice as Whitney, and 2 Broke Girls on CBS. Emancipated, bold, caustic, and often crass—the  voice of a generation that grew up as Mean Girls, who identified with Samantha more than Carrie on Sex and the City,  and who made Bridesmaids a smash.

The show itself has a standard opening monologue, followed by a panel discussion with Handler's pals. She closes with a deskless, shoe baring, one-on-one chat with the day's celebrity guest. Her humor is raw, no question. The woman mentions her own vagina at least five times an episode. She's sharp, but not vicious. When W Magazine called her the "insult queen" it was an insult to Lisa Lampanelli. Handler certainly does love calling Snooki a slut, for instance, and making jokes about Ryan Seacrest's frosted tips. But she always smiles while she does it. Self-deprecation is an essential part of her appeal, too. She loves calling herself a bimbo before anyone else can get a chance.

Though she is unconvincing with political material, she does relationship humor beautifully, and banters with the best of them. Her greatest and unparalleled strength, though, is Hollywood gossip. She clearly loves celebrity culture, unironcially delighting in the high-school-drama-writ-large, but she has also mastered Hollywood's star-making machinery, and so can strike an elusive balance between taking Hollywood too seriously - as do shows like E.T. and The Insider—but also not merely mocking  celebrity culture as an outsider, like on Tosh 2.0, TMZ, and Talk Soup

Maybe she can maintain that balance long enough to write a dozen more bestsellers. Maybe the sitcom will be a smash, too, and live on forever in syndication. Maybe she will even take her talk show to a  network when her current deal expires. Or maybe something truly miraculous will happen, and she will get some company. Maybe someday, somehow, some network executive somewhere will look at Handler's success and finally decide to give another woman the chance to hostess a late-night show of her own. 

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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