Why Chelsea Handler Matters

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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Reuters

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.

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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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