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February 3, 2010

Chelsea Handler: Funnier Than the Boys

Sharper, ruder, and ballsier than the competition, is the fiercely funny Chelsea Handler the salvation of late-night TV? Can't get enough of funny girls? MC rounds up the first ladies of comedy.

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Photo Credit: Art Streiber

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It's not easy, making Chelsea Handler laugh. As the host of Chelsea Lately, the E! Entertainment network's late-night talk show, the stand-up comedienne and best-selling author is as dry as a Belvedere martini. Sitting across from guests like the soon-to-be-incarcerated rapper T.I. or one of a squadron of Kardashians, she fires off questions in her big, sandpapery, Jersey-girl voice and barely cracks a smile. Her guests, on the other hand, are downright giddy. It could be because they don't often hear a petite and pretty blonde talk about flushing a "shadoobie" down the toilet, or they aren't used to fielding such incredibly frank and, yes, hilarious questions in front of a studio audience. Then again, it could just be their nerves. Handler, 34, may be one of just two women (the other is Mo'Nique) in the testosterone-heavy 11:30 time slot, but she's earning a reputation as its toughest and most original interview.

While the fellas of late night are busy giggling at their own jokes and getting into trouble with their "assistants," Handler delivers shockingly astute, tweezer-sharp commentary on the dubious culture of celebrity (on E!, no less). As a result, she's racking up a steadily growing audience in the coveted 18-to-34 female demographic.

"I'm into politics, and I love watching the heavier news magazine shows," Handler says. "But let's be honest. I'm on E! It's not what I do, and it's not what my audience wants."

Handler and her writing staff, which includes four other women and five men — a fairly gender-neutral ratio in the notorious boys club that is comedy writing — gather around a conference table at 9:30 every morning with a stack of tabloids and Web page printouts from gossip sites. In a matter of minutes, the room turns into a raucous shoutfest of jokes, each a little grittier than the last. The goal: to make Handler smirk, even laugh, and to write some of the freshest and most outrageous comedy on television.

Handler arrives at the studio office wearing white cutoff gym shorts, running shoes, a Kelly green Nike jacket, and a white baseball hat with a ponytail peeking out of the back. Chunk, her recently adopted rescue dog and frequent subject/guest on the show, is trotting along beside her. The walls of the hallways, the writers' room, the cubicles, the writers' offices — virtually every vertical surface — are plastered with photos.

In the writers' conference room, the staff has gathered with their morning coffee. None of them eat, except for Handler. She's snacking on a grapefruit the size of her head (she keeps a giant bowl of them in her office/dressing room) and a bowl of sliced turkey.

Handler is calorie conscious, but she has a well-chronicled weakness for vodka — her second book of first-person essays, which came out in 2008 and held a solid spot on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for 14 months, was titled Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. There are no fewer than 10 unopened bottles of the stuff in her office. For years, she's called out Grey Goose as her favorite brand, but she recently defected to Belvedere because "a friend told me that Belvedere has zero sugar in it, and that's all I needed to hear," she says. "So I called them up, and now Belvedere is sponsoring my upcoming comedy and book tour this spring."

Her third book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, hits stores in March. She will take a brief hiatus from taping the show and embark on a 23-city stand-up tour to coincide with book signings and appearances. It is in front of a live audience that Handler feels most at home.

After moving to Los Angeles at 19 and working the comedy-club circuit (she made the esteemed Montreal Comedy festival at 24), Handler got her big break in 2002 as one of the four hosts of Girls Behaving Badly, in which young female actors pulled public stunts and pranks for hidden cameras. In 2006 she launched The Chelsea Handler Show, a weekly half-hour sketch-comedy series that lasted for two seasons. But it wasn't until Ted Harbert, president and chief executive officer of E!, approached Handler about a talk show that she considered being a late-night host.

"I never really saw that coming," she says. "I didn't become a comedian to work this hard. But Ted, my boyfriend, who was not my boyfriend at the time, was saying, 'You need your own show. You have such a strong point of view.' But the only way I was going to be on E! was if I could make fun of E! and everyone on those shows. I thought, That would be a great job."

NEXT PAGE: INSIDE CHELSEA HANDLER'S WRITERS' ROOM


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