More Than Words: Chelsea Handler looks for meaning outside of the comments section

Chelsea Handler kicked off her “Uganda Be Kidding Me” stand-up comedy and book tours simultaneously Tuesday with a full day of promotional rounds in New York City, starting with ABC’s Good Morning America, taping an interview on NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and following that at night with a lengthy conversation at 92Y with Ronan Farrow. Farrow, like Fallon, are perhaps friendlier colleagues of Handler than the others, since they all work on TV shows/networks owned by Comcast.

In the morning, dealing with accusations pushed forward by George Stephanopoulos that Handler’s Oscar-night Tweets were over the line by linking congratulations to Lupita Nyong’o with her book, Handler wasn’t having any of it. “People are mad at me all the time,” she said.

Last night, in dialogue with Farrow, Handler opened up quite a bit more and reiterated a life-goal I’d heard her espouse a few years earlier in an interview with Rachel Sklar — that Handler wanted to talk about more serious things than the trivial tabloid headlines that dominate her popular late-night TV series, Chelsea Lately on E! She re-upped her contract, instead. Perhaps because she remains the lone female host on a late-night TV talker. Perhaps because she’s also the only late-night TV boss with a writing staff that’s half-female. Whether duty-bound or not, Handler is appreciative of the fanbase she has built up that has allowed her to enjoy success over the past decade. And looking forward, she said she’s inspired by women such as Jane Fonda.

“I take everything I think, with a very self-deprecating sense of humor,” she said. “This is ridiculous that I get to go on these vacations. By no means do I live a life thinking, ‘oh, this is generation after generation of having life at my fingertips.’ I get that, how fortunate I am. Part of the reason why I feel so lucky, because I don’t think that anything I do is particularly challenging…”


Handler said she was training Farrow how to deal with the pressure (internal and external) of hosting a TV show now that Farrow is on MSNBC weekday afternoons.

“I told him never to go online again. But it takes about three months when you have a show on the air, that you have to train your brain not to do that much damage to it. Because it’s impossible not to read bad things about yourself and not to get down, and not to feel — it’s such a horrible feeling. People pick you apart. They pick apart the way you speak, the way your arm looks. One arm is bigger than the next. ‘Is one of my arms bigger? Oh my God!'”

She added: “You can play into that or you can completely decide to remove yourself from that. And there are people who remove themselves a little bit too much, who have no sense of what’s going on in the world. So it’s important to read the news, but don’t read the news about yourself.”

So if you’re critiquing Chelsea Lately, don’t think you’re impacting Handler.

“If you’re going to have a show on television every day, it’s best not to watch that show and read any comments about yourself. It’s just a lose-lose situation,” she said.

Handler doesn’t understand how/why people comment online, anyhow. “I’ve never even Yelped,” she said.

“If you care too much about what everybody’s thinking then you’re not going to do a good job at what you really want to do,” Handler said, adding a minute later: “Whatever I do, whether it’s stand-up or a book or my show, I’m always catering to the 10 people in my brain who like me.”

As for throwing snark or shade at people in her stand-up or on Chelsea Lately? “I feel like I’ve gotten a lot less mean,” she said.

There’s also a line between celebrities or people aspiring to be famous and making themselves the show, and those who are innocent bystanders or victims.

“If you’re Miley Cyrus and you’re running around the country dry-humping a piano, everyone is going to talk about it. So that’s kind of her own doing,” Handler said. “If you’re somebody who’s going through a terrible divorce and you’re really having your heart broken, and your kids are growing up and reading this in the paper — that’s mean. That’s not nice. So, there’s a difference between your behavior. If you’re putting on a show and people are criticizing you…that’s kind of the world you’re living in. If something happened to you, and people are making fun of it? I think there’s a little bifurcation there. There’s a difference.”

Handler also spoke about her childhood growing up in New Jersey as one of six siblings, losing her older brother in a fatal accident when she was 10, having neighbors worry about her because of her parents, and making up stories to overcompensate. “I spent a lot of my childhood getting attention the wrong way,” she said. “I was acting out to try and get back what I had lost.”

On her E! show, she still looks forward to a time when that’s not her main gig. “There’s only so many years you can talk about Justin Bieber,” Handler said. “I don’t give a shit about Justin Bieber…and I can’t pretend that I do.”  Her staff is 50 percent women, she said, because “I’m a woman so I relate to other women.” Kind of the same philosophy that finds so many white male TV hosts hiring white male writers. So. Ergo. “I want a woman to take over my show so I don’t have to do this stupid job anymore. I want more women in late-night. That would be great for me. That would be great. I want more people to do that. Anything I can do to help that.”

Writing books allows her to follow another of her idols. “I was inspired by David Sedaris, because I just loved to laugh by yourself,” she said.

“Everyone’s a fan of laughing, obviously, hopefully…I love to laugh alone. Like, I love when I’m watching television or a movie, or reading a book, and I catch myself laughing. I just love that feeling. It’s like a little kid, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m having a great time alone!’ And when I read ‘Barrel Fever’ and when I read ‘Holidays on Ice” — I’ve read many of his books, probably all of them — and I thought, ‘Gosh, if I could just do this.’ And then I had no idea you could write a book and just put disparate essays. You could just write a series of essays that aren’t really joined or anything. It’s not like writing a novel. Which I could never do. I mean I would do, if somebody put a gun to my head. But I don’t want to do that. I just thought, ‘Oh, wow. This is a formula I could,’ I could write essays. Anybody could do — you could do anything. I mean, you can do anything you want. You just have to do it. You have to sit there. You have to get up every morning, and write, and have people who know better tell you how it’s going to work, and give you advice. And I just did it. It’s luck. It’s just complete luck. It’s not like I’m some literary genius! All I wanted to do was make people laugh. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted people to be able to be in a situation alone, open my book, and go, ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe she just told us that!'”

But back to the TV show, which she continues to think about every time her contract comes up for renewal and negotiation. “I definitely don’t feel challenged…whether it’s that impressive of a job to anybody isn’t really up for discussion. The fact is that I do it over and over and over again,” she said. Her work ethic keeps her going. As does her thought about her nieces and nephews, and others who may look up to her. “It’s about setting the right example. Not just resting on your laurels and getting a paycheck. I don’t want to live my life like that.”

In that regard — as well as in supporting causes — she finds Jane Fonda as an inspiration. Handler said Fonda was in attendance at last night’s 92Y talk. “She’s just fearless,” Handler said of Fonda. “I love the way she lives her life. She’s unapologetic. She says what she means and she means what she says. She’s straight. I like people without guile. That’s inspiring to me.”

Handler’s book title, “Uganda Be Kidding Me,” has a timely reference with the African nation passing anti-homosexuality laws. But it also prompted Handler to think of how the state of Arizona here at home almost did likewise. “I thought about canceling my show there,” she said.

Handler said she gives money to causes she believes in, even if she might not have the time to volunteer, too. “There are a lot of famous people who don’t want to have opinions about things,” she said. “That makes me so irate.”

“You have a booming voice,” she said. “If you find just one cause that you want to help, be loud about it!”

You can watch Handler’s whole 92Y conversation with Farrow here (actual introductions start after the 24th minute):

Chelsea Handler’s “Uganda Be Kidding Me” is out now:

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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