Interview: Chelsea Handler takes quickly to light-but-serious Netflix chat show
Actress and comedienne at home with edgy, irreverent format that mixes pop culture, celebrities, and world news and is beamed to 190 countries. She’s learned not to be afraid to ask questions of heavyweight guests
Chelsea Handler walked on set to enthusiastic applause, accompanied by her furry dog Chunk, wearing a snug vintage T-shirt tucked into high-waisted suede trousers, and five-inch pencil heels. Without skipping a beat, she launched right into her monologue, segued into a chat with guests Jay Leno and Gillian Jacobs, asked consumer protection chief Richard Cordray about how to avoid being scammed by mortgage companies, and introduced a fun segment about renting her house on Airbnb to a colourful family from the Philippines. A quick 30 minutes later, that was another episode of Chelsea, her new Netflix talk show, wrapped and ready to go.
The show broke ground in a number of ways when it launched in May. It was the first current affairs-type show from Netflix, which is best known for its wildly popular original shows such as Orange is the New Black and Narcos, as well as for its vast offering of films and previously aired series.
Like other popular talk show hosts – Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert – Handler weaves in celebrity interviews with current affairs and personal slice-of-life segments. Given her multipronged experience – she’s a best-selling author, comedienne, actress – her new role seems especially well suited to her: she has a natural curiosity, is quick on her feet, makes people feel at ease.
“I wanted to take my time and let my ideas marinate and figure out which direction I wanted to head,” Handler says about her show shortly after the taping ended, in her dressing room on the Sony studios lot in Los Angeles.
This is not her first go-around with Netflix: she previously did a four-part series for the global streaming service called Chelsea Does, where she took on subjects as disparate as marriage, racism, drugs and Silicon Valley, and in a tone she now describes as “more serious, thoughtful and thought-provoking”.
“I wanted to see how I could implement that into a nightly show, while still keeping the humour, keeping it light, making sure audiences stay interested,” she says.
The result is an amalgamation of pop culture, celebrities, and world news, rendered in an edgy, irreverent tone: new episodes are uploaded three times a week, translated into dozens of languages, and beamed into 190 countries worldwide (China is not yet among them).
Recent episodes have included British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay discussing the effects of Brexit, and reality show stars such as Khloe Kardashian and Clay Aiken dishing on another veteran of the reality show circuit, Donald Trump.
“We try and have a nice thread throughout the show, and sometimes they have themes through the episode,” she says. “Two of our guests today, Jay Leno and Gillian Jacobs, both do stand-up and comedy. We loosely tied that together, which lends itself to a broader conversation rather than talking to people one on one, although sometimes we’ll do that as well.”
Handler says her approach is to see the show as something of an education for herself: she skipped university (apart from a semester studying Russian history at community college) but says that if there’s something she wants to learn more about, she’ll pull in the right guests and ask the right questions.
It’s a long way from her first talk show foray, Chelsea Lately, which ran on the E! network for seven years until 2014, and which was heavily predicated on celebrities, with sometimes raunchy interviews with the likes of Justin Bieber, Emma Stone and Drake. In her latest go-around, she’s had guests such as former speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and former congressman Barney Frank.
“In such a short amount of time I’ve learnt so much,” she says. “And from reading social media, it seems that so many people have, too. It’s a great way to use this kind of platform, and it’s more meaningful to make a difference in peoples’ lives.”
Handler recalls being especially nervous before speaking with Pelosi, and initially being scared to ask questions of other heavyweight guests (like openly wondering, when interviewing a noted economist, why if there was a shortage of money, the government couldn’t just print more).
That, in fact, is one of the key things she’s learned: to not be afraid to ask questions, even at the risk of appearing ignorant, because she says if she doesn’t know the answer to something, it’s likely that millions of other people don’t either. After that, it’s a matter of just being herself – occasionally brash, often vulnerable, always funny.
“It took me four or five weeks to get back in my groove,” she says.
“I had to remember why I do this, to get the train back on the tracks. It was an adjustment period for me. It was a different stage, different crew and staff. But once I clicked in, I haven’t clicked back out.”