In Hollywood terminology, Chelsea Handler, in town for an October 18 fundraiser at the Paramount Theatre (click here for more info), is having a moment thanks to the success of her E! talk show Chelsea Lately, not to mention her two big-selling essay collections, 2005's My Horizontal Life and this year's Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. And yet somehow she found a few minutes to chat with Westword about life, love and skid marks in the following Q&A.
The conversation begins with Handler deflecting suggestions even among fans that she's got a pronounced mean streak. From there, she gabs about the self-deprecating aspects of her humor; her good fortune at finding a television platform that so perfectly fits the personality she's exhibited since long before she became famous; her efforts on behalf of organizations such as New Genesis, a transitional community for the homeless, which will benefit from her Denver show; the aforementioned skid-marks chapter in Horizontal, which she occasionally wishes she'd kept to herself; the prospect of getting more serious in future essay collections about topics such as the death of her mother; the minor liberties she takes in setting down anecdotes from her past for posterity; rumors about an upcoming sitcom deal; her barometer for what material works on Chelsea Lately; and the benefits of having a reputation for telling the truth.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Whenever I mentioned to people that I was going to speak with you, the reaction was pretty much the same: “I love her! She’s so funny – and she’s so mean!”
Chelsea Handler: Oh, great.
WW: Do you think you are mean? Or do you think people are confusing forthrightness with meanness?
CH: No, I don’t think of myself as mean. I just think of myself as stating the obvious.
WW: You’re just as brutally honest when it comes to talking about yourself. Is that one of the reasons you don’t see yourself as mean? If you’re willing to say the same things about yourself as you do about others, it can’t really be mean?
CH: Yeah, I would agree with that. If you’re going to make fun of other people, you have to start with making fun of yourself – and if you’re okay with doing that, it kind of gives you carte blanche to make fun of anybody else. Anybody who doesn’t get it and takes it too seriously or would be insulted by anything I would say are exactly the kind of people I would be making fun of on the show.
WW: Before you started off on your current run of success, were you pretty much as plainspoken as you are now? And are there differences between the reactions you’d get when you were the not-famous Chelsea Handler as opposed to the famous one?
CH: I’ve always kind of been this way, so it worked out perfectly. I never really set out to have this kind of show, but it wound up being the perfect format for me, because I’m really exactly who I am, and I don’t really have a filter. So it’s been a good thing for me. Saying other people’s lines doesn’t really allow you to have the same point of view as you can when you’re saying what’s on your mind.
WW: If you said the kind of thing to someone seven or eight years ago that you routinely say on your show, would the person be horribly offended – whereas today, they’ll laugh along with you?
CH: You know what? I don’t really know. I didn’t have that big of an audience seven or eight years ago. But I’ve always had the same personality, and it’s been received well by many. Although I’m sure there’s always people who don’t get it at all or think it’s hostile or mean. I think the important thing is not to really concern yourself with either review, but just to have fun doing what you’re doing. And usually people will be drawn to that.
WW: Well, anyone who thinks you’re mean may have to change their perception a little bit given that your performance in the Denver area is a benefit for New Genesis, a transitional community for the homeless. What was it about the organization that attracted your attention?
CH: I always try to do whatever I can for charity, especially when it’s a nice little flight away from California. I get offers like that a lot, and I don’t have a ton of free time, but I do what I can to devote my time to charitable causes. And if I can do it as a show, I can kill two birds with one stone. If I get to perform and have it go to something good, I’m always up for that.
WW: I recently got a chance to read both of your books, and they certainly give the impression that nothing in your life is off-limits – the "Skid Marks" chapter from My Horizontal Life being a prime example.
CH: That was one of my better moments (laughs).
WW: Is there anything you’ve written about to date that you wish you hadn’t, or that had unintended consequences for you when you did?
CH: That would probably be the only one.
WW: Were there any unintended consequences – like people keeping their distance from you?
CH: No, there were no unintended consequences. But if I had to say, “Is there something I wish I hadn’t written about?,” well, that’s not something I’m too excited about my boyfriend’s parents reading. That’s why I tell them the books are out of print.
WW: In the “Costa Rica” chapter of Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, you mention very briefly that your mom passed away. In the future, do you think you’ll try to deal with topics like that one in a more serious way? Or do you see your job to make people laugh – and so you may not want to go into those areas…
CH: I think as you grow as a writer, I think more things become appealing to write about. Now that I’ve established and I’ve had such success with this book, and the first book as well, although obviously there’s been much more with this book, it kind of gives you the liberty to go and grow as a writer and not be solely focused on making people laugh. Because you can also do that with more profound material and with more meaningful material. So I think I’ll mix it up a little bit more. Obviously my main goal is to keep people laughing. That’s what I enjoy doing a lot. But I probably will branch out more in the next book, I think.
WW: I understand that the next book is scheduled for 2010. Is that right?
WW: Have you already started writing some sections of it? Or do you know what the direction or theme will be?
CH: It’ll be in the same kind of vein as the first two books. It’ll be in that same kind of tone. I have a couple of chapters that didn’t make it in the second one just because I didn’t want it to be too long, and I like to maintain a third-grade reading level on everything I write. So I didn’t want to challenge my readers too much (laughs). But yeah, there are a couple of chapters that didn’t make it in, and I’ll probably talk more about my mom passing away and certain things that have had more of an impact on me throughout my life.
WW: There’s a little qualification at the beginning of Vodka that I didn’t see in my copy of My Horizontal Life, talking about how names and identifying characteristics have been changed. Is that something they’re putting on any memoir now in the wake of the whole James Frey A Million Little Pieces controversy?
CH: I would presume, yes. I’m not positive, but I’m presuming that’s why it happened and it didn’t happen the first time. Some publishing houses just have stricter legal rules than others.
WW: Since you cheerfully admit to being a compulsive liar, especially when you drink, what percentage of your books are absolutely accurate right down to the last comma or period?
CH: I’d say about 80 percent. The only things that are inaccurate are the names and the things that are explained in the beginning – that you have to change names and places. All the stories happened. It’s just a matter of when they happened, and sometimes I make two stories into one whereas in real life they happened years apart. Sometimes I’ll combine two stories to make one meatier story. But those are really the only liberties I took.
WW: When you’re out doing things in your everyday life and some opportunity comes along, are there times when you think, “I’m not really in the mood for this right now, but it would make a great chapter in a book?” Or does that kind of thought only occur to you after you’ve done something memorable?
CH: No, I don’t really set out to do anything in the hope of getting material. I think anytime you’re trying too hard to get material, it’ll kind of wind up biting you in the ass. Those circumstances usually wind up presenting themselves in a natural way. Most funny things happen when they’re supposed to, so I don’t ever try to push too hard for any of that.
WW: Now that you’re doing the show, are there funny incidents that come along every day? Do you never have to fear running out of material?
CH: You know what? I have so many stories from my childhood and my early adult life that I’m not really worried. I just have to put them together, really. There’s so much stuff that’s always new and happening, and you want to include the new stuff – but there’s also so many stories from my childhood that I still haven’t written about. It’s just deciding which ones will make the cut and which ones readers will enjoy the most.
WW: I know you’ve done acting in the past, and there are continuing rumors that you’re going to get involved in a sitcom. Is there any news on that front?
CH: No, there’s no news. I haven’t committed to do that at all. I’m not really sure. We’re just trying to work out the details of that. If it’s something that sounds really fun and exciting, then I’ll do it. But I haven’t committed yet.
WW: In some ways, has the E! show kind of spoiled you, because it’s more fun to play yourself than a fictional character?
CH: Yes, definitely. Plus, you know, I have to work everyday. It’s not like I have a ton of free time to pursue other opportunities, either. I love this show so much that I don’t really feel like putting all my efforts into something that has very little of my point of view in it. If it’s something that’s really fun and appealing and make sense, I’ll totally do it. But my time is pretty limited.
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WW: On Chelsea Lately, how much of the writing do you do yourself?
CH: We have writers, but a lot of it is improvised and a lot of stuff is just said off the top of my head. We have an outline, we have jokes, we create topics, we figure out what we want to talk about. But it’s all coming from me, so it’s got to be stuff I relate to, it’s got to be stuff I respond to, or otherwise the audience isn’t really going to be interested in it. I’ve noticed that if I’m not interested in it, they can tell that right away.
WW: Of course, when something’s not interesting to you, or if you’ve lost interest in it, you just come out and say it. Are you kind of the ultimate proof that honesty is the best policy?
CH: I would never say that about myself, but you can feel free to say it.