In recent days, Chelsea Handler has not only pronounced the late-night talk show format deeply boring: “Monologue, first guest, band, da, da, da.” The longtime former host of E!’s Chelsea Lately decried post-primetime television as a kind of marketplace saturated with indistinguishable product.
“There are 10 or 11 guys doing what used to be done by two guys,” Handler told the New York Times, implicitly criticizing the male talk show fraternity of Jimmy Fallon, James Cordon, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien and Seth Meyers. “That’s not interesting.”
With Handler’s new series Chelsea, which began streaming on Netflix early Wednesday, May 11, the acerbic comedian’s stated aim was to galvanize, if not outright disrupt the genre. No sidekick. No set formula (except for a live studio audience). And a whole lot of the funny woman appearing out of her depth, learning about herself, her guests and current events shaping the world in something close to real time.
To that extent, episodes of Chelsea will be taped two days before they air, three times a week over 30 weeks, in what amounts to a sharp departure from the kind of scripted programming the powerhouse streaming service has broadcast to date. “This is new turf for us,” Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos told USA Today.
So is this new show revolutionary and disruptive, as promised? Not really.
Not that funny
On Chelsea’s Wednesday debut titled “Appetite for Instruction,” however, the tart-tongued, vodka-loving, avowedly childless sexual libertine didn’t so much explode the late night talk show milieu as color a little bit outside prescribed lines. The results were uneven: front-loaded with some funny material that progressively lost steam over a series of interviews.
Things kicked off with Chris Martin, the lead singer for Coldplay, mistakenly eulogizing Chelsea by way of introduction. “You gave it your all,” Martin said. “If only your all had been good enough. When I heard your Netflix show was ending, I finally understood the ‘good’ in goodbye.”
Then the hostess delivered some characteristically piquant opening remarks that served to encapsulate her attitude governing the new show. “I know this seems like a monologue. But this is not a monologue,” Handler said. “This is an explanation. And if you don’t know the difference, you can log out or log off or f—- off or whatever… I’m a late night television host that doesn’t want to be tied down by time or television or even by hosting.”
“Ok with appearing stupid”
In overview, Handler explained the show will feature remote segments from “amazing countries such as Japan, Mexico and Florida” and include interviews with people from across the cultural spectrum. “Friends, comedians and scientists,” but also “politicians, entrepreneurs, random children, old people and my black driver Billy.”
And she re-emphasized a willingness to embrace her own ignorance in pursuit of enlightenment. “I think people are afraid of asking too many questions because they are afraid of appearing stupid,” said Handler. “But I’m OK with appearing stupid. Knowing you are stupid is the first step to becoming smart. And I don’t want to be comfortable. I want to be uncomfortable. And I want to make a lot of other people uncomfortable. And if you’re not comfortable with being uncomfortable, it’s OK because I’m gonna do it for f—-ing everybody!”
Fails the test
That much was achieved with her first guest, John King Jr., the secretary of education at the US Department of Education whom Handler had enlisted “to help assess my level of stupidity.”
King and the hostess played a game called “Edumacate Me” that involved Handler answering randomly selected general interest questions. She correctly named the three branches of government but flubbed naming all seven continents and was unable to explain why there are 365 days in a year or 24 hours in a day without significant prompting.
Her second guest was the multiplatinum-selling Cuban-American rapper Pitbull. Introducing him as the “founder of the SLAM Academy in Miami”—a vocational charter school focused around sports marketing he established in 2013—Handler, 41, grew unexpectedly solemn. “Tell us why education is so important to you,” she asked.
“My mother told me when I was young,‘Nobody’s dumb. It’s all about how you learn,’” Pitbull said. “I’m a hands-on type of guy. So that’s how we came up with SLAM…To be able to teach these kids when they’re young, that they can do anything they want in their life. But nobody can hold them back from it.”
Drew Barrymore on the couch
Handler introduced her last guest, actress-producer Drew Barrymore, as “a friend.” And within seconds of settling upon the interview sofa, the two were toasting with Barrymore’s boutique vintage rose wine.
Staying on topic, the hostess soon led conversation back to the theme of education. “Did you ever go to school? You were famous when you were seven,” Handler said.
“We went to, like, three hours of set school,” Barrymore said.
That prompted Handler to basically contradict her opening remarks. “Do you feel like you had to overcompensate because you didn’t go to school?” she said. “I mean, I read so much just so people think I have an inkling of what I’m saying. ‘Cause I’m so scared of anyone calling me stupid. That’s my biggest fear. You can call me fat—well, I don’t like fat either. Stupid is just the thing. I don’t want anyone to ever say, ‘She’s an idiot.’”
Then, capitalizing on her personal connection to Barrymore, Handler got the actress to open up about her recent divorce from ex-husband Will Kopelman. “When you break up with someone, you’re like, ‘Yeah, that didn’t work.’ [But] when you get divorced, you’re like, ‘I’m the biggest failure. This is the biggest failure,’” Barrymore said. “It’s so shameful and hard to actually go through that. Even privately.”
She added: “It’s a tough time. You’re being put on a cheese grater going, ‘This wasn’t the plan.’”
Not upping her game
Wanting to wrap things up on a more upbeat note, Handler brought Pitbull back out to help her deliver a rap on her Snapchat account. But instead, while the talk show host stood atop a revolving table, the hip-hop superstar played with the zipper running up the back of her black pencil skirt. “That wasn’t a great tutorial,” Handler said.
“I want to thank Pitbull for not upping my game,” she said. “You were of no help to me whatsoever.”
So based on the first episode, Chelsea isn’t likely to disrupt the late night genre. But then, since Netflix never reveals its viewership numbers, that may not matter very much to Chelsea Handler or Netflix.
Here’s the promo:
Chris Lee is a former staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He covers entertainment, culture and business in Los Angeles.