by pat howard

CABLE | “Lately,” I’ve been thinking…

In Cable on May 6, 2009 at 11:48 pm

A year ago, when flipping idly past E!’s fledgling late night half hour Chelsea Lately, I wondered just who this sassbucket thought she was and what she possibly could’ve done to merit her own TV show. It wasn’t until I managed to catch a whole episode, then two, then a week’s worth over the course of last summer, that I acquired a taste for Chelsea Handler.

Now Chelsea Lately is required daily viewing, the only talk show for which I have a season pass. I’m not the only latecomer to Handler’s party; ratings continue to climb since a recent move to 11p/10c. And Handler’s second book, “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea” was a hit on the New York Times Bestseller List.

This West Coast transplant (by way of New Jersey) cut her teeth on Oxygen’s pedestrian (and yet somehow syndicated) hidden camera show Girls Behaving Badly. After a string of guest appearances and a short-lived E! sketch show, Handler got the go-ahead for a show that teeters on the brink of toppling late night television.

Handler is a rarity among late night hosts: a woman who can hold her own. Even more impressive is that she’s been given the leeway to prove herself. Like Joan Rivers before her, Handler takes no prisoners, skewering celebrities, guests, and herself. Last week, she even took several shots at Rivers and her daughter Melissa, whom Handler feels has equine features.

The relaxed style of the roundtable (think The View – affected seriousness + libations) is often the scene of freewheeling discussions and joke contests. It is very much a process for Handler and the comedians she surrounds herself with, and they’re not shy about admitting it when jokes or topics don’t work.

Often, the roundtable’s success depends on what assortment of staffers, regulars, and special guests land in the three chairs next to Handler’s. But the chemistry fires more often than it fizzles, and there’s always her Mexican assistant, Chuy, to deliver mispronounced non-sequiturs for comic relief.

I’ll admit I rarely watch the interview segment of the program unless the guest is someone I like or hate enough to compel my interest. Those who do appear on Lately are often B-list or below (think reality contestants and cast members of other E! shows), and even they are not immune from Handler’s tongue (she did indeed harass Michael Lohan about his “camel balls.”)

But the monologue nuggets that open and close each show are usually spot-on, and it’s definitely worth the slimy sheen of celebrity gossip to catch the roundtable (much in the same way I watch The Soup instead of anything on VH1).

Wanda Sykes will venture into late night this fall on Fox, replacing Mad TV on Saturday nights. I can’t help but wonder if Handler’s success has made Fox comfortable with putting a woman out there again; it can only help that E! has renewed Lately into the next decade. The time has certainly come. And as Jay Leno moves to primetime and Letterman’s numbers level off, it’s also time to acknowledge that a whole new audience is in play after dark.

The hidden danger of success for this kind of show, as Kathy Griffin can attest, is that it is premised in part on its outsider status, and the credibility of poking fun at the celebrity bubble comes in large part from not consorting within it. While Handler’s star rises and the caliber of her guests improves, the show’s true measure of success will be whether it remains true to its snarky heart.

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  1. I forgot to mention the biggest visual crime “Lately” presents: Chelsea’s wardrobe, which is often appalling. If Handler does continue to seep into the mainstream, at least she’ll be doing it at the top of some worst-dressed lists.

  2. I agree, Chelsea needs to pull her look together! I truly love the show and think she’s the best but her attire is painful to look at!!! She needs to fire her current stylist, if she even have one. Last year she looked so much better. Her hair was more blonde and looked styled, she wore make up…….what happened?? I don’t get it!

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