Many comedians root their humor in the images they’ve chosen to project. The premise of Jack Benny’s comedy was that he was cheap. Rodney Dangerfield didn’t get any respect. Phyllis Diller was unsightly. Woody Allen was a nebbish. Back when Chelsea Handler was at least kind of funny, the gag was that she was an immensely spoiled, lazy, obnoxious, narcissistic, immature, bibulous, pill-popping bimbo who had an exceedingly low attention span and enjoyed flaunting her considerable wealth — which, among other things, enabled her, by her own account anyway, to control the lives of her friends and force them to accompany her whenever she decided, on the spur of the moment, to take a weeks-long vacation on the other side of the planet.
The difference between Handler and all those other comics, however, is that while their images were manufactured, hers wasn’t. Yes, she played up her personality for laughs — she got the joke — but she really was a boozy tramp who was proud not to be able to speak a second language or to find any place on a map. In fact, her political incorrectness knew no bounds. One of the features of her hit late-night show, Chelsea Lately, which aired on the E! network from 2007 to 2014, was a Mexican dwarf named Chuy whom she treated less like a sidekick than like a piece of bric-a-brac.
That was just the tip of the iceberg. In her first book, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea (2008), she jested about the unattractiveness of Star Jones (of The View); joked that her father, “being the Jew that he is, loves to get something for nothing”; mocked homeless people with pets (“How can they have the nerve to beg for food when they have a perfectly delicious dog standing right there?”); and wrote that she was in no rush to meet the two Third World children whom she sponsored (“Guatemala and Zimbabwe weren’t exactly on my top ten countries to see list”) and that she found it stressful to lie awake at night wondering if the kids “had been able to score some rice that day.”
If old white guys are in charge, they’re certainly helping Chelsea Handler to advance from one unearned triumph to another.
When her stand-up special Uganda Be Kidding Me came along in 2014, she was still in classic form. She made jokes about Nazi death camps and her fear of being raped by a dolphin. She told black people in the front row to “smile so I can see you”; described Alaskans as “Asians with a touch of the Downs”; said that she’d vacationed in Uganda because “I’ve always wanted to know where rappers come from”; and recalled telling her friend Shelley, who’d accompanied her to Uganda, that there was no reason to worry about being raped by the hotel staff early in the trip: “If they’re gonna rape us, it’s gonna be on the day we leave.”
In Are You There, Vodka?, Handler called herself an “adolescent/immature adult”; in the Uganda special, she admitted: “I’m not a real adult. I’m a child.”
Well, now she wants to be an adult — and is desperate to be seen as one. This new phase started around 2015, the same year Trump announced his presidential candidacy. And, quite frankly, she’s not very good at it. She doesn’t really seem to get what it means to be an adult. She seems to think it means mindlessly embracing Democratic Party talking points, apologizing to black people for her own whiteness, and attacking white men for being white men.
One of the first signs of this transformation was Chelsea Does (2016), a series of four tiresomely earnest Netflix documentaries about marriage, Silicon Valley, racism, and drugs. When Handler resumed appearing regularly on late-night TV in May 2016, it was with a “serious” series, also on Netflix, entitled Chelsea. It was crashingly dull and lasted just under a year and a half.
In 2019 came another Netflix documentary, this one entitled Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea. It opened with Handler flitting around her plush Bel Air mansion. While a maid did housework in the background, Handler told us that she now realizes that race played a big role in her climb to show-business success: “I was white and I was pretty and I had a big mouth and for some reason that was rewarded in Hollywood…. I never questioned anything because I thought I deserved everything. I was clearly the beneficiary of white privilege.” But now she’d seen the light: “I want to know how to be a better white person to people of color without making it a thing.”
She didn’t seem to realize that by making a whole documentary about the subject, she was “making it a thing.”
The next hour was quite a painful slog. Handler discussed white privilege with a couple of minor black celebrities, with a group of USC students, with “anti-racism consultant” Tim Wise, with three Republican women, with a representative of an organization called Color of Change, and with four or five girls in Black Lives Matter T-shirts. She traveled to Georgia to ask white people about the systematic suppression of black votes in that state (a phenomenon that she’s been convinced is absolutely real), and — in the program’s climax — went to Somerville, New Jersey, for a reunion with the black drug dealer who’d been her boyfriend a long time ago and who’d since spent 13 years behind bars for armed robbery. She now felt that the reason their lives took such wildly different paths boiled down to one thing and one thing only — color. (This part of the show could well have been entitled Chelsea Goes Slumming.) Back in Bel Air, she exclaimed angrily, “I haven’t seen a black person in this neighborhood, ever!” So move.
Anyone who suspected that Handler really doesn’t get the race thing would have felt validated by her appearance on The Tonight Show in October 2020. According to Wikipedia, Handler told host Jimmy Fallon that she’d responded to 50 Cent’s endorsement of Donald Trump by telling the rapper that “he was a black person, so he couldn’t vote for Donald Trump.” (This came five months after Joe Biden’s statement, during an interview with Charlamagne tha God, that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”)
Also in 2020 came an HBO Max special, Evolution. Handler’s first line was about the setting, a New Jersey railway station originally built for immigrants: “Remember when that was cool?” Within a minute, she was calling Trump “that f***ing baboon.” To be sure, she wanted us to know that she hadn’t become one of those West Coast types who are into kale and “artisanal deodorant” and silent retreats in Topanga Canyon; in addition, she did a lot of material that established that she was as familiar with hard drugs as with hard liquor. But she returned soon enough to Trump and his “racist” supporters.
She also confided that she’d just read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning — thanks to which, she maintained, she was now focused for the first time not on what she wanted out of life but on what life expected from her. Alas, the fact that this reversal was inspired by a white man’s book didn’t prevent Handler from almost instantly resuming her male-bashing — and then segueing into a lecture about white racism and, after that, a heartfelt tribute to Andrew Cuomo, an apparent exception to her man-hate. It didn’t help that all this self-contradictory nonsense was sandwiched between braggadocious anecdotes about skiing in the Swiss Alps and scuba diving in French Polynesia.
Handler concluded Evolution with the story of how her older brother Chet, to whom she was devoted, died in a fall in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when she was 9 years old. I haven’t seen all of Handler’s oeuvre, but I’ve seen much of it, and never has she shown as much emotion as she did here. Her brother’s untimely death may well explain why she’s spent her adult life pursuing selfish pleasures, avoiding real emotional commitment, and withholding empathy; her account of it made the last part of Evolution quite moving.
But any hopes that her recognition of the impact of Chet’s death might effect a real change in her life — as opposed to the ersatz change she’d undergone under the influence of woke ideology — were dashed last month by an interview with Variety published under the headline “Chelsea Handler Is Sick of Basic White Guys Ruling the World.” (Yes, white guys — like her beloved brother Chet.) “I have a lot of self-respect,” Handler proclaimed. “I feel very much like a woman now, whereas up until I was like, 42 years old, I felt like a girl.”
And a key element of her new grown-up self, she contended, is that her stand-up act “now always has meaning.” She seemed to admit that it was indeed Trump who’d turned her: “I’ve always been politically aware, but Trump sent me over the rafters.” What, Variety’s interviewer asked her, is “the biggest threat to women”? Answer: “Republicans.” As for talk shows nowadays, she said, “Everything is white and old and boring.” Asked about losing a Grammy to Louis C.K., who’d spent a year or two out in the cold after being #MeToo’d, she replied, “It just shows you that old white guys are in charge.”
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Well, if old white guys are in charge, they’re certainly helping Chelsea Handler to advance from one unearned triumph to another. Speaking of which, the point of Handler’s Variety interview was to promote her new Netflix special, Revolution, the culmination of her 117-date “Vaccinated and Horny” tour. Yes, her stand-up special is (like Russell Brand’s 2014 book) actually entitled Revolution. For the most part, it consists of the same kind of material she’s always done, only weaker. Handler — whose first book, My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands (2005), recounted some of the highlights (up to then) of her coital history — still talks about sex as if she’s 27 and not 47. What makes the whole thing especially unsettling is that in close-ups she looks at least 67. In fact, she looks a lot like Jane Fonda, who’s 85.
Handler has never married. She’s never been a mother. This was never a major topic of her comedy. This time, however, she lingers over it, quipping that she “should get a carbon credit” for not having had children. She wants us to think that she finds her childlessness amusing. I don’t think she does. From there, she tiptoes further into PC territory. She mocks “fat Republicans.” She goes after people who criticize COVID masks. Then she announces that she’s about to start in on “straight white men” — and everybody cheers. (Handler’s mostly female audiences seem to love everything she does.)
Suddenly any hint of humor evaporates. She rants about the “imbalance of power” between the sexes. She insists that when men speak, the “first words out of their mouth” should be “I’m sorry.” In pure j’accuse mode, she declares: “As a society you owe us all a f***ing apology…. You’ve been raping us since the beginning of time!” And no man, mind you, is exempt: “If you’re not an asshole, you know an asshole!” In any event, she doesn’t want to hear any more “complaining about how hard it is to be a white guy.”
All this anti-male stuff is strikingly at odds with the lavish praise that Handler offers up, early in the same special, for her boyfriend — and the director of Revolution — comedian Jo Koy. How does that add up? It’s no surprise to discover online that the affair with Koy, which began in September 2021, ended in July 2022 — presumably after Revolution was taped. Well, good for Koy — it looks as if he’s dodged a bullet. Which raises the all-important question: will Handler’s vicious male-bashing drive away future sexual prospects? Or is the supply of male feminists who enjoy taking such abuse sufficent to satisfy even Chelsea Handler’s healthy libido?