‘Chelsea Lately’ has had unlikely impact on the world of comedy

08/26/2014 12:00 AM

08/25/2014 9:42 PM

At 11 tonight, the late-night E! talk show “Chelsea Lately” wraps up a seven-year run with a one-hour live broadcast.

Show host and ringleader Chelsea Handler is moving to the streaming service Netflix. Handler signed a deal for an October standup special, four 2015 “docu-comedy” specials and a new talk show to begin in 2016.

The talk show will include Handler’s “opinions on topical entertainment and cultural issues, as well as her signature guest interviews,” Netflix announced in a release.

That sounds more Bill Maher than “Chelsea Lately.” But the house of “House of Cards” always will be more polished than the house of Kardashian.

So tonight is the last night of that special, four-nights-a-week, shaggy-dog mix of celebrity commentary, weird skits and unusual candor that is “Lately,” a show beloved to the relatively few who watch it (about 570,000 a night in 2013, but most in the key 18-49 demographic). It also is a showcase not just for its star but for other talented comedians, many not quite telegenic enough to ever make a “Saturday Night Live” audition callback.

Consider this an appreciation for “Chelsea Lately,” a requiem for a determinedly lightweight show that nonetheless made an impact, first by prompting at least one belly laugh per night and, second, by reflecting the culture of its moment.

“Lately” always felt spontaneous despite a rigid format of two segments within its 30-minute run time: one in which Handler presided over a round table of comics commenting on celebrity news, the other a Handler interview with a celebrity promoting his or her latest project.

Except Handler barely mentioned the project. She would talk about the star’s love life, or an anecdote from his or her youth, thus sparing us canned quotes about lovely co-stars.

Calling a comedian original immediately invokes Lenny Bruce’s ghost or Louis C.K.’s stained black T-shirt. Comedians dubbed forerunners usually are male and rooted in darkness, or at least pain.

Handler, a movie-star-attractive woman with a show based on pop culture and a seeming desire to have the best time at any given time, doesn’t fit the accepted standard. Those other comedians, for instance, never had hair extensions.

Except she is a ground-breaker, to people who read her best-selling books (the latest is “Uganda Be Kidding Me”), watch her show and go out to comedy clubs.

Josh Wolf, a comic and “Lately” round-table regular, knows this because women approach him when he is out on the road, and tell him what Handler has meant to them.

“She really made it OK for a generation of women to say what they want, and be what they want, and to not let anybody put a label on you,” Wolf said. “I hear it from her fans – ‘She says what I have always wanted to say.’ ”

Handler, who is 39, wrote the book on “I don’t care what you think.” Actually, several books, starting with the 2005 sexcapade travelogue “My Horizontal Life.”

Handler unapologetically discussed her sexual needs on her show. That’s easy territory compared to her frequent expression of how much she never wants to have children. That’s still a taboo.

“She is just very honest and she is fearless and I love that,” said Micaela Pettigrew, 29, a Sacramento comedian and founder of the all-female improv troupe Lady Business. “I am very attracted to people who don’t play the stereotypical male or female roles.”

Pettigrew said she is sad “Lately” is ending.

“She is the only late-night female host, and the men are retiring and being replaced by more men,” Pettigrew said. She was alluding to the all-Y-chromosome musical chairs of Jimmy Fallon replacing Jay Leno, Seth Meyers replacing Fallon, Stephen Colbert being tapped for David Letterman’s desk, and now Broadway actor James Corden reportedly moving into Craig Ferguson’s slot.

“It kind of represents females in comedy according to ratios,” Pettigrew said of the late-night landscape.

Handler’s brand of honesty never has engendered enough serious praise. At best, she is grouped with Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin as Joan Rivers’ obvious comedic descendants. Because women comics are compared to women comics.

But nearly every other comic, male or female, seems studied next to Handler, who can appear genuinely cranky on air, hurrying along round-table comics taking too long to comment.

Handler always “stays in the moment,” Wolf said. “People will say ‘she looks bored.’ The reason is that in that moment she was bored. She never hid that from you.’”

But she does not seem mean, which always has been the alleged knock against her. Though she built her own comic persona on being brusque, no-nonsense and stone-faced, she is not so wed to that persona that she will not let genuine amusement through. She scolds her fellow “Lately” comics for not being funny enough, but also cracks up laughing when they are.

Handler has helped cultivate too many of her fellow comics’ careers to be considered anything but generous. Superstar Kevin Hart once dished on celebrities on the “Lately” round table. Whitney Cummings, who later would get her own NBC sitcom and co-create CBS’ “2 Broke Girls,” was a round-table regular. So was T.J. Miller, who now plays eccentric entrepreneur Erlich on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

Handler also developed a stable of regulars, many of whom also have written for her show and are as familiar to her audience as she is. They included Wolf, the baseball-capped voice of reason; Brad Wollack, a redhead with an adorable face and a malcontent’s disposition; the avuncular Chris Franjola; Sarah Colonna, freewheeling like Handler but not as caustic; unabashed pop-culture fans Heather McDonald and Ross Mathews; and Loni Love, surprise kisser of round-table colleagues and Handler’s only rival in tell-it-like-it-is truthfulness.

This exposure benefited these comics enormously, whether they were touring under the “Chelsea Lately” mantle or releasing their own books.

“There has been no other show that has done as much for comics since ‘Johnny Carson,’ ” Wolf said. “For whatever reason. I think mostly because the entertainment business has changed, and it is more of a personality-driven business, and she gave us an opportunity to show our personalities.”

Fledgling comics, like 26-year-old Diana Hong of Sacramento, saw the round table as something to which to aspire, in much the way their counterparts did Carson in the 1970s. Finding out the show was ending was “really disorienting,” said Hong, who started doing standup a year ago and will appear Wednesday at the “There Goes the Neighborhood” showcase at Punch Line Sacramento. The round table showed a comic’s chops, she said, “because it is commentary in one-liner form.”

Part of the joy of “Lately” was seeing Handler react with delight to round-table newcomers. Like Claire Titelman, whose shrill-voiced lonely-girl bit is a Gilda Radner character laced with Andy Kaufman. And Ron Funches, an unfailingly polite young man who speaks slowly, thus lending more power to his earthier observations.

You could see from their first appearances – a kind of audition process – that Handler approved. They became interesting additions to a round-table rotation that showed remarkable diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, body size and comic styles.

Over the years, Wolf said, Handler has taken “a lot of people that nobody else really believed in in this town and showed them to America.”

Round-table regulars who double as staff writers also appeared in sketches such as the recurring “Cosmo Theatre Troupe,” in which (mostly male) comedians dressed in experimental-theater black to offer dramatic readings of women’s sex tips from Cosmopolitan magazine. Each sketch ended with Chuy Bravo, who is a little person and Handler’s sidekick on the show, appearing in the frame in a director’s beret to say, “End of scene.”

“Lately” always had a loose feel, despite its fixed segments. But Handler took the wheels off once she knew she was leaving. Last week, she let the singer-songwriter Sia keep her back to the audience while being interviewed and performing a song. While she sang, Bravo sat on a swing above her, wearing a Sia-style blond wig.

Another segment featured Joel McHale, host of the long-running E! show “The Soup,” interviewing Handler. In this “exit interview,” Handler jokingly encouraged McHale to leave E! as well, and called her departure “a move to distance myself from the Kardashians,” the reality-show family that dominates E!

There is off the cuff, and there is Handler. The segment with McHale fascinated, in its lack of professional decorum and also because Handler’s Kardashian comment hit a cultural nerve.

When “Lately” started in 2007, the trend of pop culture comic commentary was cresting, via shows such as VH-1’s “Best Week Ever.” Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan – actual stars – provided plenty of fodder.

Now, more people get celebrity news from websites, also dominated by Kardashians. And Twitter offers celebrity commentary 24/7. So it seemed like the right time for Handler to leave “Lately,” before it became irrelevant.

But trends in entertainment coverage would not have affected Handler’s loyal viewership, Wolf said.

“I think her fans would have watched her for as long as she wanted to do the show,” he said.

For now, we loyal fans will not think about tomorrow, when there will be no more show. We will take a page from Handler’s books about her impulsive youth and think only about tonight. Because the finale is live, and there is no telling what Handler will do.

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