Chelsea Handler on Uganda Be Kidding Me and Why She Can't Leave Late Night
Handler waves on the set of her E! late night show, Chelsea Lately.
Chelsea Handler just released her fourth book Uganda Be Kidding Me -- fifth, if you count the book she edited that was written by her friends about her, called Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me. Lucky for us, she's stopping in Phoenix on her tour to promote the book, which kicked off in New York City on March 4 with an interview with Ronan Farrow.
Handler performs at Comerica Theatre Saturday, March 22, and, in anticipation of her visit, we chatted with Handler over the phone (on her birthday) about what she wants to do going forward and why she felt the time was right to speak out after Bill Carter's controversial New York Times piece on late night comedians, in which Handler -- the only woman in late night -- was mentioned only in parentheses.
So are you in L.A. right now, or traveling? I'm in L.A., it's my birthday today, so we just had a nice, fun day at work.
Why are they making you work on your birthday? I love to work on my birthday, it makes work so much easier. Not that the work I do is that challenging.
It's been just a week since your show's been on SiriusXM, how's that been going? I don't know, I'm not there, but I think it's going pretty well. People are pretty excited about it.
Right now they're just simulcasting Chelsea Lately. But eventually you're interested in-- Perhaps, yeah, I like radio, I love the format, I love every time I do radio, and I hosted my own hour for them and I was like, "Oh, this is easy. And then I wouldn't have to be in hair and makeup everyday. So I don't know. Who knows?
Does knowing that it's airing over the radio now change at all how you do your show now? No, not at all. I know want anything changed about the way I "broadcast" -- I use the word very loosely.
So now you're about to go on tour for your fifth book, is it weird to think it's been a decade since you published your first? Yes, it's crazy. I mean I cannot believe I even have one book, let alone -- this is the fifth.
So looking back to your first book, what were your hopes or aspirations for your career at that point? I mean, did you even imagine or desire where you're at now, or see yourself here? No, I mean I consider myself to be a pretty lucky son of a bitch -- I never really had a plan in general. I just wanted to get out of New Jersey. I had really strong opinions. I had a really big mouth, and I was told over and over again that that wasn't likable or attractive or cute, or that I should just be more girly or ladylike and demure, and I just wasn't interested in being that, I wanted to be who I was. And it's not that I'm not a girl. I'm very much a girl, but I have opinions and I wanted to share them and I wanted to state my case and I had opinions on everything that was going on in pop culture.
I have opinions on a lot more than pop culture, but right now on E! that's kind of what we focus on, and that's kind of what our audience tunes in for. But we've broadened our horizons in the past few months because I want to talk more about politics or sports or human interests or just funny stories that have nothing to do with anything. Right now we have so many politicos that are giving us so much material -- like Chris Christie and Rob Ford and Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner -- so I kind of just want to branch out and do stuff that's more challenging. Writing a book is always a really, really good challenge for me. I'm a really big reader and I really enjoy books, and I've been lucky enough to read books that really made me laugh, which I appreciate a great deal, and I wanted to kind of do something like that on my end.
So how did you pick the topic or the focus for this book? Well, I went to Africa and I had no intention of writing a book. And we ended up spending three weeks in Africa -- I hijacked my sister who was going through a divorce and moving -- I kidnapped her and told her she was only coming on one leg of the safari, and then I kept her knowing the whole time she was going to be coming on four trips. And then I kidnapped four of my friends -- I broke up with a boyfriend, and all of my friends when I break up with a boyfriend are like, "Watch out, we have to babysit her for six months until she starts dating someone else." Because I'm completely handicapped at this point, I don't know how to do anything for myself, because with the show, and the books, and all that -- you end up having so many people who do every little thing for you, you don't know what you're doing. I went to the gas station the other day to get gas and realized my car was electric. I mean, I have no idea how to take care of myself at this point.
So I go on these amazing vacations that are five-star safaris, and my friends aren't exactly going to say no, because obviously I'm happy to pay the way, knowing that it's going to be an amazing time. I had no idea I was going to get a book out of it. I started writing the book in Africa -- because I was up at four o'clock every morning because you can't sleep because of the jet lag -- I wrote the four chapters of Africa, and I thought I'm gonna stop, who knows if I'll finish this, and my editors caught wind that I was writing a book. I don't know how, I may have casually mentioned it to someone who told them -- and they said "Come on, come on, come on, we'll give you as much time as you want, just commit. Commit, commit, commit." And I said okay, and then they gave me a due date, and I had to go on eight more vacations.
Well, obviously, your books are hilarious, and everybody loves them, but as you're writing them, do you ever marvel at the fact that what you're writing, people want to read? You know, sometimes you think that, but you don't really ever let yourself get carried away to that degree, cause that's a tricky place to go for any facet of your life. So no, you assume that everything will do okay, and if it does great, then that's great. So yes, there's pressure once it's been a New York Times' Best Seller, once there's been three or four, or whatever it is, you think: Oh god, there's more pressure on it. But I just hope that I have a well-roundedness enough to know that if it's not number one or it's not number two that I won't have a breakdown in the middle of my day in my office, and have to go that night on E! with blurry eyes because I've been crying. I don't think I'm that type of person, I can usually take a laugh.
Did you intentionally take some time off from the last book? It's been a few years. No, I said I would never write another book -- I mean I really thought, okay, I have three -- and then the fourth one all of my friends wrote and I edited and kind of put together and picked the chapters, but no. It's hard to do with the show, you know, if I write a book I like to go on tour and go to all the cities. I love to go to Phoenix I love to go to Pittsburgh. I love to go to Detroit -- and I want to make sure I see my fans and I want to do the right thing by the publishers, and I wanna do the right thing by me. I like putting in a lot of work and effort, and having a good work ethic -- to me that's kind of paramount to anything else that you do, creatively you need to back it with just the right work ethic, so I do that, and it's an undertaking. Cause at first I said "Okay, I'll do a book but I'm not going on tour," and they said "Okay, okay, will you just do book signings,' and I said of course I'll do book signings, and I thought, well if I'm going to book signings, if I'm going to go to all these cities, I might as well do stand-up shows. It's a good muscle to exercise for me.
Do you have specific topics or themes that you want to talk about while you're on tour? Oh yeah, my whole life, what's happened to my life, the fact that I can't do anything -- the fact that I have five people working in my house every day and I don't even know who they are, the fact that I have an office-full of assistants. I mean you would think that I'm running a small country, it's embarrassing, I don't even know what happened -- I'm just a little girl from New Jersey, and my life has completely gotten out of hand.
So you recently wrote an op-ed in response to Bill Carter's New York Times' piece -- what about that made you -- 'cause it seems like that was the first time that you've spoken out about any sort of criticism or remarks about you -- what about that made you want to speak out? I don't think it's particularly interesting to constantly pick a fight with anybody who kind of marginalizes you or doesn't give you the kudos that you think you deserve. You have to understand that people -- not everybody's gonna like you. Most people aren't going to like you, and the fact that you have any kind of fanbase is great. So I come from a place where I assume everyone doesn't like me, and anybody who does, I think, "Oh, they're smarter than I thought." So, I've always tried to be more sanguine about pieces where I don't think I'm being reflected in a fair way, but I don't ever want to be a girl to bitch about being a girl -- I just have never considered myself, or my sex to be part of the package. Obviously it is, I'm not naïve to think that it's discounted completely. But I just got to a point when I read that piece, and I saw my picture at the top of the New York Times in the Sunday Style section, and I looked at it and I thought, "Oh, that's great, look at me front and center," and then I read the piece, and I thought, "Oh, my god. How can they piss me off after being excited that I saw my picture?" And obviously I've already said what I wanted to say about it, but I just thought that it was the right time.
I thought: You know what, I've been on the show for a long time. I turned 39 today, I'm in a really good place, and I just thought: You know, it's time to kind of speak up for myself." Because when you don't speak up as a woman, you kind of disservice other women, because you can always convince yourself, "Oh it's not that bad, you know, whatever. He didn't mean to do that." But why not? Especially somebody like me where people expect me to stick up for myself. And I think you make a bigger statement when you're not complaining all the time.
Why do you think it's still such a pervasive thought process that women are marginalized in terms of the comedy realm? Well, I think it's a process. I think it's a good thing in that it's easier to stand out as a woman sometimes because there aren't so many of them doing it. But now in comedy -- you know that was how it was when I first got started in the show six years ago -- right now there should be another woman in late night, and I'm annoyed that there isn't. Mostly because I'd like to not be doing it, and I can't stop doing it until somebody else steps up. It would be nice, there are other things that I wanna do. But out of loyalty to other women and my contribution to whatever I'm contributing to, I feel like it's my duty to stay here until somebody else does it. I think it's important to be a voice, and if you want to be a voice, you have to be a booming voice. And that's gonna require a lot of people to have open minds about a lot of things. Howard Stern is a really kind of divisive person, but he's got a huge following and a huge fanbase, so the more divisive you are, sometimes, the bigger the fanbase. The fact that being a woman is a little more complicated than not being a woman, especially in entertainment, is embarrassing at this point. So I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I think actions speak louder than words.
Did you hear about the whole thing with Jerry Seinfeld, and what he said about diversity in comedy? Did you agree with that, or what were your thoughts? Yeah, I do agree with that. I mean, that's his comedy world. He's making a show for himself and for his fans, and I'm sure his fans are into it. The people who aren't his fans aren't necessarily into that -- he shouldn't just have to interview a woman or a black person because it's PC -- that's not what we're doing. It's not journalism. He's doing his own kind of comedy show. So I think that's a different kind of field, that's a different niche market, and if you're a comedian, you're an artist -- that's like telling an artist that he has to paint for this group of people, and this group of people. That's not what creative people do. I think when you're in journalism you have a responsibility to be even.
Who do you admire amongst your female comedic peers? All the girls -- I love men and women equally -- I don't hire a woman just because she's a woman, I want women on my show, I want to promote other women, I think it's a good example as a woman to promote other women. But I also want to promote other comedians, I want to promote guys, I want to promote people who make me laugh, it's just whatever sticks, sticks. It's about being fair and balanced, regardless of whatever side you're on, or if you're a guy or a girl, if you're a Republican or Democrat, you kind of have to look at everything through the same kind of lens.
You have to appreciate someone who's creative. I love David Spade, I think he's one of the funniest people in the world, that's my opinion. And I can look at somebody else, like Sarah Silverman, who's hysterically funny, who's completely antithetical to what I am, but we get along great and she's hilarious. I look at someone like Whitney Cummings who I have zero in common with, but we're really, really close friends and we couldn't have more different work ethics or different work styles. So I think it's just about appreciating people who work really hard and make you laugh, and just because somebody doesn't make you laugh -- that's the business I'm in, so that's what I look for, is somebody who makes me laugh -- so when I'm looking in other things, I look for really hard workers, that's the first thing I look for, in anything.Would you see the show morphing into something similar like The Daily Show, where he is political, but it's also entertainment?
No. I think whatever I do it has to be my own kind of original idea. I'm not going to copy somebody else's show -- with this show I didn't do what anybody else was doing, so I don't ever want to model myself after somebody else -- I'll just do whatever I'm in the mood to do and the next phase of my career will be something a little bit more intelligent, a little bit more mindful, and that's kind of what I'm interested in. I've always been interested in that, I kind of got sucked in at E! and I haven't been able to get out.
Do you have a favorite guest that you've interviewed? I love smart, opinionated people. I love people who don't have to be produced in a segment. I love people who say stuff, and that's when I fell in love with Gwyneth Paltrow -- she came on here and called her grandmother the C-word, and I thought, okay that's somebody I can be friends with. That's somebody who's not worried, and I have so many actresses who come on here and who call, or have their publicists call, and they're like "I said this, I said that, can you edit that out," and it's like, who cares? Just be yourself, and who cares if there's backlash, have an opinion, that's interesting.
So if you're not interested in doing late night forever, do you have any goals or specific ideas of what you want to do going forward? You know what, I don't have a specific goal, I've never had a specific goal, I fell into this job -- I never thought I was going to be a late night host, I got into standup comedy because I thought I would have to work less. I'm like, "Oh, I'll just have to do shows on Fridays and Saturdays in different cities," and all of the sudden I'm working five days a week and then going and doing shows on Fridays and Saturdays in different cities. And I think to myself, "Wait, what happened? I missed a step." I mean I work so much, and I'm not complaining about working, because I'm able to give my family a great life -- not my family that I've created, because I'm barren, I've decided -- but my brothers and sisters. I get to go on these amazing vacations, and that's part of the reason that I wanted to write the book, because I thought if I didn't have this career and I didn't have these fans -- as corny as it sounds, it's totally true -- if I didn't have people who liked me, I would never have been able to go to Africa and I would be in a job where I would be a temp right now. I would be 250 pounds from eating Taco Bell every night, exhausted just from sitting at a desk all day. So I kind of feel like I owe it to everybody to keep working.
Chelsea Handler will sign her book, Uganda Be Kidding Me, at Changing Hands Bookstore at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 22. At 8 p.m. that evening, she'll perform Comerica Theatre. Tickets are $33 to $85 via www.livenation.com.
Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version.
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