A total lush, a filthy lay, a homegirl unrestrained when feeling catty—the persona of Chelsea Handler is as guilty-pleasurable as any in the recent annals of American humor. With her late-night comedy show Chelsea Lately (E!, weeknights at 11 p.m. ET) fueling the success of a standup concert tour and three best-selling books, Handler has blown up into an unaffected princess who graces her subjects with joyful sneers. The persona has a rich relationship with decadence, being morally and aesthetically offended by the reality-TV abominations and befuddled starlets who provide so much of her Chelsea Lately material. But the persona also relishes libertine excess and celebrates fun bad ideas.
Here's the vibe: Imagine Handler hungoverish at the 10-items-or-less counter at Safeway, swinging her basket of goods—a home pregnancy test, a Boston cream pie, a handle of designer booze—up to the conveyor belt. She snatches a glossy tabloid from the rack for a greedy eyeful of hot-pink messes. Sniping aloud at the tackiness within with vulgarity in kind, she rolls her eyes so hard that she gags as she slaps enough magazines on the conveyor belt so that now she's buying 12 items. She swipes her platinum card with a contemptuous gesture.
Handler claims to be 35 and looks at least 40, which is part of her appeal. She seems old enough to have been around and to know better. About her appetites she is frank, unrepentant, and semi-self-loathing. She wants a second dessert, a sixth drink, a Vicodin if you've got one—and what her drunken slattern shtick lacks in novelty, it more than compensates for by way of pungency. One imagines that her core constituencies include sarcastic young flaming homosexuals and jaded sorority dropouts with treatable self-esteem issues.
Those who would yawn at her act as a played-out "trangressive" role-playing might turn to the second page of Handler's current best-seller, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, with its compound sentence on the author's preadolescent addiction to her intimate anatomy: "I wasn't prepared for what kind of ride this little magic muffin was going to take me on, but I reminded myself that we never choose who we fall in love with, and I had no choice when my little hot pocket in a pita took over my life for the good part of the third and fourth grades." While any healthy man will squirm in contemplating this image, the more discerning of them will acknowledge the craft in the way the sentence pivots from puerile snack-time metaphor-making to a lilting bittersweet statement and back again.
There's a peculiar sort of class to Handler's prose, and to her ad-libbing and the general atmosphere of her show. Underneath her hair, which is sometimes morning-after messy and sometimes flat-ironed to achieve a bitchy glamour, is a sophisticated brain. After her nightly monologue—delivered in front of a set resembling a lounge at the W—Handler usually turns to a roundtable of comedians who help her snark on overexposed adulterers and the like with a notable degree of cultivation. A February joke about Snooki making a personal appearance at James Madison University trusted in the viewer's cognizance of Cornel West. Crucially, scholarship and gentility do not go hand in hand. Ludacris, who has branched out from rapping and acting into the cognac-shilling business, recently brought to Handler's couch a quart of liquor as a hostess gift. Holding the bottle in what would have been her lap had she kept her knees together, she explained that her general affection for her male hip-hop guests owed to their way of telling it to her straight: " 'Yeah, you're a dirty girl, Chelsea.' "
And for that matter, she is dirty in a more interesting way than Sarah Silverman, her colleague in potty-mouth-ism. Where Silverman, pushing pop shock, remains an aloof performance artist, Handler reads as a woman instinctually confiding veritas of the in vino variety. (It must have required a lot of effort to develop the character of this lazy gossip.) And where Silverman discernibly waits and watches for an audience's "scandalized" reaction to a "racist" joke, Handler does ethnic incorrectness full speed ahead. Such jokes often come at the expense of her sidekick, Chuy, a diminutive Hispanic man usually clad in antiquated golfing togs, thus existing as a kind of Dorf-themed lawn ornament.
The funniest moment on Wednesday's installment of Chelsea Lately wasn't even really a joke, just an all-in-the-attitude response to a scandal-made disposable celebrity. Some strumpet, hurt by a line the host had spat the day before, had taken to her Facebook page and tried to insult Handler by suggesting that she Botox not her forehead but her "flabby underarm skin," further comparing Handler's limbs to KFC product. Raising an arm to flap her right triceps around, Handler started to talk about coating herself in 11 herbs and spices, but her spleen burst before she could finish the line: "First of all, look at my forehead, you dumb bitch—I don't have Botox." She asked the camera to pull in on her. Sadly, it did not. If it had, you would have seen attractive lines crossing her brow, high and low.