HotStar: Chelsea Handler

Chelsea Handler is a study in contradictions.

Watch E! Entertainment’s “Chelsea Lately,” which consistently outranks other late-night cable shows, and it appears she’s the latest in a long line of insult comics – Don Rickles with better hair.

But pick up one of the 35-year-old comedian’s best-selling books, “My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands” or “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” and it quickly becomes clear her first choice of target is often herself. So maybe she’s closer to Phyllis Diller.

Speaking of vodka, which Handler does – often, her storied affinity for the spirit is as central to her act as Dean Martin’s ever-present cocktail. So much so in fact that Polish top-shelf vodka distiller Belvedere is the sponsor for her upcoming “Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang” tour. Yet how could a woman with a self-professed reputation for consuming mass quantities of alcohol possibly be together enough to build a fledgling comedy empire, Borderline Amazing Comedy, in just three years?
So who’s the real Chelsea Handler? That’s complicated.

The comedian grew up in a setting ripe for humor – a suburban New Jersey home with a Jewish father (whom she lovingly refers to as a “big a-hole”), a Mormon mother and five siblings. And while many humorous people discover comedy early in life as a way to earn approval or attention, Handler has a different motivation that helps explain her fearless comic style.

“I think I’m funny, but a lot of people – I’m sure – don’t,” the comedian told Pollstar. “So it’s definitely subjective. It depends what kind of taste you have. I’ve been making myself laugh for a long time and I’m probably my best audience.

“If somebody else comes on board and is able to laugh along with me, that’s great. But if I’m all alone doing it, I’m fine with that too.”

The then 20-year-old comedian packed her bags in 1995 and headed for Los Angeles. After almost a decade of occasional stand-up gigs (and lots and lots of waiting tables), her big break came with Oxygen’s hidden-camera show “Girls Behaving Badly.”

Handler’s deadpan yet acid-laced and unapologetic delivery set her apart from the rest of the cast. The resulting buzz earned her regular appearances on shows like “My Wife and Kids” and “Weekends at the D.L.,” a correspondent gig on “The Tonight Show” and, eventually, her first E! series, “The Chelsea Handler Show.”

“Chelsea Lately,” which debuted in 2007, features Handler and a panel of comic regulars that includes Brad Wollack, Heather McDonald and Sarah Colonna cracking wise about the day’s topics, with occasional input from her ever-present sidekick and assistant, Chuy Bravo.

“It’s the environment that I like the best,” the comedian explained. “I like being around [other comics]. I like going to work and having it feel like high school – except this time I’m popular.”

Even though most of the cracks on “Lately” are delivered in the spirit of fun, Handler admits she takes heat about them on occasion – not that it matters.

“I’m sure there are people who are really pissed off, but I’m not really worried,” she explained. “The people that I make fun of are not people that I’m ever going to be hanging out with. The Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans of the world, or Angelina Jolie – we’re not on each other’s speed dial.

“I’ll hear someone was unhappy or ‘Lindsay Lohan’s publicist wants you to cool off.’ That’s not going to happen. You don’t just do that because somebody asks you to. If you really want me to stop talking about you, then stop acting like an asshole.”

The comics who populate the roundtable on “Lately” are just as likely to be the object of Chelsea’s scorn. Yet Handler not only gives them airtime, she created a “Kings of Comedy”-style tour for them, “The Comedians of Chelsea Lately,” which debuted in a few cities last year.

“It came together working with all of the comedians on my show and thinking, ‘What’s a better way to give these guys more exposure and a better income?’” she said. “It occurred to me, ‘I go on tour, so why can’t they go on tour?’ We put that together and it was really successful so they’re going to be going out again. It’s nice to be able to do so much for comedians who are essentially my friends.”

To help get “Comedians” and her own upcoming tour off the ground, Handler turned to a friend “since her stand-up comedy club days,” Live Nation’s Geof Wills.

“The ‘Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang’ tour is designed to coincide with her new book and so far it’s working beautifully,” Wills told Pollstar. It’s something of an understatement because most of the initial shows sold out so quickly second shows were added in nearly every market.

“That girl works,” Wills continued. “To be able to find time to tour – whether the venues are big or small – is a Herculean task. She has her production company, she’s on TV five nights a week, she’s an author and she tours live, plus overseeing the ‘Comedians’ tour. I’m sure she’s going to be producing other TV shows as well. So she’s got her hands full.

“If you look at all the other strong female stand-ups – or even male stand-ups – no one’s really done what she’s doing. Plus, she really looks out for these comics that do her show, which I think is remarkable.”

While Wills has his fingers crossed that Handler will find time to extend her live dates and also tour outside the U.S., the comedian quipped, “That’s his dream.”

So it turns out who Chelsea Handler is depends on which hat she’s wearing at the time. But perhaps it’s comedian Heather McDonald who’s come up with the best description.

“She’s the king of drunk, hot blondes,” McDonald told Entertainment Weekly about her friend and boss. “They’ve been wandering the earth, [but] they’ve never had a leader.”