Chelsea Handler starts the next phase of her career – a talk show debuting on Netflix Wednesday – amid more mystery than comedy.
Will the audience she built during the 2007-2014 run of “Chelsea Lately” on E! return after a nearly two-year hiatus? Will she attract new viewers amid a packed late night talk show landscape that's realigned since her departure (goodbye David Letterman and Jon Stewart, and hello Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore, among others)?
Perhaps most importantly, is a late night TV comedy talk show really a late night TV comedy talk show when it starts streaming in some parts of the country at 3 a.m. (even in the online-DVR-in-demand TV age)?
But what threatens to get lost amid the questions is Chelsea Handler’s prime opportunity: to reinvent the late night TV comedy talk show for any time of the day.
Handler arrives with some distinct advantages beyond her experience, smarts and talent. The show is set for three half-hour installments a week. While that presents challenges in balancing timely and evergreen humor, she gains from the opportunity to produce carefully constructed, concentrated doses of comedy.
John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" and Samantha Bee's "Full Frontal," two standouts of the latest late-night comedy wave, benefit from a weekly schedule that allow them to focus on filling their 30 minutes with strong segments. As Stephen Colbert likely can attest, going from two hours of TV comedy a week to five while replacing a legend like Letterman is no easy human trick, even for the brainiest of the species.
Perhaps the biggest burst of publicity for “Chelsea” came this past weekend when Handler slammed Colbert during an interview with The New York Times: “He didn’t go in and make a different show. He’s just following in the footsteps of someone else.”
It marked a typically blunt and acerbic observation by Handler, who shares, with Jimmy Kimmel, the title as the most Letterman-like comic of this generation of late night hosts. She’s also taking pages from early chapters of the Letterman playbook with her new gig.
While it would by folly to underestimate the lure of Handler and the reach of Netflix, her new show offers her an opportunity to experiment somewhat below the radar – much like Letterman, when he turned NBC’s “Late Night” into an after-hours comedy laboratory in the early 1980s.
Handler won’t be subject to media stories about Nielsen ratings, and presumably will be given time to draw a crowd. She also enjoys a strong social media following, thanks in part to her fearless Instagramming – reflecting her bold approach to upending a male-dominated TV field and format.
As she told The Times: “There are 10 or 11 guys doing what used to be done by two guys. That’s not interesting.”
A promo video released Monday is dominated by clips from filmed segments – signaling that for Chelsea Handler, “interesting” means breaking free of the studio as much as possible. Check out the preview as Handler fights the tide by streaming.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.