Chelsea Handler: Keys To A Multimedia Empire

May 16, 2011
Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:06 pm

When Chelsea Handler's last book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, was released in 2010, the comedian turned writer accomplished something very rare: She had three books on the best-seller list, all at the same time. Not only that, but she beat Karl Rove to the top of the list.

"When we found out that I came in 1 and he came in 2," Handler recalls, "my sister said — she called me and she said — 'Do you think Karl Rove is sitting in his study in his boxer shorts thinking, Who the hell is Chelsea Handler?' "

Handler is a stealth celebrity. From her late-night perch as the host of Chelsea Lately, on the E! cable network, she has built a sizable fan base for her brand of raunchy insult comedy. But her string of best-selling books — titles include My Horizontal Life and Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea — have sold so well that her publishing company has given Handler her own imprint. Its first book, Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me, has just been released.

Handler seems surprised at her own success. Not so long ago, she says, she was doing standup at Starbucks. Now, she regularly hosts celebrities like Will Ferrell and Jennifer Aniston on her talk show. She's known for quick comebacks in conversations with stars like the pop singer Rihanna, recently on the receiving end of a bawdy come-on when she appeared on Chelsea Lately.

As Handler tells it, she began thinking about doing standup comedy after speaking in front of her court-mandated driving class following DUI arrest.

"I got up there and I told my story and how my sister turned me in and I was using her fake ID and I called the cop racist and he was white and we all were white and nothing made any sense. And people were laughing and I remember thinking, 'This is the best feeling.' I mean, the instructor came and said, 'You have to get off the stage.' And then I thought, 'Wow. Maybe I should do standup.' "

The youngest of six children, Handler admits she was a spoiled child and that her comedy does have a "bratty kid" quality to it. She likes to make fun of people and play practical jokes. On her show she surrounds herself with a motley crew of regulars including a Mexican dwarf named Chuy Bravo.

Handler says she first started thinking about writing after she read a book by humorist David Sedaris.

"Before I read David Sedaris, I didn't know you could just kinda write disparate stories and put them together and have them be about whatever. That kind of opened my eyes and when I read one of his books I thought, 'Wow, I could do this. I could write like this.' "

Handler, who can be brutal about other people, is brutally honest about herself. In her first book, My Horizontal Life, she mined her own sexual exploits for a laugh.

"She doesn't play by nice-girl rules," says Beth DeGuzman, vice president and editor-in-chief at Grand Central, the company that published Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang and has printed books by other comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. DeGuzman says that when it came time to promote her book, Handler was tireless.

"Usually, you try to make sure that a celebrity will give you two weeks. She came to us and said, 'I want to do a comedy tour. I want to do book signings.' And it went on for months and months and months," DeGuzman says. "So after we saw how good the book was and how committed she was to supporting the book, we knew we wanted to continue to be partners with Chelsea."

So when Handler's agent proposed that she get her own publishing imprint within Grand Central, the company said yes. That means Handler will not only write books but will also publish other writers' work.

The first book on the imprint is a hybrid of those two ideas. For Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, Handler commissioned her oft-abused colleagues, friends and family to write about the ruthless lies and practical jokes she has inflicted upon them over the years.

"This book I just kind of oversaw and edited and kind of added stuff at the end of people's chapters and added a bunch of pictures," Handler says. "But this book to me is kind of like ... the end of the road as far as my practical jokes go, because I don't know who's ever going to believe anything I say again after this. It's like the girl who cried vodka."

Handler says she'd love to discover a great comic writer. She knows one thing: She wants to publish books that make her laugh — a lot.

"It's so relaxing to laugh really hard. I mean, there's no better feeling, even if you are not in on the joke, to see someone else hysterically laughing when they can't contain themselves," Handler says. "And we've all had that, where you really think you're going to pee, you know, you're laughing so hard and you can't get it together and you know it's totally inappropriate. That's what I want people to be doing."

Handler's not sure exactly what her next book will be, but she says her dog, Chunk, is working on his autobiography.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR's Lynn Neary has this profile of the publishing phenomenon.

LYNN NEARY: When Chelsea Handler's last book, "Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang," was first released, the comedian-turned-writer accomplished something very rare. She had three books on the best seller list all at the same time. Not only that, she beat Karl Rove to the top of the list.

M: When we found out that I got, you know, came in one and he came in two, my sister said, she called me and she said: Do you think Karl Rove is just sitting in his study in his boxer shorts thinking who the hell is Chelsea Handler?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Handler's surprise at her own success seems genuine. Not so long ago, she says, she was doing stand-up at Starbucks. Now she regularly hosts celebrities like Will Ferrell and Jennifer Aniston on her talk show, "Chelsea Lately." And she's known for quick comebacks in conversations with stars like Rihanna.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

RIHANNA: Hey hot stuff.

M: Hi, cutie, how are you doing?

RIHANNA: I like your dress.

M: You like - I like your body.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: As Handler tells it, she began thinking about doing stand-up comedy during a mandatory driving class after she was stopped for a DUI. She had to go in front of the class and tell them about her arrest.

M: I got up there, and I told my story and how my sister turned me in. And I was using her fake ID and how I called the cop a racist, and he was white, we were all white. So nothing really made any sense.

NEARY: Wow, maybe I should do stand-up.

NEARY: On her show, she surrounds herself with a motley crew of regulars, including a Mexican dwarf named Chuy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHELSEA LATELY")

M: I don't even think Chuy knows what this holiday is. I'm guessing he thinks it celebrates his favorite condiment because he calls it Cinco de Mayo.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: So I am left on my own to celebrate. Tonight, I will strap on my sombrero, fire up the blender and spend the rest of the evening thinking about what's really important on this day: Why the hell Mariah Carey named one of her children Moroccan.

NEARY: Handler says she first started thinking about writing after she read a book by humorist David Sedaris.

M: Before I read David Sedaris, I didn't know you could just kind of write disparate stories and put them together and have them be about whatever. So that kind of opened my eyes, and that's - when I read one of his books, I thought: Wow, I could do this. I could write like this.

NEARY: Handler can be brutal about other people, but she is also brutally honest about herself. In her first book, "My Horizontal Life," she mined her own sexual exploits for a laugh.

M: She doesn't play by nice-girl rules.

NEARY: Grand Central published "Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang," and DeGuzman says Handler promoted that book tirelessly.

M: So after we saw how good the book was and how committed she was to supporting the book, we knew we wanted to continue to be partners with Chelsea.

NEARY: For the first book released by her new imprint, "Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me," Handler commissioned her oft-abused colleagues, friends and family to write about the ruthless lies and practical jokes she has inflicted upon them over the years.

M: But this book to me is kind of like - it's kind of the end of the road as far as my practical jokes go, because I don't know who's ever going to believe anything I say again after this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: It's like the girl who cried vodka.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: As for the future, Handler says she'd love to discover a great comic writer. And she knows one thing: She wants to publish books that make her laugh a lot.

M: And we've all had that, where you really think you're going to pee, you know, like you're laughing so hard, and you can't get it together, and you know it's totally inappropriate. That's what I want people to be doing.

NEARY: When they read your books?

M: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.