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Chelsea Handler wants to return to late night, and isn’t scared of being canceled

The devil works hard, but Chelsea Handler works harder.

This week, the enterprising comedian will wrap her 40-plus city Vaccinated and Horny stand-up tour, which she launched in late 2021, pandemic be damned. Since then, she’s also been hosting a weekly hourlong advice podcast, “Dear Chelsea,” as well as writing another book, shopping around a scripted series based on her 2019 bestseller “Life Will Be The Death of Me…and You Too!” (“kind of like a ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ but with me as the lead”) and entering talks about a potential return to late night eight years after E!’s “Chelsea Lately” bowed.

On Dec. 27, she releases her second comedy special in two years, Netflix’s “Chelsea Handler: Revolution,” which comes on the heels of her 2020 HBO Max special “Chelsea Handler: Evolution,” which was shot in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic-related closures.

“I left all the politics and all the stuff that is divisive out of [this one] because we’ve all been through so much in the last three years,” she said during an interview at her Beverly Hills home. “It’s just about reminding people about togetherness and hilarity. Sitting next to a stranger and laughing hysterically is one of the greatest gifts ever. And to be the arbiter of that is also a huge responsibility and honor.”

None of this would be possible without Handler’s recent deep dive into therapy, which she credits with fueling the work she’s putting out now. “You get all this information about yourself and then you’re like, ‘OK, what do I do with it?’” she said. “You absorb it and then you have to apply it to your life, so it’s a three-stage process.”

The Times caught up with Handler to discuss her many creative projects in the works, comedy’s relationship with cancel culture and keeping busy during the pandemic.

Chelsea Handler.

Chelsea Handler.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

On her artistic enterprises

You returned to stand-up after a six-year break. Was it hard getting back into the flow of things?

It was scary in the beginning because I didn’t want to go back to stand-up until I had something meaningful to say. I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before to let people know I was in a different place.

With my last book, I had done a tour where I had different authors and celebrities interview me onstage. And halfway through, I [realized], “You’re doing this so you don’t have to do stand-up,” because normally it would just be me up there. I was workshopping [my material], but I wasn’t willing to admit that to myself because I was scared. So after doing 30 or 40 shows with people interviewing me, I’m like, “All right, I’ve got all the stories, I’ve got all my punchlines” and so I added 30 more dates [to] do as a stand-up show. And at the end of that, I sold my special to HBO Max.

What exactly were you scared of?

Just like, “Do people still take me seriously as a comic? Do I have it?” But that fear goes away pretty quickly. The minute you walk through the door of fear, it disappears. If I feel really scared about something, I know I have to take that step and disarm the fear. In a way, it’s like therapy brought me all the way around to return to myself.

You’ll be stepping in as a guest host for “The Daily Show” next month following Trevor Noah’s exit. And you also stepped in for Jimmy Kimmel last summer. Do you approach the responsibility differently depending on the show and what the audience might expect?

I just think [about] bringing my best foot forward. I bring something that nobody else has, and I also have a ton of experience in this medium so I just rely on that skill set, which is in my back pocket. When I did “Kimmel,” it was a huge reminder for me that this is my flow state, this is my thing, this is what I thrive at. It really gave me the interest and appetite to get back in there and actually do it [full-time]. I didn’t realize how much I missed being able to have a platform where I could comment daily on what’s happening in the world.

What is it about the late-night format that you like so much?

I like to be able to take news like Roe vs. Wade being overturned or like that idiot Herschel Walker losing his Senate bid and spitting that back out into the audience in a funny way. It’s an instant digestion that I happen to be very good at. I enjoy the timeliness of it and the immediacy of it.

You also have a podcast, “Dear Chelsea.” How did that come about?

My podcast came off of my book “Life Will Be the Death of Me,” which was about my experience in therapy. Because I’d absorbed so much from my therapy experience, I treated it like I was getting a master’s in psychology. I read every book, and I’d take notes about everything I learned. And [with] the response I got from that last book, it was just a natural progression to do a podcast that’s not just a vanity project but actually something that helps people.

When iHeart approached me for a permanent podcast, I was like, “I can’t just do another celebrity interview podcast, there’s just too many of them.” I was trying to think what would be interesting to me, and I used to love Dear Abby and Ann Landers and I thought, “What if I do an advice podcast?” At first, I was like, “This is silly. I’ll be giving advice about if people should have sex on the first date.” But it’s gotten much more profound than that. People are asking about real-life decision-making questions and sometimes I’m like, “I have no business answering this.” So we try and have different professionals or celebrities on, but the crux of the show is us giving advice to [people] that call and write in for each episode. What I love about “Dear Chelsea” is I get to talk to real people about real problems, which is a nice break from talking to celebrities all the time. It’s really not as forthcoming as a stranger calling you on the phone.

You’re one of the most enterprising comics as far as the breadth of the media that you release. How would you rank your love for stand-up against late night and awards hosting, the documentaries and docuseries and your podcast and books?

The things just lead into each other. My stand-up and my books always end up melding. The podcast is just talking. I could talk to anyone all day long, I’m perfectly happy doing that. And then as far as hosting goes, that’s just really what I’m best at. I’ve tried so many things, and I needed a break because I burned myself out. I was writing books, I was doing stand-up and I was on tour the whole time of “Chelsea Lately,” which was seven years of just complete and utter burnout. And now I know that’s not the way I can do that again. When I go back to a TV show, I have to focus on that. I want to do less, better.

With all the things you’re juggling now, what are you doing to counterbalance all the comedy stuff?

Well, I read about a book a week, and I read the newspaper every morning, which I know is very old-fashioned. And I’ve decided that the next person I date also needs to be reading the newspaper every morning.

Two comedians

JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Tuesday, June 28 included guest host Chelsea Handler, Simu Liu (We Were Dreamers), Atsuko Okatsuka, and musical guest Jelly Roll.

(Eric McCandless / ABC via Getty Images)

On comedy and cancel culture

How would you describe your comedy at this point in your career?

I think there’s a clarity of mind that comes with my work that maybe was not as much at the forefront when I was performing my last special or really a lot of my work earlier in my career. It just wasn’t as thought-provoking as I like to think [it is] now.

What I’m commenting on is the social situation we’re in now: We’re kind of post-#MeToo, we’re hopefully moving into post-cancel culture, but it’s giving everybody an idea of why this period of time was so important. There’s a lot of people that are like, “It’s impossible to be funny today.” The only requirements are to not be sexist and not be racist. That’s not a tall order.

How much does the danger of being “canceled” affect you or the material you choose to talk about?

It doesn’t, because I’m not an idiot.

Do you feel like comedians are under fire?

No. I feel like “Stop complaining about having to be less discriminatory.” I don’t have a problem with people saying, “Don’t be sexist. Don’t be racist. Don’t go for the lowest hanging fruit.” There’s no reason to make fun of trans people — they already have a target on their back. There’s no reason to make fun of these marginalized communities. Instead, we should be making fun of the communities that have the power. If you want to go after somebody, that’s a bigger target. It’s not that hard to be more clever.

Do you think there’s a metric for who attracts the ire of cancel culture and for what?

I think what people really respect and can sense is when someone is sincerely apologetic and is willing to do the work necessary to understand their own behavior. So there’s a difference between Kanye [West], who’s just off of his meds and spewing out hatred and vitriol [over antisemitic comments], and Will Smith, who actually made an apology and took many months to reflect on his action [for slapping Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars in March] and is talking about it in a way that seems reasonable and forgivable. And, really, all you can ask of anyone is to apologize and to have them understand why they are apologizing. Tell us why you’re apologizing and tell us how you’re going to change and what you’ve learned about yourself and then, of course, you should be forgiven. Nobody should be canceled for the rest of their lives unless they’re not willing to ever take accountability for what they did.

Do you think cancel culture leaves room for that forgiveness?

No, but I think it’s an ongoing conversation. I mean, a lot of the people who’ve been canceled are not canceled, they’re on tour. I saw three guys last weekend, and I’m like, “Wait, isn’t he canceled?” and they’re performing at some theater. I mean, Louis CK was nominated for a Grammy last year and this year.

What do you think determines a comic’s success? Is it their ability to guide a national conversation or an army of fans?

I think both. It is good to be able to guide a conversation and always to keep the ball moving forward, not to get stuck in one spot. Not to just grind your feet into the soil and be like, “No, no, no,” and argue. Don’t resist the future. The future is here. We’re all moving forward, so let’s all move forward together. And, yeah, a fan base, obviously, is going to help you stay alive.

Chelsea Handler.

Chelsea Handler.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

On keeping busy during the pandemic

What was your relationship with your creative comedic process like during the pandemic?

I filmed my HBO Max special “Evolution” during the pandemic, so I was touring, but very sporadically, only around places in the country that were open. I was very intent on getting it out. Even though things were shutting down, the East Coast had some opportunities, and I didn’t care how many people were in the audience or if there were only going to be 200 seats and people had to be six feet apart. I just really needed, as an artist, to get that off of me and out of me so that I could focus on going back to my OG persona and really making fun of all the things I love to make fun of, mostly starting with myself.

Was it scary being out there during that time?

It was, but I’m just not a very fearful person. I’m not somebody who’s like, “Ah, I’m going to get COVID.” By the way, I still haven’t gotten COVID. So yeah, I’d just like to put that out there [laughs].

How has it felt touring now that COVID restrictions have eased up?

Oh, it’s been the greatest gift ever. I mean, that’s exactly why you become a comedian, to be the reason that people are gathering in huge audiences. It feels so good to be the reason that people are coming together again for the first time.

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