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A late-night snark

Times Staff Writer

From HER gossipy late-night perch on E! Entertainment Television, Chelsea Handler routinely mouths off about Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and almost everyone else in and around the gates of the Hollywood-industrial complex. And typically, the host of “Chelsea Lately” does so without incurring threats of bodily harm.

Then, she took on the Jonas Brothers, the squeaky-clean, heartthrob boy band from New Jersey. In a recent sketch, Handler mocked the band’s masculinity, their mismatched and their “purity rings” (symbolizing the pop stars’ pledge not to have premarital sex). Later in the bit, Handler sexually manhandled one of the faux brothers -- shoving her chest in his face and offering him carnal delights.

Legions of outraged Jonas Brothers devotees unleased their wrath. “Chelsea Handler can go die in a whole! [sic],” read one missive directed at her. Some merely called her names, others were more specific -- suggesting Handler die sooner rather than later. The group’s publicist weighed in, albeit more respectfully, threatening to withdraw the cable network’s access to the brothers, Miley Cyrus and other Disney Channel megastars, said Handler.

“ ‘Go die in a whole’ -- I mean, really, it doesn’t get better than that,” said Handler after the offending sketch aired and was posted on YouTube. “We were all laughing so hard in the office. It’s a lesson on why we have this show in the first place.”

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Brandishing wicked humor with a wide smile, Handler, 33, delights in mocking the shallowness of Hollywood while embracing its tackiness. Since its premiere a little more than a year ago, “Chelsea Lately” has evolved into a Tinseltown version of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and is one of the cable network’s top daily series that frolics in the culture of tabloid celebrity, averaging over half a million viewers each weeknight.

Her show, which airs opposite “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Show With David Letterman,” enters a crowded realm of Hollywood gossip shows but jumps enthusiastically into a daily pile of tabloid headlines, often from network companion “E! News.” The dirt is dished with a revolving panel of comedians and her sidekick, a 4-foot-3-inch gentleman named Chuy, whom she lovingly refers to as “my little hot tamale.”

She dishes it out -- and takes it

Throughout the show’s banter, and interviews with guests -- who usually hail from cable or reality series -- one of her biggest targets is herself. She pokes fun at her eating habits and her penchant for sex and vodka. “I certainly hope this is not the pinnacle, but things are certainly the best they’ve ever been for me,” said Handler, whose stand-up career has spanned more than a decade. “It seems like all my ducks are going in the right direction. I just hope they don’t drink too much Grey Goose on the way -- like their owner.”

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The show has propelled Handler ever higher in the entertainment world pecking order and paved the way for additional projects, including a bestselling memoir and TV deals. Handler’s “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and this week is in the Top 10 of the Los Angeles Times nonfiction bestseller lists after 15 weeks.

The book is a series of hilarious, disconnected memories about family and dating that cleverly straddles the line of the absurd. For instance, in a bid to deal with rejection, she tells elementary school classmates she’s slated to play Goldie Hawn’s daughter in the never-produced sequel to “Private Benjamin.” Producer-director Barry Sonnenfeld is in final negotiations to turn the book about growing up, family and dating into a TV series.

Meanwhile, on weekends, she’s drawing standing-room-only crowds at her comedy concerts around the country. A recent Vanity Fair cover story on the funniest women in today’s comedy scene placed Handler alongside Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes and Sarah Silverman.

And although she makes vicious fun of E! programming, biting the hand that feeds her hasn’t hurt her personal life. Her boyfriend is E! Entertainment Television head Ted Harbert, a veteran TV executive who has held top posts at ABC and NBC. It’s a relationship she frequently jokes about on her show. Pictures of the couple hugging and smiling hang in her dressing room.

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“For other people, it may be awkward, but it’s certainly not for us,” she said. “The minute you see us, it’s clear what we’re about -- it’s a very playful relationship.”

Other than managing issues related to broadcast standards or legal issues, Harbert said, he is totally detached from Handler’s show. “I recuse myself from dealing with Chelsea’s salary, the business dealings,” he said. But he is undeniably proud of the series’ success and claims not to cringe when she makes fun of other E! shows. “I know exactly what E! is. You have to get some fun out of it.”

The daily production of “Chelsea Lately” is loose, controlled chaos. The writers and producers plan each day’s show in the morning, writing material for the panel discussion and shooting comedy bits, either on location or in the hallways and cramped office spaces in West Los Angeles. The show tapes around 3:30 p.m. in front of a live audience and wraps in about an hour.

For the show, Handler sports stylish but non-flashy suits in a conscious attempt to downplay her looks. “I’ve just never been that kind of person,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of respect for women who play up their sexuality. I know I’m attractive, but that’s not my best feature. What’s up here in my head is more important.”

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Initially, club owners such as the Laugh Factory’s Jamie Masada told Handler her looks might be a problem. “I told her very early in her career that it was very hard for a beautiful woman to get laughs,” he said. “All the audience sees is the beauty. But Chelsea pulled it all off brilliantly.”

A little target practice

Targets range from A-listers (Brangelina and TomKat) to D-listers (Dina Lohan, Denise Richards). “It’s great to go see ‘American Idol’ being taped because Paula Abdul has absolutely no idea what’s going on,” she once joked.

When scenester Kim Kardashian (E!'s “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”) -- a frequent subject of gossipy websites -- dropped by, Handler opened up the interview with “First of all, let’s talk about your ass.”

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Then there’s this about Tom Cruise: “He’s such a hot mess.” And of her favorite target, Tori Spelling: “Everybody knows who Tori Spelling is, because no one else has a face like that! I just can’t control myself when it comes to Tori,” she added. “I’m so sorry.”

Of course, not everyone finds Handler so amusing, including Variety’s television critic Brian Lowry, who reviewed her first few shows.

“In theory, a snarky, nightly half-hour devoted to entertainment culture makes considerable sense for E!,” wrote Lowry last year. “But in ‘Chelsea Lately,’ the network has gotten the idea right and the talent wrong. A poor-woman’s Kathy Griffin with a grating voice that could curve the spine, comic Chelsea Handler has bulldozed her way through the first three episodes, unpleasantly lurching from one snide comment to the next.”

But, she maintains, she’s not mean-spirited. “I make fun of myself, so that allows me to make fun of others,” she said. “It’s better if celebrities have a sense of humor about themselves. Take Denise Richards. She has no sense of humor. She’s not in on the joke.”

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Handler realizes her show attracts only a fraction of the viewership of her late-night male counterparts. Even though the domino effect of Leno’s exit from “The Tonight Show” may create upheaval in the late-night wars, she has no plans to leave E!.

“Those shows are graduate school and we’re community college,” said one of the show’s executive producers, Tom Brunelle. “If we keep doing the show we’re doing, we’ll be fine.”

Although she’s already planning another book and is on the lookout for a film role, Handler’s top priority is still her show. Which means bad news for the Jonas Brothers. “I told their publicist I would make a donation of $1,000 to the charity of their choice every time I make fun of them,” she said.

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greg.braxton@latimes.com


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