For fans who may have fretted that a network sitcom would take the fire out of Chelsea Handler, consider a few bits from the upcoming debut of the NBC series “Are You There, Chelsea?”
When viewers first meet Chelsea, a wild young thing who slings cocktails for a living, she’s just been hauled to jail for drunk driving. In the holding cell, she prays to vodka -- not God -- to get her out of her mess, promising to turn over a new leaf. That later involves moving within walking distance of the bar, not getting sober.
The hard-partying character, played by Laura Prepon interpreting a twentysomething Handler, could be the first to coin the sexually descriptive term “lady wood” on network prime-time TV.
So we’re clear that this single-gal-in-the-city tale isn’t “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” right?
In this post-"Bridesmaids,” Kathy Griffin, “2 Broke Girls” era, female comedians are increasingly testing boundaries like never before, industry watchers say. And Handler, a late-night talk show host who sharpens her barbs on the stand-up circuit, is happy to march right up to the line of what’s considered acceptable broadcast humor with “Are You There, Chelsea?,” which is loosely based on her bestselling book “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea.”
“I have no problem arguing for good jokes,” said Handler, whose “Chelsea Lately” on the E! network has a devoted following, averaging about 900,000 viewers a night, particularly women ages 18 to 34, making it the highest-rated late-night show in that ad-friendly demographic. “The show is salty -- it needs to be. It’s not what I get away with on cable, but it’s definitely edgy.”
The comedy launches Wednesday as part of what NBC has dubbed “Happy Hour,” a Wednesday night block where Handler’s show will air along with “Whitney,” which stars Handler’s friend and protege Whitney Cummings.
“Chelsea” is part of NBC’s strategy to get back to its traditional three-camera sitcom roots, trying to replicate the success it once had with monster hits such as “Friends” and “Will & Grace.”
And even though “we have to be judicious,” as NBC Executive Vice President of Programming Vernon Sanders said, the network’s willing to give Handler’s show a relatively long leash.
“She has a strong, distinctive point of view, and that makes for a strong multicamera show,” Sanders said.
“Her fans will be able to see that her handprints are on the scripts and on the screen.”
Handler, who’s at the center of both “Chelsea Lately” and the related behind-the-scenes series “After Lately” on E!, will guest star in seven of the 12 “Chelsea” episodes that NBC has ordered. She’s also a writer and executive producer on the sitcom.
She plays Sloane, Chelsea’s older sister, a born-again Christian who tries to rein in Chelsea’s off-the-rails tendencies. The character does a lot of tisk-tisking, but in Handler’s patented deadpan style, making her fully recognizable even under a brunet wig and mom clothes.
Tom Werner, who’s produced such seminal comedies as “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne,” said that aside from being a longtime fan of her comedy and TV work, he was impressed by Handler’s books -- she’s now penned four bestsellers -- and described her as “a strong, fearless modern woman.”
The creative team has tried to reflect those qualities in Chelsea, the character, he said.
“She’s likable and honest, she’s sexy and earthy, but she’s a little dysfunctional,” said Werner, an executive producer on “Chelsea.” “She’s flawed, like a lot of the characters we love.”
For Handler, “Chelsea” is one of many current projects she’s juggling as she builds her female-driven comedy empire that may be second only to Tina Fey’s in size and scope.
Handler has two movies coming out this year, “This Means War” with Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine, and “Fun Size” with Johnny Knoxville and Victoria Justice, but said she prefers the immediacy of television.
She recently signed a new deal with E! that will keep her two late-night shows on the air through 2014, and the production is moving to the sizable soundstage built for Conan O’Brien’s run on NBC’s “Tonight Show.”
After Handler commented last summer that she was disillusioned with the steady stream of celebrity and gossip topics -- she said it was making her brain bleed -- “Chelsea Lately” may evolve to include news-based and human-interest stories.
“I don’t want to sit around and talk about Lindsay Lohan every day,” she said. “The audiences come to watch the round table of people -- it’s like a big frat, everybody’s in on the joke. It doesn’t matter what we talk about, as long as it’s funny.”
There are some ongoing discussions with NBC about Handler-centric one-hour specials, but for the most part, Handler said she’ll be content in a producer role. The New Jersey native has nearly a dozen TV series and specials in development through her Borderline Amazing Productions that will star her comedy friends and colleagues such as Ross Mathews, Lisa Lampanelli and Josh Wolf.
Many of the projects are scripted shows, just don’t expect a Borderline-produced procedural or a crime caper. “No ‘CSI: Westwood’!” she said.
Executives at E! said Handler has been at the core of the channel’s promise to dish out smart commentary on pop culture, along with such talent as Joel McHale and Joan Rivers. Handler also has what E! President Suzanne Kolb called “a rare skill” in being able to carry a five-night-a-week series and a passionate following for her unapologetic brand of comedy.
“Her fans love how unfiltered she is; she’s saying what they wish they could say,” Kolb said. “She kowtows to no one.”