The Surprising Topic That “Embarrassed” Chelsea Handler

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Get ready, world. We're about to see a different side of Chelsea Handler. After seven years as the host of Chelsea Lately, the fearless, outspoken comedian is launching Chelsea Does, a four-part docuseries for Netflix that debuts January 23 and explores marriage, Silicon Valley, racism, and drugs. Those are more serious topics than what she covered on her late-night cable show, but Handler hasn't left behind her notoriously unapologetic humor. In each episode, she explores one topic from several angles. In the "Marriage" chapter, she delves into the meaning of matrimony by interviewing everyone from Vegas wedding officiants to BDSM enthusiasts and even one of her ex-boyfriends. In "Silicon Valley," she tries her hand at coding and discovers that she has a damn good idea for an app. And in "Racism," she talks to everyone from her own father to Reverend Al Sharpton in an attempt to understand where we are as a country right now. In each installment, we see Handler interview subjects, work through her issues in therapy sessions, and discuss the themes of the episode with a rotating cast of friends at the dinner table. It is a radically different format than Chelsea Lately — and that was entirely the point. “I wanted to do something that I hadn’t had any experience in doing," she said in a recent phone interview. "To do the same thing over and over and over again for years wasn’t compelling to me. I had a great show, I had a great time. It’s like standup — I did it. I peaked. I wanna do something I’m not good at and get really good at it. Changing it up is important for any creative brain." Moving forward, she hopes to take what she's learned with the docuseries and fold some of it into her upcoming talk show, which also premieres on Netflix later this year. "I really enjoy talking to people and [learning about] other cultures and people that aren’t famous," she said. "So my intent was to use [Chelsea Does] as a bridge to the new show." In the meantime, here's a taste of where that creative brain of hers is these days. (Be sure to check out our No Filter video with Handler, filmed at her house in California, below.)
Was there a part of you that felt uncomfortable or nervous about dealing with more serious content on Chelsea Does?
“No. I mean, I wasn’t nervous. There were definitely times throughout the documentary where I felt — especially with the marriage one — vulnerable and exposed and not in the driver’s seat as much as I was with my old show. It was nice to let go. I was hoping to do that. I wanted to work with people who were gonna push me in a way that I wasn’t going to push myself.”

You do seem more vulnerable here, like in the therapy sessions — why did you include those?
“That was an idea my director and producer pitched to me. They wanted to have some through lines — you know, like each [episode] starts out with a dinner with friends. Another through line was the therapist. I was totally open to that, because I’m a very open person.”

For the dinner scenes with friends, how did you decide which friends to include when?
“I wanted people who were versed in what we were talking about, people who were interested. I like to put random people together in real life, anyway. The drugs one was easy, because that’s just a fun night, having a pot dinner. It’s ridiculous. We were all high for, like, three days. So that was easy.” [Editor's note: Handler tokes up with Willie Nelson in the "Drugs" chapter.]

Have you ever paired people together at the table who ended up being great friends?
“Yeah! Tons of times. My whole life. I love that.”

Like who?
[Pauses, thinks aloud.] "I introduced Sandy Bullock to Jen Aniston. They had never met and they’re really good friends."
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Chelsea Handler in Chelsea Does: Marriage
In addition to the therapy sessions, you filmed emotional discussions with your family members. So Chelsea Does is a pretty personal project. What was the hardest thing to share about yourself?
“I don’t really have a hard time sharing anything about myself. That’s not a struggle of mine. I’m not very private. But...the marriage one. I felt the most vulnerable, because I was watching myself going, ‘Oh, I feel for her.’ I’ve always kind of not been interested in getting married and was very focused on my career. I just wanted to be independent and never rely on anybody. So meeting my ex-boyfriend from all that time ago and finding out that I was always the same person that I’ve been was really fascinating. I don’t even remember half the stuff he was telling me about myself. I sounded like a lunatic. That whole marriage documentary feels a little bit embarrassing.”

Embarrassing because...?
“I felt very exposed. Admitting that I want to be in a relationship was embarrassing. It feels strange to say that.”

Speaking of which, you also say that if your friends got a wedding invitation from you, they’d probably think it was a joke. Why?
“If I were to get married, I wouldn’t have a wedding. I would just go get married at, like, a courthouse or something. The commercialism of it just makes me cringe. It’s just not my style. I love going to weddings, but I would never have one. And that may be part of the reason why I’ve been so hesitant my whole life about the concept of marriage, because I think it’s such a production and I feel like I have an allergic reaction to that, to that day of make-believe. I’m more open to spending my life with somebody or choosing someone to be with for a longer period of time, just without the production of a wedding. I paired the two ideas together for so long that I forgot that I could separate them."

Do you think you're allowed to ask more difficult questions about delicate subjects — like you do in this series — because you're a comedian?

"Yeah, and it’s nice to be able to use that tool wisely, because you can get away with more as a comedian. Half the stuff I say, if another person said it, they would be raked over the coals. You get a certain amount of license, but you can’t apologize for things all the time, you know? You can’t get into the business of doing that, because then nobody has the right to ask the kinds of questions you want the answers to. Everything’s so P.C. People are so scared to have real conversations about things, and without real conversations, nothing gets ahead."
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Handler and friends in Chelsea Does: Drugs.
You definitely go there in "Racism," when you and your friends are talking at the dinner table and you say, "If Muslims are primarily the people blowing up planes, then I would like [the TSA] to be searching Muslims before I get on a plane." Given everything that Donald Trump has said, are you nervous about having to address your comments?
“No, I think people know what they’re getting when they’re watching me. And it is an honest conversation. It’s what you would talk about with your friends when you’re not being filmed. To me, that element is really integral to documentaries. Yeah, I have these feelings. They’re not necessarily right or wrong, but I have them, so I want to talk about them and say them out loud.”

What would you say to someone who thinks you’re saying these things just for shock value?
"No, I would never do that. I can’t control anything that comes out of my mouth, believe me. It’s not that strategic."

Was it hard to get people to appear on camera? Some people do not come off very well.
"No, because everybody thinks their point of view is the right one. So you’d be surprised at how they’re eager to defend themselves — and in defending themselves, in my opinion, sounding like complete assholes at times. But it’s a good reflection of the fact that we haven’t progressed that much, especially in certain parts of the South. People saying slavery 'wasn’t as bad as everybody thought.' It’s like, oh my god, how could you possibly let that come out of your mouth?"

Let's talk about your app, Gotta Go, which gets people out of bad dates with alerts for fake emergencies. You develop this in the Silicon Valley episode. Is it happening?
"It is gonna happen. It’s going to be released on January 23, you can download it. It’s a great idea. You know how many times that would have helped me?"

Maybe this is an awkward time to tell you, but Gotta Go is also the name of an app that helps you find the nearest public restroom.
"Oh, really? Oh, god. I’ll have to ask them about that."

Well, things can share the same name.
"Maybe it’s, like, 'Chelsea Handler's Gotta Go?' I don’t know. I’ll have to find out."
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Handler in Chelsea Does: Silicon Valley.
Has filming the series changed anything changed about you?
"Over the last year, everything’s changed. It was a hugely transitional year, turning 40, and I think it needs to be. I grew up a lot. I haven’t dated anybody in a year. I bought a house in Spain. I live alone and I love it. I was always so scared to live alone. I’ve always had people around, lived with friends, or had friends live in my house, or my brother, or something. I’ve read so many books in the past year. I’ve had so much time to travel the world. I went to so many amazing places. I learned Spanish. I did what a 75-year-old woman would do on sabbatical. I just love to have as many experiences as I possibly can."

Including, maybe, BDSM? In the marriage episode, you learn all about it. So I can see you are excelling in your pursuit of experiences.
"In BDSM, you see me excelling. I just have to find the right lover. [Laughs.]"

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