Thursday, January 10, 2008

“Chelsea Lately” Joins “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” Back on the Air

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

While New Year’s week marked the return of Letterman (with his writers) and Leno (without them) to the airwaves, this week was basic cable’s time to shine. Most of the attention went to the first new episodes of “The Daily Show” and the “The Colbert Report” in nine weeks, but little has been written about another basic cable talk show that made its return: “Chelsea Lately” (E!, new episodes air 11:30 p.m. Eastern nightly). (Unlike the Comedy Central shows, the return of “Chelsea Lately” had nothing to do with the writers strike, as E! is not a signatory to the WGA agreement. It was just time for the next set of episodes to air.)

I fully understand that many of you are now saying to yourself, “What the hell is ‘Chelsea Lately’? Something about the current exploits of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter?” Not quite. The Chelsea of the title is Chelsea Handler, a blonde, brassy stand-up comic who had a short-lived sketch show, “The Chelsea Handler Show,” on E! in 2006. With “Chelsea Lately,” Handler has moved to a talk show format, and the focus is of-the-moment celebrity news.

Handler makes for an interesting television presence, and it is easy to see how viewers could love or hate her -- sometimes all in the same episode. She is statuesque and striking looking, and you get the sense that had she decided to, she could have had a very different career playing off her looks in sexy sidekick roles. But her appearance contrasts with her personality, which is tough and sharp. Handler makes use of her shrill voice to emphasize her barbs, almost like a pre-plastic surgery Joan Rivers. As a host, she maintains an edgy, almost awkward demeanor that could bother some people, but I like it, because it immediately distinguishes her from the overly polished talking heads who dominate reality and talk television.

But what probably makes Handler’s persona most watchable, for me, is that she is as quick to put herself down as she is one of her celebrity targets. The result is that she doesn’t come off sounding like she thinks she’s better than the rich and famous, but, more accurately, just that they are no better than she is (or, by extension, we are).

“Chelsea Lately” begins with a panel discussion featuring celebrity journalists and comics (a recent group consisted of an E! producer, writer/actor Scott Thompson of “Kids in the Hall” and comedian Russell Peters), with Chelsea presiding. The gang runs through a list of au currant topics, cracking sarcastic, bruising jibes at their targets (which often include each other). If you are a celebrity with problems, “Chelsea Lately” is not the place to go for an understanding shoulder to cry on. The remarks can be quite cutting. Handler introduced a discussion of Jamie Lynn Spears by showing a clip from her show “Zoey 101,” with voices dubbed in to make it look like the episode was about the tween star’s pregnancy, including the passing of notes with a classmate that entailed making plans to perform sex acts on each other. It was an easy shot, sure, but it worked. The panel also poked fun at the rather prominent jaw of Rumer Willis (Bruce and Demi’s daughter), who was supposed to be a hostess at the canceled Golden Globe Awards ceremony. Again, it was definitely mean, but you quickly realize that it’s not like Willis was hiding in a bunker somewhere. She (with the help of her parents) put herself front and center by taking the Golden Globes gig.

The second segment of “Chelsea Lately” is filled with an interview, usually with a C-list star (think 80s pop singer Taylor Dayne). This week will feature sit-downs with, on different nights, Bret Michaels and Scott Baio, pretty much ensuring that all of VH1’s Sunday night reality shows are covered. Handler does a good job of walking a fine line with her subjects, managing not to out-and-out make fun of them, but also not taking them too seriously, either. For example, she genuinely pointed out how beautiful she thought Eva La Rue of “CSI: Miami” was in person, but she also delighted in making fun of her for being married twice to older men, including to John O'Hurley (J. Peterman on “Seinfeld”).

Oddly, considering her history with “The Chelsea Handler Show,” the portion of “Chelsea Lately” that works the least is her stand-alone comedy sketches. The Eva La Rue episode featured Handler conducting an ambush interview with a silhouetted Starbucks barista, asking her mock-serious questions about the time she waited on Madonna. It was one-note, repetitive and painful to watch, as was a quick-hit, pre-commercial bit in which, following the Spears discussion, Handler pretended to be pregnant with a co-worker’s child.

My biggest fear about “Chelsea Lately” is that while Handler and her guests delight in making fun of the talentless and clueless celebrities who find themselves on the wrong side of tabloid stories, by dedicating an entire daily half-hour show to the topic, she is, in fact, only pushing this worthless subject further into the pop culture. Maybe that’s too much analysis for a show that just wants to poke fun at a group of people who deserve it.

“Chelsea Lately” isn’t as funny as Chelsea Handler, but it is diverting entertainment.

Of course, “Chelsea Lately” is nowhere near as smart, funny or relevant as “The Daily Show” and the “The Colbert Report” (Comedy Central, new episodes air at Monday through Friday at 11:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Eastern, respectively). Both faux news shows returned Monday from their strike-induced hiatuses with writer-free offerings that concentrated heavily on the strike itself. It seemed only fitting that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert would turn their usual formulas loose on something that was affecting them so personally.

Stewart sported a unibrow, spoofing the beard grown by David Letterman and Conan O’Brian during their breaks from the air. He went on to get some of the presidential campaign jokes that he had not been able to use out of his system (noting that the Iowa caucus told us who “cold white people” would like to be president, while New Hampshire’s primary revealed the thoughts of “colder, whiter people”), before turning his attention to the strike.

In much the same way that Stewart barbecues both the Democrats and Republicans when they do stupid things, while making it clear that, generally, he is more likely to side with the Democrats, Stewart had plenty to say about both the writers and movie and television producers, even though it was clear that his sympathies were with his fellow scribes. He had a lot of fun with the overly earnest videos the WGA has posted to support its cause, and he portrayed the writers as video-game playing goofballs. But Stewart saved his heavy artillery for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who he said were better known as NAMBLA (if you don’t know what NAMBLA is, Google it, but not while you are at work ...). He also demonstrated the hypocrisy of the producers’ distinction between writing used on television and the Internet, showing a computer animation highlighting the differing distances from the screen between television watchers and computer users.

By Wednesday’s episode, he was back to full-on political satire mode, running a very funny collage of clips from the Democratic debate last Saturday in which candidates used the word “change.” Which only served to show how well “The Daily Show” has been able to soldier on even in the absence of the writers. Despite Stewart’s dedication to his staff (he said on Monday that until the writers return, the show should be called “A Daily Show” rather than “The Daily Show”), the half hour doesn’t feel all that different from usual. The two major losses seem to be the lack of the ambush interview conducted in the field by a correspondent that usually makes up the second segment, which is my least favorite part of “The Daily Show” anyway, and Screen Actors Guild guests for the final third of the program. The missing performers aren’t much of a loss, though, when you consider that Stewart was always as likely to interview a politician or professor (as he did on Monday’s episode) as a Hollywood star.

“The Colbert Report” followed the same basic playbook as “The Daily Show,” with Colbert taking aim at the strike in the manner he conducts all his shows, mainly by making himself look like an idiot. He even took the hand-off from Stewart with a biblical beard, which was completely “shaved” off when it got stuck in the shredder he was using to dispose of his script. Moving right in on the strike, Colbert started his show with the usual multi-camera-angle quick hits, only now, they were limited to introductory words (e.g. “And ...” or “Also ...”) because the writers had not written the substance of the items. Similarly, later, the “Word” segment was a blank screen. Colbert also wondered aloud why the teleprompter had no words, and when a producer informed him that it was because the writers were gone, he responded in confusion that writers weren’t responsible for the words. Instead, he said, the machine had the ability to read his mind and place his thoughts on the screen. I liked Colbert’s montage of clips from past episodes in which he had bashed unions. It was the perfect application of his satirical style to such a personal issue. Colbert’s one-note, over-the-top character can grate on me sometimes, and I certainly am a bigger fan of Stewart, but it was good to see Colbert back in fine form.

I was delighted to hear that Letterman was returning with his writers, and I thought that his first post-strike episode was pitch-perfect, from the dancing picketers to his jokes about the impasse (including a faux clip from the producers in which they argue that they can’t give two-and-a-half cents per download to the writers because they have no way of cutting a penny in half). I didn’t care about Leno’s return, because I don’t find him or his show funny at all. Even when he has his writers at his disposal, his humor panders, with the most obvious punch lines offered about the most obvious stories of the week (or, considering how long he milks jokes, the year).

But upon hearing that Stewart and Colbert were going back on the air without their creative staffs, I was afraid that the programs would be mockeries of themselves, far below the standards the two hosts had set. While the return of the writers is necessary and eagerly awaited, I was pleasantly surprised about how good the opening night shows were. It’s nice to have Stewart and Colbert back, even if not at full strength.