Chelsea comes lately
As Chelsea Handler's stock rises Declan Cashin asks if she is getting too close to her former targets
Guests on Chelsea Lately are asked questions that would make PR people go into meltdown
For a sex that has long held a reputation as good talkers and listeners, there are precious few female talk-show hosts working in popular entertainment today. Pick a country -- any country -- and see how many female chat show hosts you can come up with in that territory. It's a struggle, isn't it?
Don't get me wrong; I'm not under any illusion that women are staying away from the genre out of choice. Watch out now boys as I'm about to use a scary feminist term, but the patriarchal showbiz system has just never supported the concept of female light entertainment hosts (or female directors, female studio executives. . . you get the point).
This makes the recent success of US late-night talk-show host Chelsea Handler all the more significant. Since its debut four years ago, her programme, Chelsea Lately, has slowly built a core of fervent supporters.
Handler's brash, disarming and often outrageous interviewing techniques have attracted enough attention to propel her into the mainstream, which, as we'll see, has been something of a mixed blessing.
Handler -- aged 36 and a statuesque blonde -- started her career as a stand-up, having moved to Los Angeles as a teenager in search of acting work. She appeared on shows like The Bernie Mac Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno before bagging her own self-titled programme in 2006.
While her TV career was still trying to get off the ground, Handler found success elsewhere: as the humorous memoirist of three books. The first, My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands, charts the, ahem, ups and downs of her chaotic love life and appeared in 2005. It went on to top the New York Times bestsellers list.
She followed it up with what has to be one of the best titled essay collections ever published, Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, which, again, topped the bestseller list in 2008. She's penned two more tomes since.
The format of Chelsea Lately, which started on the E! channel in 2007, includes a cold opening with Handler making gags about the day's topical and, in the main, entertainment stories, before going into them in more detail with a panel of three comics.
To her credit, Handler recruits the services of a lot of not-yet-established stand-ups, and has been praised for her wide use of female comics on her panels.
Handler then conducts an interview with a celebrity guest. However, stars know that when they agree to do Chelsea Lately, they're more likely to be asked about bodily functions, behind-the-scenes gossip or other awkward matters that would typically cause PR people to go into meltdown.
But the celebs seem to love it, and often come back for more. Tellingly, the stars appearing on the show have become more 'A-list' standard with every passing year. Whereas Handler would have been lucky to get Jennifer Love Hewitt on the show in 2007, today Jennifer Aniston, whom Handler genuinely counts as a friend, is a regular guest.
And ergo lies Handler's current problems. There's only so long someone can stay outside the showbiz circle, taking the mick and becoming a star in the process, before that person is co-opted, and inevitably neutered by the very circle they once mocked.
Handler herself is a big celebrity in America right now, making great strides into the entertainment community -- to the point where it's genuinely been mooted that she may soon get her own primetime network talk show -- which is making it increasingly difficult for her to carry out the job that made her famous.
That, coupled with potential burnout and rapid over-exposure, is taking its toll. Take her gig as host of the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, this was a big deal; Handler was the first woman asked to host the VMAs since Roseanne Barr back in 1994.
Her performance was woeful. Critics dismissed her MC-ing duties as "workman-like" and "cringe inducing". The content and the delivery of her gags just fell flat nearly every time.
Since then there's been a noticeable dip in the quality of her talk show; the jokes are laboured. The outrage level has been lowered. Recent instalments have even been boring.
Even worse, she has allowed Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea to be turned into a laughter-tracked network comedy. Watch the trailer on YouTube, it's not pretty.
Here's hoping Handler can regroup and rediscover her comic mojo. She's a big talent, but needs to decide what kind of host she wants to be: nasty outsider or neutered insider.
Alas, I suspect that survival and mainstream success lay down only one path.