After making her talk show, a comedy special and multiple documentaries for Netflix, comedian Chelsea Handler has moved on to HBO Max for her first stand-up special in six years. Is this a sign of her evolution, too, or just another sign that 2020 is gonna keep keeping it weird?
The Gist: Handler, who lives in the exclusive Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, traveled back to her native New Jersey this summer to film her first stand-up special for HBO Max outside the old railroad terminal on Liberty State Park in Jersey City, where her view from the stage overlooked the Hudson River and lower Manhattan on the other side. It’s a beautiful setting, but of course, it’s of necessity to even get away with filming a comedy special with a live audience during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the opening montage makes note of that.
But don’t come here expecting pandemic jokes. Even if she cracks at one point, “I believe that I am built for the apocalypse. Which, by the way, we’re in.”
No. You also won’t hear too much in the way of the celebrity gossip that made Handler famous as a snark-talk host on E! from 2007-2014, through six best-selling books, and her Netflix years. Instead, this hour focuses on Handler’s own evolutionary personal growth, with much of the material, as the closing credits tell us, from her 2019 memoir, “Life Will Be The Death Of Me.” So fans of hers who’ve read that book may know most what to expect.
What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: Handler is the latest, but certainly not the last, famous comedian to clearly have been influenced by Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, in terms of allowing herself to become more vulnerable onstage and revisiting her past while still pursuing laughs. In that sense, this could be the special that could only come out as a result of her 2016 Netflix docuseries, Chelsea Does, and the “Chelsea Does Therapy” footage that never got filmed or broadcast.
Handler’s trajectory also is somewhat reminiscent of the path taken by Sarah Silverman before her. Silverman, of course, made her name in comedy by being charmingly offensive, getting away with saying naughty or even nasty things by being cute or sexy or both, but now she’s likewise gone woke. Although neither Silverman nor her fans would ever have called Silverman angry, as Handler willingly acknowledges of her own self.
Memorable Jokes: The first 19 minutes or so, Handler focuses her fire on the superficially shallow women of Southern California, with a detailed story about getting talked into a silent retreat in Topanga Canyon and one of the rare times she had a bad experience with drugs, as well as a story about the other time a pot cookie done her wrong.
There’s also crudely blunt jokes about her appearance — “I decided to wear white tonight, guys, ‘cause I’m expecting my period.” — as well as about her proclivity for dating black men, and why that shouldn’t scare off potential white suitors.
But we’re here for her evolution, right? Handler describes how that came about first thanks to her Netflix special about white privilege, and her own stumbling on the first day of filming that forced her to attend sexual harassment training. And how she eventually sought a therapist for her anger issues, which she thought were motivated by Trump, but ultimately came to realize the deeper underpinnings of her anger and how it related to her need to be rescued by relationships or by attention.
She finds the jokes in her anger issues, referring to herself in separate occasions as “that’s the kind of bitch I am” while also striving in another instance “to be less of a cunt.”
She finds her salvation in her therapist’s suggestion that she find empathy? But first, she has to ingest enough cannabis to embrace meditation. Even then, she finds her final test coming her way on an airplane fight seated next to a farting fat man she can only imagine must be a Trump supporter.
Our Take: You came for her comedy and you stay for her emotional and psychological breakthrough, which thanks to comedy, finally gets Handler to wrap her head around what she felt were twin tragedies she experienced as a nine-year-old.
Perhaps her experience will allow you to identify your own opportunities for personal growth. Perhaps, if you’ve felt similarly angry over the past four years or more, Handler’s search for empathy will inspire you to do likewise.
If you’re a longtime or avid fan of Handler, then perhaps you’re already up to speed, having read her latest memoir sometime in the past year. Even if your only experience watching Handler has been of the casual variety, then perhaps you’re wondering, this is an evolution from what? It certainly helps to watch her 2019 Netflix documentary, Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea. Then you can see how the seeds were planted for her stand-up to become less trivial and more substantial and vulnerable. There you can see how she truly was a troubled teen who somehow stayed out of trouble due to her white privilege. Then you can look back at her credits and see why her first big break on TV might come via a prank series called Girls Behaving Badly. That’s how Handler lived and how she built her brand. But that’s not how she wants to live now.
Our Call: STREAM IT. I can applaud Handler for her efforts, even if I’m not always laughing along with her at them. If she can help at least one viewer find and encourage empathy in his/her own life, then it’s all worth it, right?
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.
Watch Chelsea Handler: Evolution on HBO Max