Cheslea Handler is a star in cable TV (as host of the E! Entertainment Television talk show “Chelsea Lately” and its reality-sitcom spinoff “After Lately”), a stand-up comedian and a best-selling author. Now she’s making the leap to executive producing and starring in a network comedy series. “Are You There, Chelsea?” (which was originally titled “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea,” the name of one of Handler’s books) premieres January 11, 2012, on NBC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time.
“Are You There, Chelsea?” (which is loosely based on Handler’s real life) follows the exploits of Chelsea (played by Laura Prepon), an opinionated and unapologetic woman in her 20s who lives life to the fullest as a cocktail waitress in New Jersey. Handler plays Chelsea’s older sister Sloane, who is very religious and conservative. Here is what Handler and Prepon said when they chatted with reporters during a recent telephone conference call.
Chelsea, why did you choose to play Sloane? Because Sloane’s supposed to be a conservative, born-again Christian, new mother, and that’s totally different from how you are on “Chelsea Lately” and “After Lately.”
Handler: I think for the obvious reason that I wanted to do something that was a little bit more challenging. I’ve been playing myself for 35 years now, so I’m not really getting as much out of it as I would a challenge to play something that’s completely against type. So it’s been much more fun to put on a wig and I give bright in the first episode, and I’m very, very uptight. And I’m very sarcastic, still, the character, but I’m very kind of buttoned-up.
So it’s fun to just kind of dress schlumpy and have a completely different appearance and have a completely different attitude. It’s nice to play against someone who’s playing me. So I can really it’s very antithetical to Chelsea. So it’s kind of a really fun role.
How did you get Jo Koy on the show?
Handler: He’s actually not on the show. He was just in the pilot and then we had to replace him because, well, we just didn’t think we didn’t think that chemistry between all the people in the bar was working perfectly. So we actually needed somebody who was a lot better looking. And you can put that in quotes.
Chelsea, what is the genesis of you getting this show on the air?
Handler: I had met with Tom Werner and his business partner. And we discussed possibly making this into a TV show. So they actually came to us. And we sat down and talked about the books and the how we would create the characters. And then they came and brought us some writers that we met with who are Dottie [Dartland Zicklin] and [Julie Ann Larson]. And we hit it off and thought they would have a really good take on the show, and kind of formatting it to a multi-camera comedy.
So they really kind of took it and went from there. And we’re all kind of heavily involved in the process. But we let them kind of come up with the stories for each episode and mine whatever they want to from the book. And then we tweak it however we see fit.
So it’s been a really fun process. It’s a very different process for me because, basically, I’m involved in the cable world heavily, as far as TV goes. And the landscapes for a multi-camera live audience sitcom is very, very different.
The process is very different and the whole the whole experience has been very different. You know, in cable we don’t take notes or we don’t have to we tape my show “Chelsea Lately” in 22 minutes a day. And “After Lately” is a different process, but it’s also single-camera, so it’s very different than “Are You There, Chelsea?”
So it takes four hours to tape one show. So it’s very, very different for me. And you get notes from the network, you get notes from the studio. So it’s a much different, it’s much bigger, much more of a collaboration than anything I’m used to doing.
You have your TV shows, touring and writing books. So when do you find time to sleep?
Handler: Well I’m in bed right now, if that answers your question, having a cappuccino. I could have done this call from office, but I opted to do it from my bedroom. Yes, it is that kind of call. So make sure you take your top off.
What do you think of the title as it is now?
Handler: Oh, good. I came up with it. So I hope I like it. Well no, you can’t put the content in the title, for network purposes. So I thought, “Are You There, Chelsea?” was a funny play on the fact that I’m not plying myself. You know, the fact that sometimes she makes ridiculous decisions.
And so it was kind of like not a double entendre. Maybe a triple entendre. I mean, it means so many different things, “Are You There, Chelsea?” So I thought it was a cute way to kind of keep to the book and also kind of appease the whole anti-vibe situation. Although there is plenty of drinking on the show, you just can’t have it in the title.
And what’s that been like to have Laura Prepon play you?
Handler: Oh it’s great. It’s a dream come true. I’m so sick of playing myself I can’t even tell you. NBC had narrowed it down pretty well. As soon as we all saw Laura, we thought she was perfect. She’s very salty, she’s very down-to-earth, she’s very direct, which are three things that I’d like toI mean, that I would identify myself with being.
So it was very nice to have somebody that was just she’s a normal girl. She’s a very, very, like cool laid-back kind of girl. You know, there’s not a lot of drama.
So the whole thing about my books and my life is that I create drama’s always around me. So it gives me an excuse to look the sanest person in the bunch, even though some of my actions are ridiculous. So she kind of encapsulated that from the minute we saw her. There was really no question. As soon as we met her, we thought she was perfect.
Do you get nervous about how the show will do? NBC’s has been lucky with some comedies, and not-so-lucky with comedies. Do you get caught up in all that kind of thinking?
Handler: Oh yes. I wouldn’t say I get caught up in it. Luckily I have I have a lot of jobs, so it’s not the end-all, be-all. But I would love nothing more than for this to be a success. You know, it’s a completely different medium, so you really don’t know how it’s going to be received until you see it on the air.
I was watching a bunch of episodes yesterday, giving notes on the episodes that we’ve done, and I think to myself, “God, this show is really, really funny. I hope that everyone who has been so loyal to me for so many years comes and sees this show and has the same feelings that I do about it,” because I am getting really excited about the show.
And I’m really, really hopeful that people will see it. And I think NBC, they have someone like Bob Greenblatt, who’s running the network now, and he’s probably the best guy I can think of to do it. And it will take time. But the network will turn around
I grew up with NBC and it was my show, with the Cosbys and “Family Ties.” And that was my channel. Like, NBC was it. So if there’s ever a time for women to be kind of taking over for a night of television, any night, whatever night that might be, I mean, it’s definitely now.
Chelsea, how much of your relationship with your father will be explored on the show?
Handler: It’s a pretty sizeable component in the show. Because the casting we cast Lenny Clarke, who is really, really hilarious in the show. So it’s funny. He doesn’t really physically look anything like my father, which is probably a favor to America.
It’s not a pure depiction. Every character isn’t a pure depiction of what you read about in the book, but the essence of everybody is kind of there. So we couldn’t have somebody on the show actually going to the bathroom in public places without using toilets. So we decided to go for the more cleaned up version of my father, which happens to be Lenny Clarke.
Laura, there was a bit of a change in casting during the middle of filming. But was it pretty instant when you began working with everyone?
Prepon: Yes. Everyone put together a really amazing group … There isn’t one bad egg, I guess you would say. Everyone loves coming to work every day and we really got lucky with a bunch of amazing actors that are all working together. It’s awesome.
Chelsea, after giving birth on the first episode, do you have any plan on actually doing that in the future?
Handler: Not after what I went through in the first episode, no.
Do you ever think about how making fun of other people may affect them?
Handler: No. No, I don’t. I feel like the people I make fun of kind of deserve to be made fun of.
What was it that made you want to be a comedian?
Handler: I like to laugh. It’s kind of escapism. I like to make people laugh. And I kind of like people just to have to not think about anything. So being able to kind of give that feeling in whatever medium it falls under, whether it’s cable or network or stand up or books or whatever, I just kind of like to leave people feeling like, “Oh, whatever they’ve done isn’t nearly as bad as what I’ve done.” So that also makes them feel better about themselves. And also to have it be in a humorous vein.
Is there something about Mormon or Jewish humor? Roseanne Barr grew up in a Mormon community and she said it was a big influence and she’s Jewish.
Handler: I think there’s humor to be kind of mined from anything, depending on what your situation is. Any kind of cross-relations when your growing up is always kind of good material. There are plenty of Jewish comedians. It matters what your take on it is if you look at it.
If you look at your circumstance, it could be anything. If you look at it with kind of askance and think, “OK, something’s a little off here,” then usually you can usually make a career out of that.
Chelsea, in interviews you’ve talked much about being an outsider. Is that element of the outsider still eating away at you?
Handler: I’ve accomplished or experienced a lot in this industry. And I have I have had amazing highs. And I’ve had big lows. But I definitely I don’t feel like an outsider. But that voice is always kind of there.
So there’s always times where you think, “Do I really belong here?” They’re very few and far between as compared to 10 years ago or my childhood. I’m pretty healthy about it, so I’m pretty good about not letting that ever get the best of me, and to let fleeting thoughts fleet.
Your character’s name was changed from Shoshanna to Sloane.
Handler: Her name’s always been Sloane in the books. So we just kept all the names from the book. I did do that for legal reasons so that my family wasn’t able to sue me.
Was that a possibility?
Handler: Well, with my family you never know. They say no, but I don’t know. I don’t trust anybody.
Is anything that we will not get to see that was perhaps in the book but didn’t make it to the show?
Handler: Laura could probably answer that better, because Laura’s been in every episode. I’ve seen every episode, but you would be better to speak to that, right? What’s your opinion about it?
Prepon: Yes, I feel honestly I think that we were talking about this the other day, and I think that with any show it’s like in the beginning you might stick to certain stories and certain things. But as the characters kind of evolved after the pilot, things just kind of the characters become more established and I think that it becomes more and more loosely based on the stories.
As the characters evolve and different things come up on the show that are funny and are like, “Oh wait, that’s really funny when we play that kind of storyline with that character. Let’s make that a characteristic of that person and then there becomes an episode about it.” So I think it’s just kind of depends. But right now it seems like it’s getting farther away from that.
Kind of like you’re making it your own, right?
Prepon: Yes, exactly. And people ask me about playing the real Chelsea and everything. And it’s kind of the same with that where they really trust me to do my take of it. And it’s really great because I can really kind of make her my own, and we kind of become this kind of organic, awesome thing, which is great.
Laura, how did you prep to play Chelsea knowing that she was not only your co-star, but also the executive producer on the show?
Prepon: Yes, I mean, it’s funny because…
Handler: Well, first I sent her a case of Belvedere just to start. And then from there…
Prepon: Because all of my friends, they pre-game at my house. They come and have drinks first before we go out. So that didn’t last very long. Chelsea, that was an awesome gift. So thank you.
It’s weird, because people ask me, “Are you nervous playing Chelsea and she’s in the scene right next to you?” And honestly, I’ve never been nervous or stressed-out about it. She really lets me do my own take on her. And it’s been amazing. I’ve never really felt like, “Oh no, this isn’t the right way to play it.”
Chelsea speaks with a certain pattern. And when we were doing a lot of voiceovers she really helped me a lot with a particular way that she speaks, which is awesome. But other than that, they really trust me to do my thing. It’s great.
Chelsea, is there anything that you would tell your 20-something self, knowing what you know now?
Handler: Yes. Do it all over and do it the same way. Because a lot of good things come from it.
Chelsea, you signed on to do a couple more seasons of your E! talk show, which is great. I’m a big fan. But prior to that, you had mentioned in the press maybe you want to do something serious. What made you decide to stay on? What was behind that decision?
Handler: I realized I was in a position at E! to kind of make the show into whatever I wanted to make it into. So if I want to get more serious about topics or talk more about politics or sports or whatever it may be, that I kind of have the audience already in place.
So I figured I would rather just stay here in a place where I’ve kind of built the loyal fan base and use that as kind of a jumping off point, rather than starting all fresh – starting fresh with another network. So that was part of it.
I have three shows going on. And it’s pretty much as much as I can do at one point. So with all these things happening, I’d like to just get them all off the ground before I start making different changes in my career. And I’m happy at E!, and they’ve been really good to me. And it just made sense to stay.
What kind of comedy is off the table to you? Is there any topic that you won’t touch at all?
Handler: Yes, probably just ugly babies. I don’t like to talk about people who are dying. I mean, those two things aren’t really necessarily funny to me.
What would fans be surprised to know about you that they wouldn’t know by watching the show or seeing you in Hollywood?
Handler: I don’t know. I don’t know enough about what people think about me to know what they’d be surprised about. Just the obvious stuff.
Prepon: Yes, I wouldn’t really know how to answer that question. Like, what people are surprised to know? I don’t know. I’d have to think about that one, too.
And what other plans do you have for 2012 other than the show?
Prepon: Well, oh God, that’s a tough one too. Basically, I’m hoping that obviously the show gets picked up because it’s unbelievable and the group is amazing and we just all love going to work every day. And other than that, right after the show ends I’m going to have to just focus on my directing too besides the show. That’s pretty much my goal this year.
On “Chelsea Lately,” you bring comics in that normally don’t get TV exposure. Were you able to do the same thing for “Are You There, Chelsea?”
Handler: Yes, and I think that’s the first thing that you’ll notice is a lot of these people are unknown — well most all of them, except for Laura, are unknown. And most of them come from a comedic background. We have a little person on the show, we have a woman named Ali Wong who’s a comedian, who’s really, really funny on the show, plays Chelsea’s best friend. And then we have another actress [Lauren Lapkus] who plays Dee Dee, who’s hilarious.
And then we also have Natasha Leggero, who’s been on a bunch of “Chelsea Lately,” and then among other things she joins the cast too for about seven episodes, I think. And so, yes, everyone comes from a comedic background, which I think is really, really important. They have to also be strong actors and – or strong characters. And they are.
Everyone is a character unto themselves, which I think is something that is really reflective of the way all the books are. And the way I like to see TV, I like to see real people that all have something. I don’t want to just see kind of like a supplement to a storyline. I like to see a real person in each role. And I think we’ve accomplished that. I mean, I know we’ve accomplished that.
There are comedies like “Californication,” which are funny but very also very poignant, as far as themes of addiction and drinking and whatnot. And then there are comedies like “Whitney,” where it’s on a certain plane, the laughs. Where does “Are You There, Chelsea” fall in between those two examples?
Handler: Laura, why don’t you answer that?
Prepon: Yes. I mean, honestly I think that audiences are getting a lot smarter now. I mean, we’re on at 8:30 [p.m.], which when I first found that out, I was assuming we were going to be a later show because we really do push the envelope.
But I don’t know. I think audiences are more mature now. I think they’re smarter now. And I think that we definitely push the envelope and we’re very kind of risqué, you know what I mean? And there’s some stuff that we get away with for the first couple takes and then standards and practices kind of makes us rewrite them.
But I think that people are going to love the show because we push the boundaries. Because it’s Chelsea’s show, I think people are kind of expecting us to be different and interesting and fun. And it is. You know, we really do go there, and I think people are going to love it.
Chelsea, how much of a challenge is it for you to switch off between acting and producing?
Handler: It’s not a challenge at all. I mean, I’ve been doing that on my other projects for “Chelsea Lately” and “After Lately” and pretty much everything I’ve ever done, I’m also a producer on them, with my books or my stand-up tour and everything. So it’s very natural to me. You know, I actually prefer the off-camera stuff to the on-camera stuff, to be quite honest.
What would you say is the formula for good comedic TV?
Handler: I don’t know that there is one formula that works. What were you going to say, Laura?
Prepon: I was just going to say from being fortunate enough to be on shows that have lasted a long time, and people have really responded to, is I honestly think that the formula for a show for people to come back and watch is you have to really love the characters and you have to care about them.
And on this show, one of the main things I really realized very quickly was all these characters are very real, they’re really funny, and you care about them. And you care about their relationships. And I think the people, aside from the comedy, are really going to respond to that.
And our main set piece on the show is a sports bar which it’s got like a little bit a “Cheers” vibe where everybody does kind of know your name. You know what I mean? Like you feel comfortable there, and I really think audiences are going to love coming back to see what’s happening with us, which is great.
Chelsea, the people around you have been elevated in stature because of their association with you. Will your dogs Chunk and Gary make any guest appearances on “Are You There, Chelsea”?
Handler: Gary, he can’t even learn how to go to the bathroom outside all of the time. So he’s definitely not going to be on TV. I’m not going to reward him with a television cameo until he gets that down. Chunk, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll have Chunk come on.
We haven’t thought about that yet. We have to film the show in Burbank, which is the Valley, and Chunk’s never been to the Valley. So I don’t want to shock his system just yet. He’s just dealing with the fact that I got another dog. Chunk’s very, very jealous.
But Chunk has the publishing contract, right?
Handler: Yes you would think that he would think about that but he’s not. He’s just thinking about me and where my attention is steered. So it’s the same with men. You have be very careful with dogs.
And Laura, you’ve been working with some very notable comedians lately with Chelsea Handler, of course, and on “That 70s Show” with Tommy Chong. What do you learn from being around such notable characters in comedy?
Prepon: Well honestly I think the main thing is just instinct. A lot of amazing comedians that I’ve worked with just really follow their instincts and you can’t really teach someone comedic timing. And you just kind of have it. And it’s really great to be around that and see that and fortunately grow up with it on an amazing show like “70s,” you know?
Now although the show is just premiering, how do you hope the progression of Chelsea’s character will continue as you tell her story?
Prepon: I mean, right now we’re not too worried about that. Right now we’re just telling amazing stories and I think people are going to really love the characters and want to come back just kind of check out what we’re up to and what’s going on with the relationships. But I think, if anything, we’ll just naturally grow like any other show and have evolved to that type of thing.
Handler: Yes, I think it’ll probably progress naturally like it has in real life. You know, over time, obviously the character’s set in her 20s. She plays 26- or 27-year-olds when I’m in the mid-20s. And just kind of where I was at that time.
And obviously, you grow you grow over time. I mean, it’s just one season. So right now we’re just trying to establish the character. But with success obviously she’ll go though ups and downs and probably grow out of it just the same way I have. But I had a really good time for a really long time, and then it just turned into a different kind of good time. So we shall see.
She’s definitely getting her share of good times, though, because she has a different guest star — male guest star — every week that she has to make out with or have sex with. Sometimes when we want to give her a break we don’t make her have sex with them. We just make her kiss them.
Chelsea, you make a lot of references on your talk show about your style or sense of style and how sometimes you have to get a little bit more glammed up, depending on who your guests are that day. What’s the sense of personal style that you want to transition into the show?
Handler: You know what? Obviously it’s nice to have nice things. But I’ve always kind of had the feeling, ever since I started doing stand-up, that it was better to draw attention to what you’re saying than the way you look. I’ve gotten a lot of flack for it. People are like, “Oh, you could be dressing up. You look like such a tomboy.” You know, this was earlier on.
And I’ve always been like, “Well that’s not really the focus of what I’m doing.” You know, I wanted to be a comedian, I wanted people to laugh at what I was saying, not to be staring at my boobs or wearing a skirt and show off my … I just didn’t think that that was the best way to get taken seriously in that world.
You know, now it’s a little different and I have a lot more fun with stuff because I’ve established myself and everything. But you definitely don’t want it to be a distraction. And obviously, Laura’s really sexy and cool and all of those things. So you want to embody that without making it the focal point.
And as two women who’ve had such longevity on television, have you noticed that you’ve felt your personal style changing over time?
Prepon: Yes, I think when you start out a certain way everything kind of it always evolves, it always changes. You know, you’re always growing. I know that when I first started acting, I mean, I’ve evolved and changed so much and learned so much, obviously. And I think that all is that all comes through in your acting and your comedy.
Handler: Yes and I would say definitely. I’ve definitely evolved with style and all of that stuff. Because when you’re able to get nicer things you get them and you’re able to appreciate nicer things. It’s like anything in life. You know, you start to get to travel to the places that you weren’t able to afford before.
You know, it’s also where your focal point is in life and what’s important to you at the time. You know, in the sitcom, Laura’s whole life is just about the here and now, and like, having as much fun as possible and enjoying life and not being judgmental and just kind of taking everything in stride and being able to make fun of herself while also being able to make fun of the people around her.
How much of a role does New Jersey play in “Are You There, Chelsea”? Is it true that it was originally supposed to be in L.A.?
Handler: No, it was always going to set in New Jersey.
Prepon: Yes. I mean, honestly, we don’t really reference New Jersey that much. I mean, if anything, you know we’re in Jersey. You can tell, like that we’re East Coast with all the characters on the show. Especially with Lenny Clarke’s accent, you know that we’re somewhere on the East Coast, but you definitely get a vibe of East Coast on our show.
Other than that, we reference, like being Mets fans and hating the Yankees. But other than that, we don’t really stress too much where it is. But you definitely get that kind of comfortable, homey, East Coast vibe, which I personally love.
How much did you have to scale back and censor because it’s a network show?
Prepon: Sometimes we’ll get away with a certain word. Like last Friday when I read it, I’m like, there’s no way we’re going to get away with that. And we did it for the first take and then our standards and practices, she’s a lovely, lovely lady, she Urban Dictionary viewed it and it was like, “No you can’t say that.” So then we had to change it.
But she’s very understanding. They’ve gotten a little more relaxed with us because it’s all in the name of we’re just being funny and having a good time. But it honestly, it depends. Audiences are way more mature now. I feel like they can handle a lot more than they used to. So I feel like we’re getting away with a lot more than we probably would have five or six years ago.
Handler: Oh, it’s very edgy.
Prepon: Yes, we’re definitely edgy.
For more info: “Are You There, Chelsea?” website
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