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Why Netflix Is Binging On "Chelsea"

By giving comedian Chelsea Handler free rein with her talk show, Netflix is opening itself up to new risks—and new opportunities for growth.

Why Netflix Is Binging On "Chelsea"

Chelsea Handler

[Photos: Peter Hapak; Set Design: Anthony Asaro; Hair: Bryce Scarlett; Makeup: Quinn Murphy]

"This place is so vast!" says Chelsea Handler, nearly breaking into a Mary Tyler Moore–like twirl inside an empty soundstage on the Sony lot.

"There’s so much room to maneuver!" In a few weeks, carpenters will begin construction on the set of her upcoming Netflix talk show, scheduled to begin streaming in 190 nations on May 11. But for now, on a warm February afternoon in Culver City, as Handler takes in the 16,000-square-foot space for the first time, all she has is her imagination.

"I’ve never actually been in here before," she says. "I’ve only seen where the green room and the guest rooms are going to be. And"—she pauses for effect—"where they’ll be putting the bar."

If all goes according to plan—and things usually do in Handler’s world, even if she insists she never has a plan—the 41-year-old stand-up comedian turned E! network star turned streaming pioneer will be spending a large chunk of the next several years inside this soundstage. The exact contours of the show are still being worked out by Handler’s staff of 50 producers, writers, editors, and researchers. What’s certain is that the program, called Chelsea, will stream three nights a week—Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays—and feature interviews with a variety of guests about often touchy topics: "abortion, parenthood, the electoral college . . ." she says, by way of examples, plus a regular dose of Handler’s bawdy, transgressive humor. It will feature taped field reports—mini versions of the four hour-plus Chelsea Does documentaries that debuted on Netflix back in January. There will be a live audience and lots of wild-card elements; earlier in the day, Handler held auditions for a child correspondent ("I’m looking for a 10-year-old with attitude," she says). All of this will be packed into a running time of 30 minutes, more or less. In the world of streaming video, nobody is watching the clock too closely.

Right now, she’s in the middle of a series of creative meetings. "People come and pitch me ideas," she says, gesturing vaguely toward where a lazy Susan–style stage she’s proposed might go ("There’ll be a section if I’m interviewing three or four people, the way Dick Cavett sometimes did, and another if I’m interviewing one of the show’s correspondents," she explains). "That’s how I’ve always worked. Give me options. I’ll tell you what I like and don’t like. I know what the show is. I just can’t put it in words. But it won’t be regimented. You’re not going to turn it on three nights a week and have an opening monologue, a guest, and a band. It’ll be completely different."

In one respect, it already is: It’s on Netflix.

Talk shows on broadcast airwaves have censors, commercial breaks, and nightly ratings. Talk shows on basic cable—such as Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, on TBS—get away with racier conversations but still have to cut to ads (and deal with jittery advertisers). Even pay-cable talk shows, like John Oliver’s, on HBO, follow relatively traditional formats—a guy behind a desk—and exist within an old-fashioned corporate bureaucracy. But a talk show that runs on a streaming service—especially one that prides itself on giving talent virtually unlimited creative freedom, that is intent on rewiring the viewing habits of the whole world, and that has a $6 billion budget with which to do all of this—can be pretty much whatever its host wants it to be. On Netflix, there are no ads, no ratings (the company has never revealed how many people watch its shows, much to the annoyance of its competition), and no network notes, at least none that Handler can recall. The company "is amazing," she says.

Netflix’s laissez-faire attitude toward talent has resulted in some groundbreaking programs, including Beau Willimon’s presidential soap opera, House of Cards, and Jenji Kohan’s women’s prison dramedy, Orange Is the New Black (as well as a few stinkers, like the recent Full House reboot, Fuller House). Even so, Handler’s show will mark a major departure. For one thing, the company that popularized binge viewing will be releasing episodes in a radically old-fashioned way: one at a time. Each will go live at 12:01 a.m. and remain on servers indefinitely, for subscribers to stream as they please—but it’s as close as Netflix has ever come to traditional appointment television.

What’s even more unusual for Netflix is that the show will be covering current events in some degree of real time. This is a move that CEO Reed Hastings and chief content officer Ted Sarandos had hinted at during an earnings call last October. "On the news side, we are definitely being more adventurous," Sarandos told reporters, somewhat cryptically. When Hastings responded by asking Sarandos, "What’s the likelihood that we compete with Vice in the next two years?" Sarandos answered, "Probably high." The Internet immediately lit up with talk of Netflix’s grand new plan to expand into news, and the streaming service quickly backpedaled. In a follow-up email, a corporate spokesperson attempted to clarify these remarks by telling reporters, "We’ll leave the news business to folks like yourself."

Chelsea Handler Solves Your Thorniest Work Problems

Handler, of course, isn’t a newsperson. But talk shows are by nature tethered to the stories of the day, and having her on the air discussing them marks a shift for Netflix, transforming the media company from a simple streaming service, such as Hulu or Amazon Prime Video, into a living, breathing part of the news cycle. "It doesn’t have to be ripped from the headlines every episode," Sarandos says of the show’s content, backpedaling a little bit more. "If Chelsea is picking the right topics, the conversation is going to be around for a few weeks. But, yes, it’s definitely more topical and timely than what we usually do."

There are risks for Netflix. After all, the company is putting its money and reputation (and 90 minutes a week of bandwidth) behind a button-pushing, controversy-prone comedian who once dressed a little person as Adolf Hitler to celebrate Germany’s World Cup win, whose sharp tongue has made enemies of everyone from Angelina Jolie to Nick Cannon, and who has posted more topless photos of herself than Vladimir Putin (which may explain some of her 5.8 million Twitter followers and 2.1 million Instagram followers). Talk-show hosts function as brand identifiers: Jimmy Fallon is in many ways the face of NBC, just as Jon Stewart was for Comedy Central. Placing an unpredictable force like Handler behind a talk-show desk (even if she doesn’t end up having a desk) could put Netflix in awkward situations.

At the moment, though, Handler is just looking for a place to sit down. After winding through hallways and taking some stray turns ("Is this an office?" she asks after opening a door into what looks like a closet), Handler finally finds the only part of the soundstage with furniture—a large backstage lounge with a couple of old sofas presumably left behind by a previous tenant. As the star settles into a couch, the production assistant asks if he can fetch her a bottle of water.

"No," she says, deadpan. "Just bring us a condom."


Ted Sarandos was chatting with his wife at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in February 2014 when Handler crashed their conversation. "She asked me if I was the Netflix guy," recalls the exec, who’d never met the comedian before. "She asked a lot of questions. She was really tenacious about it. She wanted to know how things worked, how Netflix was different. It was a real deep dive. It was almost as if she was on a fact-finding mission."

Which, in fact, she was.

At the time, Handler was in the middle of her seventh year hosting Chelsea Lately, the entertainment-news channel E!’s popular five-day-a-week, late-night talk show in which she engaged in gossipy banter with Hollywood celebs and poked fun at her little-person sidekick, Chuy. The gig had made her rich (the network reportedly paid her between $8 million and $12 million a year) and famous (each episode drew upward of a million viewers) and even something of a groundbreaker: the first female comic to succeed at late-night-TV hosting, something not even Joan Rivers was able to do. Reruns of her show aired so many times a day that it sometimes seemed like the only thing on the network. There was even a spin-off, After Lately, a semi-fictitious reality series in which the cast and crew of Chelsea Lately was shown bickering and engaging in other backstage shenanigans. That drew a million viewers per night as well.

But after taping more than 1,000 episodes (and interviewing almost as many Kardashians), Handler was miserable and ready for a change. She was tired of celebrity gossip, appalled at the audience’s hunger for it, and, most of all, fed up with being on the network that produced programs like Leave It to Lamas and Bridalplasty. "It was incredibly frustrating," she says. "You’re a reflection of the company you keep, and I wasn’t impressed with anybody. The people I was working with on the network side, they never could think big. I just wanted to leave, to be somewhere else."

Handler has trusted her instincts ever since she was a kid in suburban New Jersey. "I never really have epiphanies," she says, "I just have thoughts and act on them. I’m impulsive." Her dad was a used-car salesman and Jewish; her mom, a German-born homemaker, was Mormon. ("We celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah, but I consider myself Jewish," she says.) The youngest of six children, she was raised without much supervision, and it clearly left her with an independent streak. After about "10 minutes" of community college, Handler says she left for L.A. to become an actress, moving in with relatives who had nine children, three dogs, and a parrot. Living in what she calls a "disgusting" environment, she waited tables between auditions for commercials and sitcom parts, growing more and more restless. "I just wanted my life to begin," she says. "I wanted everything to start. I wanted my break."

It came soon, in the unlikely form of a DUI conviction. On the eve of her 21st birthday, while driving home from a bar with an equally sloshed friend—"midway through [singing] the second chorus of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ " as Handler describes the incident in her 2008 best-selling memoir (the second of five), Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea—she was pulled over by the police. After a night in jail, she was sentenced to DUI classes, and it was there, while regaling fellow offenders with the details of her arrest (like how she called the white cops who busted her "racists" and drunkenly complained about being "racially profiled"), that she realized her calling. "You ought to do stand-up," her DUI classmates told her.

"Stand-up was my entrée into the entertainment world," she says. "I didn’t have to act out somebody else’s words. I could just stand there with a microphone and nobody would interrupt me. It’s the most narcissistic thing you could probably do."

Next act: After leaving E!, Handler was drawn to Netflix by the freedom to explore.

Within about six years, she had landed development deals with Paramount and NBC. She scored her first regular role, on an Oxygen network sketch-comedy program called Girls Behaving Badly (sort of an estrogen-infused Punk’d), and started getting invitations to appear on the E! network’s "countdown" reports, in which various comedians riff on news and celebrity gossip.

Ted Harbert, who was then the head of the Comcast-owned network, spotted her and saw potential. In 2005, he offered Handler her own sketch-comedy program, The Chelsea Handler Show, which tanked. A year later, he tried again, giving her Chelsea Lately. Around this time, Handler began a relationship with Harbert (now chairman of NBC Broadcasting) that had E! employees gossiping around watercoolers for four years, until they broke up. "Now that I look back on it, it was very odd," she admits. "It was tricky. But my mom had just died. And he was the president of the network. He was this older guy who thought I was the greatest thing in the world. So I returned the favor."

As she says: She has thoughts and acts on them.

Handler did so again in March 2014, a month after chatting up Sarandos at that Oscar after-party, when she decided to leave E! and broke the news to her bosses in a way that only Handler might think was a good idea—by all but announcing it on The Howard Stern Show. "E! has just become a sad, sad place to live," she said on the air. "They don’t know what they’re doing, they have no ideas . . . everything they do just is a failure." Handler says she was surprised when E! execs assumed it was a ploy for a fatter contract. "Because I felt unhappy, I just assumed that they knew," she explains. "But they thought I was negotiating. I told them, ‘You don’t have to give me more money. It’s not about that. I don’t care. I don’t want to be on this network anymore.’ " An E! spokesperson says, "Chelsea called E! home for seven years, and it’s disappointing that she continues to criticize the network that launched her career."

Working blue: Handler looks forward to being free from traditional network restrictions.

Handler’s next move became a subject of intense speculation in the TV world. That spring, the late-night airwaves were in flux. At CBS, Letterman had announced his retirement from Late Show, and Craig Ferguson’s contract with The Late Late Show was about to expire. Once Handler left E!, rumors began to circulate that she was after one of those jobs. An Instagram photo that she posted showing a packet of papers with the CBS logo on them and a caption reading "business meeting" didn’t do a lot to dispel this talk. But Handler was merely stirring the pot. "Those were just meetings that people wanted to take," she says. "I was offered several jobs. I was offered syndication late-night shows. But they were all conversations that didn’t get far, because there was no point. I was never interested. I didn’t want to step into somebody else’s shoes. I didn’t want to be on some other late-night show doing the same shit again."

What she was interested in—and why she sought out Sarandos at that party—was Netflix. "House of Cards was on, and I just thought it was cool," she says. "I thought they were smart, that they knew what they’re doing, and that I could do something different there. I thought, I want to work at that table."

She asked her manager, Irving Azoff, to set up a meeting with "the Netflix guy" at the streaming service’s Beverly Hills headquarters. (Azoff did nothing to dissuade her. "He never tells me what to do—he knows better," she says.) Sarandos, who attended the meeting, along with Netflix’s VP of content acquisition, Lisa Nishimura, and VP of original content, Cindy Holland, was "stunned that Chelsea hadn’t signed with one of the CBS shows," he says. "But it wasn’t like we were looking to make a talk show. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s find a host.’ She came in, and we met, and it was more like one of those we-don’t-know-if-we-should-do this-because-we’ve-never-done-anything-like-this-before kind of things." Turns out those are Netflix’s favorite types of meetings. "We’re all about experimenting," says Nishimura. "And the timing was terrific."

Although Netflix didn’t do any formal crunching of Handler’s numbers—there were no focus groups or analyses of her ratings on E!—the company had detected signs that the streaming audience was receptive to a Netflix talk show. "Anecdotally, if you look at what’s happening in late night, increasingly people want consumer control," says Nishimura. "Whether it’s digital clips of Fallon’s celebrity lip sync or [James] Corden’s singing with celebrities in cars, you’re starting to find that consumers aren’t watching late night as appointment TV." Though Netflix is a closed system, it plans to share video clips via YouTube and its social channels to drive viewers to the show.

"Near-live," is what BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield calls this new form of entertainment consumption. "People love the late-night conversation, but they want to watch it on their own terms. And Netflix wants to be a part of that." Near-live programming, he explains, fits with the company’s push to keep people paying $7.99 a month. "That’s the most important thing for Netflix. They don’t care about nightly ratings—they care about subscribers coming back. And with Chelsea Handler, they see a talent with a passionate fan base and a person who knows how to use social media to drive awareness." When Handler isn’t posting risqué photos of herself ("I think nudity is funny, especially when it’s inappropriate," she says), she’s tweeting out a cascade of zingers, put-downs, and comedic observations. "I found a piece of pretzel in my underwear this morning," she tweeted recently. "Conclusion: I was intoxicated, unsupervised, and abstinent."

Surprisingly, Handler says social media doesn’t come naturally to her. "Would I do these things if I wasn’t famous?" she ponders. "No. If I didn’t have something to promote, I wouldn’t. It’s just something you have to do right now. But once I got the hang of it, it has been fun to interact with fans. As silly as it sounds, it feels good to do it." It also makes smart business sense, undoubtedly providing leverage in negotiating with, say, major streaming companies. In June 2014, Handler and Netflix signed a deal reportedly valued at $10 million—or five times what John Oliver is said to be paid by HBO—for the show, the docuseries, and a stand-up special for Netflix (Uganda Be Kidding Me Live, released in October 2015). Then she acted on impulse again, announcing that she’d be taking a break. She didn’t come back for 18 months.


Handler is lounging poolside at her Bel Air home, getting high. And then doing leg squats.

She’s filming one of her talk show’s field reports, this one focusing on a personal trainer who believes that inhaling marijuana before a workout enhances the exercise experience. He’s brought complicated-looking vaporizing devices, which Handler needs help operating—"I’m more of a drinker," she says apologetically, after coughing up a lungful of cannabis—as well as some brutal-looking sports equipment. A camera crew is capturing it all, as Handler’s two furry mutts, Chunk and Tammy, watch with weary detachment from the other side of the pool.

Handler has shot a number of these mini docs, not all of them in the comfort of her tastefully decorated home—which happens to be Esther Williams’s old mansion, remodeled with ultramodern conveniences, including a guest bathroom with an electronic toilet control panel so high-tech you need a degree in physics just to flush. Last week, she had flown to Moscow ("a horrible place," she notes, making a face) to do a segment on young girls in the Russian figure-skating program. Next week, she’ll hop over to Las Vegas to watch a hypercompetitive youth baseball tournament. There will also be segments on a vocal coach who teaches trans women how to sound more feminine and a visit to the home of a polygamist family. Judging from what’s going on around her pool—Handler, high as a kite, swinging a kettle bell so clumsily it’s a wonder she doesn’t accidentally propel herself into the pool—these taped segments will be pretty hilarious.

But like her four heavily promoted Chelsea Does docs, which premiered on Netflix in January, they’ll aim to be more than merely amusing. One reason Handler was drawn to Netflix was that she could express a smarter, more intellectually curious side of her personality. "When we were on the network, I can’t tell you how many times we had to take jokes out because of advertisers," she says. "It was constant bickering back and forth. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. There was no creative license." But with Netflix, if she wants to get high and do push-ups, it’s not a problem. If she wants to spend 30 minutes discussing presidential politics, that’s cool too. If she wants to take an epic hiatus before starting the show—traveling the world, buying a house in Spain, and having a brief fling with a crew member aboard a ship—nobody is going to complain.

"I sat down at Netflix and told them I want to take [time] off, and then I could come back and do some documentaries, if they would hook me up with some of [the filmmakers] they had access to," she recalls. "And they were like, ‘Great!’ "

The Chelsea Does docs—about racism, marriage, drugs, and Silicon Valley—were Handler’s idea, but from Netflix’s point of view they were a savvy segue into a talk show, a tone test for a new sort of Chelsea. They’re not exactly Ken Burns–level productions, but they are certainly more intelligent and thought-provoking than anything Handler ever did on E!. In the Silicon Valley episode, she ventures to the tech capital to "talk to them about their algorithms—and find out what an algorithm is." She rides a hoverboard, interviews an AI robot ("Are you trying to annoy me?" it asks her), and pitches her own app, an iPhone program that fakes an incoming call or text so that you can sneak out of meetings (Gotta Go! went on sale on iTunes the week the doc was released).

"The docs gave us the opportunity to try a new format," says Sarandos. "The interview style, the roundtables, the outside segments—all of those are things that will be in the talk show." As Handler puts it, they "served as a great bridge. I wanted to show people that I’m taking a real big jump into something new, that I was reinventing myself."

To continue that evolution on the talk show, Handler has enlisted Bill Wolff, the producer who, in 2005, discovered an obscure Air America Radio host named Rachel Maddow and turned her into MSNBC’s No. 1 star (he left in 2014 for The View). "Chelsea and Rachel are actually similar people," Wolff says, "smart, funny, hard-working, and transparent. When you meet Chelsea or Rachel, they’re just as they appear on TV."

Handler spoke with several potential producers before connecting with Wolff. ("We met at a hotel bar for one drink—and that became 10 drinks," she says.) Wolff for his part, appreciated Handler’s creative instinct. "The vision was essentially in place," he remembers. "She told me that she wanted to put together a show in her voice, but that was about the broader world."

The process of creating a talk show is always the same, Wolff says, whether the host is a wonky Rhodes Scholar with an Elvis-like ’do or a community college dropout (who says she reads 75 books a year and who has written five best sellers of her own). "You spend a lot of time together," he explains. "You find out what she’s interested in, what she likes to do, the things she finds funny. And over the course of weeks and months, you piece together a proper form for her self-expression. You try to exploit the things that make that person special."

What’s tricky about Handler is that the very things that make her unique—an instinct to push buttons and a fearlessness about offending—aren’t traits typically associated with talk-show schmoozers. Netflix has content deals with other stars—Adam Sandler, the Duplass Brothers, Brad Pitt—but the person the company has chosen to beam into subscribers’ bedrooms, night after night, in 190 countries, happens to be the one capable of insulting entire nation-states with a single zinger (she still hasn’t apologized to Serbia after an offhand remark about that country being a "disappointment" sparked a nationwide boycott of her E! show).

Still, Chelsea—and Chelsea—may be a gamble worth taking. "Neflix is about reaching all four quadrants," explains analyst Greenfield. "Fuller House is very different from House of Cards, which is very different from Orange Is the New Black. And Chelsea is different, as well, which is what Netflix wants. If you think about what a video bundler does," he goes on, "it provides a little bit of food programming on a food channel, a little comedy on a comedy channel, a little drama, a little bit of everything. And that’s what Netflix is doing with Chelsea Handler—it’s providing a totally different type of content. Because, remember, Netflix doesn’t really want to be a network, it wants to be a video packager. Its goal is not to replace HBO. It wants to replace Comcast."

That stoned woman by the pool, lurching around with a kettle bell? She is merely its latest secret weapon.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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