#7 Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang
By Chelsea Handler
Grand Central Publishing, 2010
It’s hard not to like Chelsea Handler, only you keep wishing she were funny. Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang is her third book to reach the bestseller list, and its essays are simply extended versions of monologues that might appear on her benign, endearingly low-budget, and unfunny talk show Chelsea Lately. Viewers of the show – TV viewers in general, really – will find its contents as undemanding as an hour surfing Youtube clips. Handler’s basic-cable entourage are all featured: her no-nonsense personal assistant Eva, her pale, mouth-breathing producer Brad, her amiable dwarf sidekick Chuy (pronounced Chewy), and so on. Their presence in her narratives keeps Handler feeling comfortable, and allows her to ramble on for the requisite number of triple-spaced pages in the inoffensive bantering style that has helped her stake a claim in the male-dominated field of late night television, and recently earned her a gig hosting the Video Music Awards (a performance that, sadly, was not well-received, owing to the fact that it wasn’t funny).
Handler’s running shtick, in which her viewers and readers get to be complicit, is that she is supposed to be an edgy, unfiltered, bitch-on-wheels personality type. The truth, of course, is that all of her material would be perfectly at home on The View, that elephant’s graveyard of once-talented women. Here she writes about farting in public, getting “the feeling” as a young girl, drinking before noon. All of it seems like it may have been moderately shocking forty years ago, and that in turn lends her essays a warm sense of nostalgia, for the era of Bob Hope and Henny Youngman, when comedy was mannered, friendly, winking, and unfunny. The dedication in Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang just needs a rimshot: “To my brothers and sisters. What … a bunch of assholes.”
Given the widespread toleration for the onetime “seven words you can’t say on TV” (and that the number one book on this bestseller list is called Shit My Dad Says), there are a surprising number of safe-for-work euphemisms throughout these essays – but that’s clearly part of Handler’s faux-wild girl appeal. Her first piece, about her discovery of masturbation as an eight-year-old, gives us the cutesy slang “hot pocket in a pita,” “magic muffin,” “baby bean,” and, a little out of place perhaps, “albino pincushion.” A later essay is mostly about how her dog Chunk is unable to take a “shadoobie” in her presence. Handler’s large family, characterized as unregenerate screw-ups, are adorably tame, squabbling in their Martha’s Vineyard beach house about God knows what, getting high and eating sandwiches. The drugs in this world are Vicodin and – be careful now – mushrooms.
On occasion, Handler will venture her big toe over the line of political correctness, albeit in perplexing ways. “Hawaii bores me,” she writes. “There’s no nightlife, and whenever I’m there, I wake up at seven. If I wanted to wake up at seven, I’d adopt a black baby.” But before you’ve had time to puzzle over that newly-minted stereotype, she introduces us to her beloved chauffeur Sylvan (some of my best drivers are black!), whom she takes on an expensive beach vacation and pairs up with a sassy black woman named Wendy. “You white people are CUH-razy,” says Wendy, who didn’t even know about the ‘shrooms. The foil to all these yuks is Handler’s then-boyfriend Ted Harbert, who’s the CEO of Comcast and therefore, rather interestingly, the head of the E! network, which puts on Handler’s show. But he might as well be Ricky Ricardo, as his roles include engaging in a dance-off with one of Handler’s exes and being the butt of a prank that was filmed and later aired on her next appearance with Jay Leno, our reigning heavyweight champion of comfortably unfunny comedy.
Only the first two essays here, about Handler’s girlhood, show any semblance of having been written and constructed – the rest are more like slice of C-list celebrity life. But at one point she expresses what almost resembles a writerly ethos of a sort: “I am fascinated by anyone and everything,” she says, “especially if it involves a childhood story about an inappropriate uncle or obesity.” Human curiosity is not exactly a common trait in television stars, and that too must be what makes her such a likable commodity. I came away from Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang hoping she’d spend more of her capital on time for real writing about things that fascinate her. And maybe, in doing that, she’ll drop the whole awkward pretense of trying to tell jokes.
Sam Sacks is an editor for Open Letters living in New York. His book reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and The Barnes and Noble Review, amongst other places.