Chelsea Handler, the host of the late-night show “Chelsea Lately,” has made clear her plans to leave E! when her contract is up. She is one of two stars whose plans to switch jobs after asking for more money were revealed over the weekend. (The other was ABC’s Josh Elliott, heading to NBC.) Unlike the professionally inoffensive Elliott, Handler is a complete wild card, speaking freely and without any regard for whom she might offend. And unlike Elliott, an anchor on the top-rated “Good Morning America,” Handler is not, strictly speaking, a success in late night. As Handler prepares to leave late night entirely the province of white men, what will have been her legacy?
Though Handler’s request for a raise was not fully met by E!, that doesn’t necessarily come as a shock; her audience has dipped substantially since the show’s peak, though her team claims that there’s a mitigating factor. Handler is the only woman in late night, and has a “more female” audience generally.
Whether or not Handler deserved a raise from E! is irrelevant; she’ll be paid more in whatever she does next. But despite the fact that Handler’s humor often comes, rather brutally, at the expense of other women or nonwhite folks, her presence even as a flawed star is far better than nothing. Across broadcast and cable, now, the entire landscape is made up of white men, one of whom, Bravo’s Andy Cohen, is gay. Despite marginal differences in point of view — Cohen’s comic perspective and Conan O’Brien’s and Jimmy Kimmel’s are all a bit different — viewers of comedy programming between 11 and 1:30 will get a set of jokes filtered through the worldview and perspective of a white male. One white male late-night host is not, per se, someone the audience should reject out of hand. But white men exclusively? There’s an entire set of points of view on everything from booking to subject matter that falls out entirely when every host looks the same. Handler’s jokes at the expense of famous ladies may not have been to everyone’s taste, but she, unlike most late-night hosts (excluding Cohen), took pop culture as a serious subject for discussion and approached it in the manner of an informed fan.
Handler’s career is hardly over; she’s said to be fielding various offers for a weekly show. But her legacy in late night ought not to end with her; the part of her show’s run that E! and others can build upon is its strong following among women (borne out not only by ratings but by Handler’s success in other venues, like book sales). While ratings have sagged in recent years, Handler was, early in her run, a media and audience sensation — the sort of star it was clear viewers had been waiting for. For the price of Handler’s salary, E! can build a comedy block with rising female stars, not to trade out one woman for another but to build upon what was successful about Handler’s run. Handler may not have merited a huge raise, but a host who provides a point of view outside the same old proscribed lines seems like one who’d start from a strong position, provided she receives the support of a network interested in doing something new. Investing even a small amount in providing a host who speaks to half the population just makes good business sense. Then again, if there’s one thing we’ve seen from the perpetual hiring of white men to fill high-profile jobs even after Handler proved for a time that success wasn’t contingent on a Y chromosome, it’s that a lack of diversity is one vacuum TV execs don’t mind leaving as is.