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Chelsea Does Late Night Her Own Way

The latest late-night show has launched, but Netflix’s Chelsea isn’t quite a late-night show. In fact, as it’s released three times a week at 12:01 a.m. PT/3:01 a.m. ET, it’s technically an early morning show.  

Handler, who did the late-night thing with Chelsea Lately on E!, pushes hard against pigeonholes. In her premiere monologue, which she took pains to insist was not a monologue, she quipped, “I’m a late-night television host who doesn’t want to be tied down by time, or television, or even hosting.”

The semantics around what late-night means reminded me of NBC’s late-nightmare from 2010, when the network tried to accommodate both Conan O’Brien, then The Tonight Show host, and Jay Leno, host of an eponymous program at the time, by moving The Tonight Show to a 12:05 a.m. start. In other words, tomorrow. Said O’Brien, “TheTonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t The Tonight Show.”

Handler is “tossing the traditional talk show model out the window,” according to her press materials, with a live audience and guests, both famous and wonky, talking on “international cultures, alternative lifestyles, education, health, sports, parenting and politics.”

The premiere starts with Chris Martin of Coldplay, tickling the ivories with a tune touting Handler’s comedic gifts. (Alas, Martin’s song presumes it’s the Chelsea finale, not the premiere, as the rock star plays dumb.)

Handler then strolls to the front of the Sony Pictures Studios set, in front of an audience, rocking a vintage Pat Benatar t-shirt, her dog Chunk ambling around behind her. “I finally get to do exactly the kind of show I’ve wanted to do,” she says. “So thank you, Netflix!”

The comic then concedes, “What that show is, I have no idea.”

Guests in the premiere episode, which runs just short of 38 minutes, are Drew Barrymore, Secretary of Education John B. King and Pitbull.

Handler is doing new shows Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, posting at 12:01 PT. She had a sit-down with the New York Times recently, during which she vowed to not be yet another host of a new talker who boasts about blowing up the format, than resorts to what viewers have come to expect from the genre. She took pokes at Stephen Colbert in particular.

“All these shows try to start out selling something different, and ultimately all become the same, just with a different guy,” she said. “I have to do everything I can to prevent that from happening.”

Handler set the tone back in March, when the show was announced via a handwritten letter issued to the public. Handler wrote, in part: “You wanted a new show, you got it. You wanted to be on Netflix, you are. You wanted to spread your wings, now fly, BITCH”—then reminded herself to sign up for Netflix.

Handler also produced a quartet of documentaries for Netflix under the title Chelsea Does. But Chelsea represents a significant departure from the Netflix norm, with day and date programming on the virtually schedule-free streaming service. Can live programming be far off?

Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, told the Times he just wants Chelsea to be Chelsea on Chelsea.

“There’s nothing more boring than an interview where the interviewer is the functional expert,” said Sarandos. “What you want is somebody who’s super-curious and, in Chelsea’s case, remarkably funny. At the end of the day, the show is anchored on Chelsea and her comedy.”