Last week, Chelsea Handler of “E!“‘s late night talk show “Chelsea Lately” announced that she would be leaving the network. A few days later, David Letterman — host of “The Late Show” and the record-holder for longest running late night host in history — announced that he would be retiring in 2015. Coincidence? Or destiny?
Over the years, various celebrities have tried to change the mostly white and mostly male landscape of late night TV. Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers and Magic Johnson all tried unsuccessfully to break into the 11:30-PM-and-beyond slot. Both on network TV and cable, the late night chatfest victors have been almost all white male comedians: Jon Stewart, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and that whole Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien fiasco. Female hosts had better luck during daytime hours, with Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and the women of “The View” and “The Talk” holding court.
However, there’s one woman who could finally bridge the gap between day and night, between mainstream network and pay cable: Chelsea Handler. The notoriously bawdy comic often mines jokes from her own life, referencing her love of drinking (one of her best-selling books was titled, “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea”) and her fruitless dating life, showing that she could definitely keep up with the boys. Her appeal won her a small but loyal following on “E!,” where she wasn’t afraid to skewer other stars on the very same network, including the Kardashian family.
But even the most snarky late night host needs to have a soft side, and the foul-mouthed comedian showed hers on an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are,” a show where celebrities learn about their ancestors. During the program, Handler — who was raised in a mostly Jewish household by interfaith parents — discovered that her maternal grandfather had been a Nazi soldier. “I connect with my Judaism, or the Jewish side of my family, more than anything else,” Handler said in a promo clip for the episode. Following the Nazi revelation, she broke down on the air. It was a rare glimpse at Handler’s vulnerable side, and it showed a range she’d previously been afraid to reveal.
Now, word comes that Handler has met with executives at CBS, home of “The Late Show.” Considering that a meeting is hardly the same thing as a contract or even an offer, it might be too early to speculate about what Handler could do for the network, whether it’s taking over “The Late Show” or doing something else entirely. But for CBS, who gets a reputation for being the old-fashioned fuddy-duddy of the networks, Letterman’s retirement comes at a critical time. The person they choose to replace him will set a new precedent for not only CBS but for TV as a whole. Its rival, NBC, has stayed with its white-dude-in-a-suit-mold with the recent promotion of Jimmy Fallon and hire of Seth Meyers, providing CBS with a brilliant opportunity to reach out to a large and vocal group of fans who feel left out. Choosing a woman — a Jewish one, nonetheless — and giving her the official network seal of approval could be their best and most relevant move in years.
Oh, and if Chelsea’s busy — does anybody know what Tina Fey is up to these days?