Christopher Kilkus/Contour/Getty Images
Ken Tucker
June 03, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Chelsea Lately

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
E! Entertainment Channel
Talk Shows

We gave it a B+

Here’s a tip for future guests on Chelsea Lately: If you’re going to be interviewed by the vodka vixen, the Grey Goose gabber, you’d better come prepared with the type of blunt opinions Chelsea Handler herself throws around like shot glasses in a barroom brawl. One of Handler’s best guests of late was the beloved Cloris Leachman, who’s reached the age where she delightfully doesn?t care what she says. Asked by Handler, ”Who do you think the biggest a-hole is” in showbiz, Leachman said, ”The one who did the Gladiator.” ”Russell Crowe?” asked Handler. ”Yeah,” said Leachman. ”He’s just doughy and he’s not smart and he’s not funny.” Oof.

This is typical of the kind of insult comedy in which Chelsea Lately revels. The stand-up comic and best-selling author has molded her E! network late-night talk show craftily: an opening monologue, a roundtable with mostly up-and-coming or never-gonna-make-it comedians she likes, a guest, and maybe a taped sketch. Most important, the topics rarely, if ever, stray from celebrity gossip or pop culture events. On a recent edition, reading an item about a park being built by the government of China, she said blithely, ”I didn’t even know they had a government.” Handler is one of those trash-is-fantastic people.

Well, no, she only seems that way — it’s integral to her image as a hotsy blonde who’ll mouth off about anything, outrageously. But you have to be more than In Touch-smart to do the kind of rapid-fire joking Handler does every weeknight. As with any good talk show, the host’s strengths and obsessions emerge with regular viewing. Handler is frequently at her best when interviewing black actors and rappers — unlike her male talk-show counterparts, she’s not hobbled by white ignorance or politically correct blandness. Her interview with T.I., for example, was fascinating because she pressed him on his weapons-possession charge and kidded with him about sex in a way that you could tell startled even him. (”I know what you’re thinking, and I like it,” she said.)

It’s not as though Handler’s style came out of nowhere. White female comics have been making risqué jokes since the heyday of Rusty Warren, whose most famous 1960s ”party album” was called Knockers Up! Handler has created a boozy party-girl image, but you know from the machine-gun cadence of her jokes that she works hard on her punchlines?harder than most of the comics on her roundtable segment, it often seems.

Chelsea Lately is uneven, and I’m pretty tired of the repetitive quips both about and from her diminutive sidekick, Chuy. But anyone who’s developed an ongoing, hilariously random vendetta against Dancing With the Stars‘ Samantha Harris — that’s one junk-culture savant I can support wholeheartedly. B+

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