Why Chelsea Handler Is Important

Nancy Franklin's analysis of Chelsea Handler mentions — yet again — her pretty face and her dirty mouth. But her appeal, such as it is, has little do with either.

In the New Yorker, Franklin dismisses (deservedly) the notion that pretty women aren't funny, and explains,

Chelsea Handler is, as it happens, at the high end of attractiveness. She has blond hair, blue eyes, and, at thirty-five, is fit without being crazily so; she comes across as an aging but still active California surfer girl, even though she's from suburban New Jersey. Her looks are certainly not divorced from her considerable appeal or success.

The fact that a critic can describe a thirty-five-year-old woman as "aging but still active" goes a long way toward disproving Jay Leno's claim that "we've reached a point where comedy is comedy — it's not male comedy or female comedy." Handler's work, like her body, is still judged in a way a man's wouldn't be. For instance, people still seem shocked by her focus on topics that have long been staples of men's routines: sex and bodily functions. Franklin writes, "Her comedy is beyond raunchy; she's almost single-mindedly determined to give you too much information about her sex life and her, and other people's, body parts." But men have, of course, been making jokes about boobs and vaginas for eons, and a woman talking about her own anatomy and what she does with it shouldn't necessarily be TMI.

I had the (sort of) privilege of seeing Handler live Saturday night. Her opener, Josh Wolf, discussed his daughters' breasts and his own adolescent sexual fumblings to general approval, especially from the drunk girls behind me who thought he was hot. Then Handler trotted out some unfunny racial material already spoiled by the Times ("Shoniquodonk is not a name," no matter how many times she says it, still is not a good joke), and her "I'm not really a racist even though I say racist things" routine plays even less well than Sarah Silverman's. Later in her act, however, Handler did start talking about "her, and other people's, body parts," and the result was actually pretty interesting.

She discussed, of course, shitting, and in particular the cultural requirement that women pretend they never do it (Josh Wolf, meanwhile, made several jokes about vomiting and shitting at the same time, which he claimed was a male rite of passage). She also did a long bit about her childhood penchant for masturbating in public, over her jeans. Neither struck me as especially hilarious, but Handler did make a good point — women should be comfortable talking about these things. Unless they're being used to turn men on, women's bodies are supposed to be politely invisible, and the things they do that don't involve dick — defecation, masturbation, menstruation — are figured as exceptionally disgusting. Handler comes off as raunchier than a male comic even when she talks about exactly the same things, because women are supposed to be concerned with maintaining the prettiness of their bodies, and not with acknowledging the (sometimes smelly) reality.

One reason we need more women in comedy is because comedy is about pushing boundaries, and being a woman in American culture is too often about conforming to them. Ironically, if Handler succeeds in making it okay for female comics to talk about turds and vaginas, she may put herself out of business, as much of her cachet appears to come from saying what other women still can't (or rather, what other mainstream, well-paid, conventionally attractive women on television can't). Fortunately for her, but unfortunately for us, the taboos she challenges seem a long way from changing.

Talking Dirty [New Yorker]

Earlier: Cute Girls With Dirty Mouths: Are Chelsea Handler And Sarah Silverman Funny?