When Chelsea Handler's last book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, was released in 2010, the comedian turned writer accomplished something very rare: She had three books on the best-seller list, all at the same time. Not only that, but she beat Karl Rove to the top of the list.
"When we found out that I came in 1 and he came in 2," Handler recalls, "my sister said — she called me and she said — 'Do you think Karl Rove is sitting in his study in his boxer shorts thinking, Who the hell is Chelsea Handler?' "
Handler is a stealth celebrity. From her late-night perch as the host of Chelsea Lately, on the E! cable network, she has built a sizable fan base for her brand of raunchy insult comedy. But her string of best-selling books — titles include My Horizontal Life and Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea — have sold so well that her publishing company has given Handler her own imprint. Its first book, Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me, has just been released.
Handler seems surprised at her own success. Not so long ago, she says, she was doing standup at Starbucks. Now, she regularly hosts celebrities like Will Ferrell and Jennifer Aniston on her talk show. She's known for quick comebacks in conversations with stars like the pop singer Rihanna, recently on the receiving end of a bawdy come-on when she appeared on Chelsea Lately.
As Handler tells it, she began thinking about doing standup comedy after speaking in front of her court-mandated driving class following DUI arrest.
"I got up there and I told my story and how my sister turned me in and I was using her fake ID and I called the cop racist and he was white and we all were white and nothing made any sense. And people were laughing and I remember thinking, 'This is the best feeling.' I mean, the instructor came and said, 'You have to get off the stage.' And then I thought, 'Wow. Maybe I should do standup.' "
The youngest of six children, Handler admits she was a spoiled child and that her comedy does have a "bratty kid" quality to it. She likes to make fun of people and play practical jokes. On her show she surrounds herself with a motley crew of regulars including a Mexican dwarf named Chuy Bravo.
Handler says she first started thinking about writing after she read a book by humorist David Sedaris.
"Before I read David Sedaris, I didn't know you could just kinda write disparate stories and put them together and have them be about whatever. That kind of opened my eyes and when I read one of his books I thought, 'Wow, I could do this. I could write like this.' "
Handler, who can be brutal about other people, is brutally honest about herself. In her first book, My Horizontal Life, she mined her own sexual exploits for a laugh.
"She doesn't play by nice-girl rules," says Beth DeGuzman, vice president and editor-in-chief at Grand Central, the company that published Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang and has printed books by other comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. DeGuzman says that when it came time to promote her book, Handler was tireless.
"Usually, you try to make sure that a celebrity will give you two weeks. She came to us and said, 'I want to do a comedy tour. I want to do book signings.' And it went on for months and months and months," DeGuzman says. "So after we saw how good the book was and how committed she was to supporting the book, we knew we wanted to continue to be partners with Chelsea."
So when Handler's agent proposed that she get her own publishing imprint within Grand Central, the company said yes. That means Handler will not only write books but will also publish other writers' work.
The first book on the imprint is a hybrid of those two ideas. For Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, Handler commissioned her oft-abused colleagues, friends and family to write about the ruthless lies and practical jokes she has inflicted upon them over the years.
"This book I just kind of oversaw and edited and kind of added stuff at the end of people's chapters and added a bunch of pictures," Handler says. "But this book to me is kind of like ... the end of the road as far as my practical jokes go, because I don't know who's ever going to believe anything I say again after this. It's like the girl who cried vodka."
Handler says she'd love to discover a great comic writer. She knows one thing: She wants to publish books that make her laugh — a lot.
"It's so relaxing to laugh really hard. I mean, there's no better feeling, even if you are not in on the joke, to see someone else hysterically laughing when they can't contain themselves," Handler says. "And we've all had that, where you really think you're going to pee, you know, you're laughing so hard and you can't get it together and you know it's totally inappropriate. That's what I want people to be doing."
Handler's not sure exactly what her next book will be, but she says her dog, Chunk, is working on his autobiography.