Sex, Drugs and Hot-Button Docs: Chelsea Handler Does Netflix

Former late-night mean girl goes deep in Netflix doc series 'Chelsea Does'

Chelsea Handler, left, tries on wedding gowns in Las Vegas for her new Netflix docu-series, 'Chelsea Does.' Credit: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Chelsea Handler has lost control, and not in the vodka-fueled manner one might expect from the former late-night queen. For her new Netflix documentary miniseries, Chelsea Does, the self-described "control freak" relinquished her power and let others take charge.

"It was a complete departure from anything I had ever done," she says. The New Jersey native had curated a self-deprecating, mean-party-girl image in a series of comedic memoirs (her 2005 book, My Horizontal Life, was the first of five she's penned to date) and eight years as a host on E! — first with The Chelsea Handler Show, and then as the star of Chelsea Lately, which she left in 2014. "On my last show, every decision was made by me," says the 40-year-old star. "I just felt like I wasn't really challenging myself, that I was coasting."

After "a hugely transitional year" in which she traveled the world, read dozens of books, and "did what any 75-year-old woman who had a sabbatical would do," an antsy Handler decided it was time to get back to work. So she teamed up with producer Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) and director Eddie Schmidt with the idea to make four documentaries, each on a different, broad subject: marriage, racism, Silicon Valley, and drugs. "We did the drugs episode last," she says, "in case I died."

"We did the drugs episode last, in case I died."

Handler also talked to a range of people, from ex-boyfriends and Khloe Kardashian to former Israeli president Shimon Peres, earnestly exploring the doc's hot-button issues in depth, while maintaining her signature cutting humor. "She's naturally curious," says Schmidt. "If you're genuinely curious about people, that just opens up so many doors. That's what made it so fun and special. A lot of comics might just come into situations thinking about what they're gonna say, and I think she is really interested in engaging."

Chelsea Does Marriage was her most personal episode, she says, especially since she talked to an ex-boyfriend — "He wanted me to reassure him that I wasn't going to make fun of him" — and her father about his sexual appetite.  (Was that weird? "Unfortunately, no. My father likes to talk about his sex life. It's not a pleasure of mine.") Chelsea Does Racism tackles the schisms happening in cities across America and other countries like Israel. Handler, who is Jewish, was struck by the people she encountered there. "Israelis are so pushy and tricky to be around. They push and push and push. I was like, God, no wonder people have such a problem with Jews." As for Al Sharpton, who she also interviews at length in the episode: "You realize why he is in the position that he's in and why he is a mouthpiece for African Americans. He knows what he's talking about."

Chelsea Does Drugs is less of an advertisement for mind-altering substances than one who has seen her previous work might expect, exploring addiction and dependency as well as experimentation. The Silicon Valley episode was planned because Handler has no idea what to do with technology. (Her house, controlled entirely by iPads, is perhaps her biggest challenge. "When I try to turn a TV on, the chances are the fireplace downstairs will turn on or the music in my shower will turn on.") But even if she can't keep up with a class of child programmers, this episode might have the most longevity — mostly since an app she pitched during the episode is being launched with the documentaries. Called "Gotta Go," users set it to automatically receive emergency texts from contacts in their phones, like "the dogs got out," to have textual proof to ditch a bad first date. "If you have it in writing," she says, "you can get away with it."

While the host won't be adding to Chelsea Does anytime soon, she will be back later this spring with a new talk show for the streaming service — "a younger, cooler, 60 Minutes" — in which she plans to incorporate documentary filmmaking into a late-night format, such as shooting another trip to Israel to explore her Jewish roots. But she's done playing into the celebrity promotion machine that has dominated her previous series. When Handler quit E!, she says, execs there thought her threats of resignation were a negotiating tactic, not the end of the line. But she was really ready to move on. "I needed a good nice long run to prove that I did it," she says. "I succeeded. Nobody cancelled me. It was important that I walked away on my terms. I think that's important for women to know, too. You don't have to stay in a job, just because it's secure."