Chelsea Handler On Comedy, Therapy and Her Surprising Love Story with Jo Koy
Like the rest of us, Chelsea Handler has some fairly insane stories from those early weeks in pandemic lockdown.
“I finished a year’s supply of mushrooms in the first two weeks of COVID,” the comedian cracked in an exclusive chat with E! News. “I was doing mushrooms with my landscaper. I was like ‘Wait, how long is this gonna go on? Because I’m having to make a new order.'”
But the fruits of her unattached, kid-free life withered when sister Simone—and her three adult children—”invaded” the then-single star’s Los Angeles-area pad. Handler had just patted herself on the back for having the foresight to be so unencumbered, she said, when they “ruined everything I’ve ever worked for.” After three months of that particular experiment, she added, “I promptly put my house on the market.”
Don’t worry, her benevolence was shifted elsewhere.
Now living in a smaller place with a bevy of bedrooms serving all manner of purpose except sleeping (“My sister is like, ‘You can’t have one guest bedroom?'” said Handler. “I go, ‘Not after what you did'”), she feels it’s her responsibility—her sacred duty, really—to entertain the masses yearning to break free from all those months of sheltering in place.
Chelsea Handler’s E! Photo Shoot
“There was a death of joyfulness that you want to feel like you’re of service even though you’re doing stand-up, you’re not saving lives,” the 47-year-old explained of reclaiming her spot on the stage after an extended break. “But at the same time, you do have an impact on people. And it’s your responsibility to come out and remind people of everything they’ve been missing.”
Like the quick, observational wit of her yearlong Vaccinated and Horny Tour. Seven months in, she’s enjoying every moment—her May 5 stop at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre serving as just one of the many highlights of the Netflix Is A Joke fest that also features Pete Davidson, Amy Poehler, Kevin Hart, Maya Rudolph and 250-plus shows headlined by basically every comic you’ve ever heard of.
Smart money would bet on a certain VIP guest—ahem, boyfriend Jo Koy—being in attendance at Handler’s performance as well.
Having long since accepted her role as “an emblem of a single woman with no children, to show other women that they don’t have to have children or a husband to have it all,” she assumed her embarrassment of riches—two successful talk shows, six New York Times Best Sellers, some impressive hardware—meant that she simply wasn’t destined to find a forever sort of partner. Which was fine. Truly.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just not getting that,'” she explained. “‘That’s okay. I have my family, I have my friends, I’m set. I don’t have to worry about finding love.'”
Then, at some point mid-pandemic, she realized she didn’t mind the company of fellow comic Koy, the man she was frequently at odds with when he was a guest on Chelsea Lately. In fact, she actually kind of missed him when he wasn’t around?
“When he was leaving, I was like, ‘That’s a bummer,'” she recalled. “Or if I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days, I was like, ‘Where’s Jo Koy? He’s usually up my ass.’ And then I started to realize, ‘Oh, he’s not annoying me.'”
Uh, are you there, Chelsea? It’s me, love.
Closing in on a year together, their friends-to-forever relationship has turned comedy’s tell-it-precisely-as-it-is spitfire into romance’s biggest proponent, though for others on the hunt, she is adamant you never consider settling.
In a vulnerable—and, let’s be real, funny AF—chat with E! News, the star known for squeezing every ounce out of life, whether that means skiing through Canada topless, rhapsodizing on her love of pot or other queen behavior, gave her take on everything from falling “madly” in love to why she doesn’t take life too seriously.
E! News: You’ve been on the road for seven months now—what’s the vibe? Is everyone, indeed, vaccinated and horny?
Chelsea Handler: This tour has been really fun. Everybody’s getting their groove on now that the mask mandates are lifted—probably just in time for them to reinstate them.
E!: How does it feel coming off your 2020 special Evolution, where you were really raw in discussing your brother Chet’s 1984 death and your experience with therapy?
CH: As a comedian when you’re telling anything serious it feels foreign because people are there to laugh, not to cry. So it was a very tricky dance. But I was really grateful for the work, because it felt really cathartic. And then this is more back to my OG roots: Observational storytelling, taking the piss out of everybody and the way we behaved during COVID—the idiotic things that we all participated in as a society.
E!: Why was it so important for you to tackle tougher subject matters?
CH: Well, I saw Hannah Gadsby‘s special [Nanette] and I thought, “I have to do that with my stories.” To be able to convert the material in that way, it draws a different audience and can really hit home. So that was important to me, especially since I had spent so many years with this persona of people thinking I was so one-dimensional—that I was just this tough chick who doesn’t care what anybody thinks. It’s like, no, there’s deeper stuff there.
E!: What drives you to be so honest about what’s going on in your life?
CH: That’s my jam. I like to share my personal stories and turn them into material. Live performing, it’s such a high.
This tour has been a really nice reminder of what got me into this business in the first place. There was a period of time where it wasn’t interesting to me. I felt like I didn’t have anything meaningful to say, and now I feel like this is back to who I am. And a lot of that is from Jo Koy, too. Being with him and being reminded of where we started out, it has been like, “Oh, yeah, this is what I’m really meant to be doing.”
E!: After so many years, is it still scary to put yourself out there?
CH: Stand-up is always terrifying. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it or how many people know who you are. You have confidence, but there’s always this area of doubt in your brain like, “Does anyone give a s–t? Does anyone care what I have to say?”
E!: You give off such a strong DGAF vibe. But what does scare you?
CH: I get nervous on occasion. I would be nervous if I had to host an award show for the first time. I know everybody thinks I’m super confident and don’t give a s–t what anybody else thinks. That’s true to a degree, but I’m not, like, a cyborg.
E!: So, Jo Koy—how does it feel to be with someone who truly understands what you do for a living?
CH: It’s pretty awesome. He’s the best. And he was a great reminder of all the people that came out of Chelsea Lately, and the careers that were launched: Fortune [Feimster], Tiffany Haddish. We were putting all these people on television before people were saying, “We’re underrepresented with the LGBTQ community.” It was just an open door policy for everybody. If you were funny, that’s all that mattered.
I don’t sit and think about the past a lot. I don’t dwell on things that I should have done or I shouldn’t have done. Coming back to [stand-up] was intimidating because you’re like, “Do I still belong here?” And he was so encouraging, like, “Are you kidding me? You’re such a boss. Look at everything you’ve done, don’t forget about that.” And so that was really nice to hear from somebody who was there and loves you and cares about you.
E!: Plus, you get to perform together now.
CH: When he does his shows, I go up. When I do my shows, he goes up. If we’re not on tour at the same time, we will travel together. And I think the next time around we’ll want to do something where we can perform together. I never, ever, ever thought I would date a stand-up comedian.
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E!: What makes this different from any relationship you’ve had in the past?
CH: Well, I’m an adult now, you know, for the most part. I had gone a long time without ever sitting down to contemplate or reflect. And therapy changed that. It gives you the gift of self-awareness. I would never have been open to dating Jo Koy unless I had had therapy. So what’s different about it is, I’m in a different place. He’s in a different place. He’s a man and I’m a woman, whereas before I was a girl and he was a boy. It’s been a great love story. I didn’t really think I would get this.
E!: So, what’s your message to others still on the hunt?
CH: The last couple years, men have proven to be pretty disappointing in many respects. Not all men, but enough. So, to get this in my life, at this stage makes me believe in everything. Everyone deserves it. Everyone’s gonna find their person, as long as you never give in to someone and settle.
My manager Allison Statter tried to set me up a couple years ago. I went on a date with this guy, and I go, “Oh, God, Allison. This guy is, like, a dad.” And she says, “Yeah, but you’re 45, that’s what’s out there.” I go, “No, no, no. That’s not going to cut it for me.” And she goes, “You’re too picky.” And I’m like, “Well, I can afford to be picky. I’m okay by myself.” And guess what? It worked out. You deserve to be picky. If you lower your standards, you find other things acceptable that are not.
E!: And, there are plenty of cool guys in their 40s!
CH: I mean, Jo’s got swagger. And, yeah, he is a dad [to 19-year-old Joseph Herbert Jr.] But, he’s just got the right vibe for me. I’m just so grateful that this came into my life. Like, wow. It makes me just go, “Oh, you are a good person. You’re a good girl.”
E!: You previously told E!, “If you’re going to be with someone, they should be an addition to your life, not a subtraction.” How does Jo add to your life?
CH: Jo was the first person in my life who I didn’t want to leave. He was the first man, romantically, in a long time that didn’t annoy me. That’s been my MO with men always is that they don’t know when to leave or they don’t know when to stop talking. I always felt like “Nope, this isn’t right, this isn’t it.” And I would cut things off right away as soon as I felt that. So, to have a slow burn where I was hanging out with Jo for a year before anything transpired was something I had never experienced.
Everyone said, “You can fall in love with your friends.” And I was like, “No you can’t.” Like either the attraction is there or it’s not. And guess what? It wasn’t there in the beginning and it developed over time and then I fell madly in love with him and I’m still in love with him. He’s always in a good mood and he’s always ready to go. Like, that is the best energy to be around.
E!: You’ve spoken about the importance of not taking yourself too seriously—is that key to happiness?
CH: Well, it’s funny you mention that, because I had a hospital scare after a show in Seattle a couple months ago. I had this cardiomyopathy, which means, like, an adrenaline shot to the heart. I was like, “Was this an instance, or was this building?” And the doctor says, “Well, it’s an instance, but you’ve basically been very stressed for a long period of time and you probably did not recognize that.” And I was like, “Oh, s–t.”
And he goes, “I don’t know a lot about you, but isn’t your whole shtick that you don’t take yourself too seriously?” And I went, “Yeah…” And he goes, “Well then you should start taking your own advice because you’re taking yourself too seriously.” And I thought, “God, you’re right. What am I doing here? I’m stressed out so much that I landed in the hospital?” I’m fine now. But I was like, “Good advice: ‘Practice what you preach.'” It was a good reminder to let everything go.
E!: You’ve perfected the art of the nude. Do you think we’re any closer to people not being shocked by the sight of women’s nipples?
CH: Ugh, who cares? I’m just having a good time. But, yes, it’s ridiculous that women can’t be topless when men’s bodies are allowed to be out. I think Sarah Silverman said, “We are able to nourish and feed with our breasts, but we have to keep them covered.” So, yes, there’s a complete double standard and a sexualized thing that women can’t show their breasts because men—what?—will get boners?
E!: You’re known for pushing the boundaries, but is there anything you wouldn’t do?
CH: I try not to make fun of ugly children. That’s not cool. But I don’t really have boundaries. I’m very in the moment. I’m not strategic in any way. My one friend is always like, “You have to play better chess.” And I’m like, “I’m not playing chess, I’m having a good time.” I want to spend my life being real, being present and having people rely on me for the truth and knowing that I’m going to show up if you need me.
E!: So without thinking too far ahead, what are you most excited about next?
CH: I have my Life Will Be The Death Of Me script that we’re working on for Peacock, which is based off of my last book. That’s really something I’m passionate about. I’m going to star in it. And I’m going to tape Vaccinated and Horny as a one-hour special. And I’ll probably write a book about my love story with Jo Koy.
I mean, talk about an evolution. The response just of Jo and I being together has been so sweet. And so many women are like, “Oh my God, you’ve given me hope in relationships.” And I think that’s true and I want people to know that it’s possible.
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She’s holding firm, on the guest room thing, though.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Netflix Is A Joke: The Festival will run from April 28 to May 8 in Los Angeles.