At three years running strong, Chelsea Lately is at the forefront of late night talk shows, bringing daily news and pop culture tidbits into the spotlight in a dynamically funny and unique format, starring the brashly honest Chelsea Handler. From the very beginning, comedienne Heather McDonald has been a stalwart of the show, cracking up audiences with her spot-on impressions, witty quips as a regular on the panel, and featured spots on Handler's comedy tour. With a new book out and a national headlining comedy tour, McDonald's brand is one that stands on its own. She recently headlined at Denver's own Comedy Works, and took a break to chat with the Denver Comedy Examiner about everything from her beginnings as a stand-up and sketch comic in Los Angeles all the way to the rise of Chelsea Lately. This is part one of a two-part interview.
So you’re currently touring to promote your book You'll Never Blue Ball in this Town Again?
Yes! I booked a bunch of shows on the weekends so that I could see my fans and promote the book. We were off of Chelsea Lately for two weeks. Last week I was at Punchline in Atlanta and obviously this weekend I'm in Denver. I’ll be going back to work on the show on Monday so I’m still doing shows with Chelsea and I wont be doing these headlining gigs as much.
Actually, I was doing some research and today [July 17th, 2010] is the three-year anniversary of the premiere of Chelsea Lately!
I’m so glad you knew that because I knew it was in July but I couldn’t remember the day! What’s the date?
It’s the 17th.
I knew it was either the 17th or the 27th! I’ve been there since the very beginning, and it has been so fun, and working on the show is just so great.
With that in mind, how did you get approached and how did you get the job writing for the show and becoming a full-time staff member?
Well, I knew Chelsea but it was really on only an acquaintance level, I would see her at auditions and stuff like that. And then I was putting a little pilot presentation together for my friend Jillian Barbarie Reynolds, who is on our local shows in LA. So I contacted Chelsea to be one of the celebrities on this pilot because she had just been doing The Chelsea Handler Show. Do you remember that show?
Yeah, I definitely do.
I just thought it was so funny, so I -- and this is a lesson for you to learn as well -- I actually asked for the job in the process. I was like, “Hey, if you ever need writers, I think your show is so funny. I’ve written for the Wayans, etc.” and I kind of just sold myself to her.
You wrote for the movie White Chicks, didn’t you?
I did. And I wrote for [the Wayans'] late night talk show but I hadn’t been really staffed on a show, like as an everyday job, for more than 12 years. I was married and had kids, and I just wasn’t pursuing a real writing job. With Chelsea, I was just so intrigued by her humor and I figured if I can write for a black man, I can probably write for a cute white girl. So anyway [Handler] goes, “OK, well right now we have a staff but I’ll totally keep it in mind.” And then I found out that she was going to do her new show and it was going to be five nights a week, through a mutual friend of ours.
And this friend is like, “Email her right now, she’s in a hotel in Virginia doing stand-up,” so I emailed her right then that I wanted to submit and she said that was great. I submitted, I met with the producer, and got hired. I really thought, “OK, it’s for 13 weeks." It started in the summer. We started around June 1st, we did 6 weeks of prep, and then only 6 weeks guaranteed of shows. At that point, I really thought that would be it.
And here you are three years later!
Right, not to be dismal, but at that point it was like who knows! But it just did really, really well, Chelsea and I really hit it off and we became good friends after I started working on the show. Soon after that -- in the spring -- I started to open for her and have consecutively done it for the past few years. But now her tour is so full and she’s had a lot of other people open for her too. Which is great … for the other people. No, I'm just kidding. It really is a ridiculous schedule, so it's impossible to do all the time, but it’s been great.
I was wondering what the preparation is like for the show. Like with the round-table, do you guys talk beforehand?
The writers, including Chelsea and two executive producers who are not featured on the show, begin by figuring out what she’s going to do for her opening bit which we call a ‘cold open.’ Is it going to be a clip from a show that we found funny where we can write something for her? Are we going to film something? Or is it just going to be a rant where she just goes off on someone or something like that? With that decided we go into the writers room and we just start pitching topics. We choose six topics, but we usually only get through four or five. We pitch in turn, sometimes she’s into it, other times she’s like, “I definitely want to talk about this other topic.” Then the jokes start flying and we all start taking a bunch of notes. What’s really great about our show is that it’s very collaborative. People aren’t keeping track. Sometimes on a show, you go into a room, write your own jokes, and put your initials on it. Then later, you’re watching the show wondering if they’re going to say your joke.
Not the case?
No, there really isn’t a barometer. Sometimes you hear your joke and it makes you feel good but no one is keeping score. And I think that’s what keeps the show strongest. Because I can just say something that’s not a complete joke. Maybe it's just a funny point of view. Then two people piggyback on it and by the time it’s done it is a great joke. So then we give her all these jokes and she chooses like four or five she wants to remember on each blue card. And whether she is going to use it or not, we really don’t know until the show.
With the round-table, I never know what the other people are going to say. When I’m done writing her jokes, I have an hour or so to think of what I’d like to say about the topics. I try to think of something that wasn’t mentioned in the room. But again, I don’t know what she’s choosing or what the other people are choosing, so they might say something similar to what I had to say before me and then I have to either piggyback on it or have something else. So I always have like three solid different points of views, three solid sets of jokes on each subject just in case.
Is that taxing? Constantly coming up with new material all of the time?
You know what? I think if you’re good at it, and if it’s in you, it isn't taxing. Every writer freaks out and thinks that they're never going to come up with something new. I think it’s more difficult to write a sitcom. Like if we were writing a sitcom for Chelsea, we would be writing about what she would be doing this week and who is she going to date? I could see how those shows get burnt out because there are only so many scenarios you can put those people in. But our stuff is making fun of what’s going on in the news and what’s going on in television. We do come up with new stuff all the time and -- luckily -- if you’re good at it and you have a sense of humor, it comes pretty organically.
One thing I’ve noticed since getting started in stand-up and writing about it, is that there are just a ton of men. And I was kind of surprised one show because there were 14 comedians that went up, and there were more black comedians than women, which really isn’t reflective of the demographics of Denver.
So how many women went up?
And that’s the way it’s been always. I always used to say that if there were seven people in a show, there was one black guy and one white girl. That’s what was going on when we were coming up. Which is one thing that made Chelsea really interesting. Someone had said that we should be friends because I’d met her at an open mic night in this Westwood brewery, and she was immediately like, “Hi I’m Chelsea, you’re funny,” and she was always so friendly and not competitive. Really, she was more like ‘let’s all help each other.’ Which has really trickled down in the show. Her example has made me act more like that with other people. Now if I go do a show -- not that I wouldn’t have before -- but I’m like Chris Franjola has to come to this club, Sarah Colonna has to do it, really because Chelsea was always like that with me.
So this was all before the show even came about?
Yes, I did get to know Chelsea before the show. We did a show together called “Pretty Funny Women” and it’s pretty good. But once in awhile though, I will say, as much as I want to see more women out there, sometimes if you’re the seventh out of eight women, the crowd has heard the word “vagina” a lot. And in a similarly themed show it’s a little bit harder to shine. If you’re going to do a show that’s all about women, maybe you need to create the diversity in the comics. Maybe you have a single woman and a mom and someone of a different ethnicity, so not all seven girls are talking about trying to find a man and how hard that is.
Another thing that also happened as I was coming up was that if you were really pretty, you had to be really grungey. If you were cute, like Janeane Garofalo or Sarah Silverman, you dressed yourself down. Not that it isn’t authentic to them, but that’s what I saw. And I was like, “Well, why can’t you get a little cuter?” Really that’s so stupid because you just have to be whatever you are. But when you see these people succeeding and they’re a certain way, you get a little insecure and think, “Well, maybe I need to change my look, maybe I need to talk about this more, maybe I need to claim to be Jewish because everyone is Jewish.” It’s stupid. But you’re wondering why this person is getting development deals and you can't even get an agent. Sometimes it’s just not your time or sometimes you just haven’t totally found your point of view.
You know, I look at you and Chelsea and I see women with strong voices who are really funny. The show seems very egalitarian and obviously Chelsea is very supportive of that. But this isn’t a show about women, it’s about everything, Which is different I think, so I wanted to know what you thought about what Chelsea Lately has done for women in comedy.
I think that our show is unique. I mean, we didn’t invent the panel, but since we’ve been on, a lot of shows have been using it. And I think that was cool because [Chelsea] changed the format. We have a type of cold open that differs from the traditional. You know, Jay and all the guys are doing their one-liners about what goes on during the day. Well, she gets her jokes in there within the round-table, and does something special and unique for the monologue. I think that’s a different format of a show, that it’s a half-hour, it’s a little lighter, it’s pop culture. And besides Joan Rivers, whose show didn’t succeed as a late night host, Chelsea is the only one.
I feel like she doesn’t get enough props for that. It is different and it is hard. It’s more difficult to come up with an outfit every day. A guy has to wear a suit. Jimmy Fallon, all those guys, they’re in suits night after night. She’s on the air five nights a week, and she has a stylist who helps her, of course, and she’s young, so maybe she does want to wear jeans. And all that is great but it's just another thing that’s different, that people can notice. People are like, “Oh, I didn’t like the top she was wearing that night.” I’m like, shut up! At least she’s doing different things. If she’s in the mood to wear jeans then it’s different. You don’t see that on other shows.
Stay tuned for the second installment of the Denver Comedy Examiner's exclusive interview with Heather McDonald later this week. And in the meantime, if you would like to contact the DCE, please do so via her e-mail or check her out on twitter at DenverComedy! Thanks, Denver!