“I’m finally getting to do the exact show that I’ve always wanted to do. […] What that show is, I have no idea.”
Chelsea Handler opened up her Netflix talk show with two jokes, and neither worked. The latter joke, inferred from what’s above, gets a pass because it’s only meant to be partially funny. After months of speculation as to what her new show would look like, how it would function as an online release and whether or not Handler was up to the challenges she set before herself via the ambitious program, the former E! host of “Chelsea Lately” poked fun at all the questions by providing a non-answer. Even as the first episode is airing, she doesn’t know what it is, exactly. And her argument for why that’s okay is, for the most part, sound.
Featuring guests Pitbull (who didn’t go to college), Drew Barrymore (who also didn’t go to college) and Secretary of Education John King (who has four college degrees), “Appetite for Instruction” focused on education — the guests’, the host’s and, in theory, ours. The rapper told stories about how everyone learns differently. The actress shared her love for reading the dictionary. King discussed his position and quizzed Handler with general knowledge questions. The theme was intended to be a natural transition from Handler’s opening non-explanation of what her show would be about, springboarding off Handler’s statement, “I believe we should never stop learning.”
Setting aside whether this is an acceptable jumping off point for a professional talk show host operating with a considerable budget and few creative restrictions on one of the world’s most prominent viewing platforms — in case you can’t tell, we’re leaning toward, “No, that’s not okay” — Handler’s ambition is in the right place. She just needs the show to support it. This odd array of guests, none of which were on hand to pitch a project (though Barrymore did accept some love from Handler and the audience regarding her recent divorce), lent very little to the comedic equation, and Handler’s stunted patter didn’t help much. The lone funny moment in an episode packed with plenty of attempts (including an ad for Netflix University with cameos from Ellie Kemper and Will Arnett) came when Pitbull tried to greet Handler’s on-set dog and was mostly rebuked. “Dogs get afraid of other dogs sometimes,” he said, to which Handler let out a seemingly involuntary, “Pfffft!,” laughing at the lame pun Pitbull tried to make. (Good effort, though, Mr. Pitbull, sir.)
And that brings us back to the first joke of the night; the biggest swing and the biggest miss. Handler kicked off her show not with the monologue (which took up 10 minutes of a bloated 37-minute episode), but with Coldplay frontman Chris Martin playing piano and crooning a goodbye to Chelsea at the start of her “final show.” Of course, this was her first show, and the joke was that Chris Martin simply got confused. There was no follow-up. There was no deeper layer. There was just an inexplicable musical guest, on stage talking over a few repeated chords rather than providing a full-out, artistic performance. Why? Well, “Chelsea” is still figuring that out.