Reading from her new book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang. 3 p.m., April 9. R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison. $25.99 (book plus ticket). 203-245-3959, rjjulia.com.
Chelsea Handler, the outrageously funny comedian and star of the “Chelsea Lately” show, rolls in with uncanny wit and intelligent humor in her book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang. I haven’t laughed so consistently in a good while. Her on-air personality is quite different from her written personality, and we are given insight into her process with a series of rich anecdotes from her childhood and adult life. This is an honest woman I wish I had as a best friend, unafraid to be both strong and vulnerable, strange and banal.
Handler leads us through her youth at Riker Elementary where she spent much alone time with her “Pikachu” in waves of self-discovery, through her often humiliating family life with parents who “couldn’t have been more unreasonable when it came to fads or clothes that weren’t purchased at a pharmacy” to her current life as a rare, successful female entertainer whose greatest joy is taking the piss out of everyone around her.
Her parents were about as “hot,” she writes, and “with it as cerebral palsy.” Handler was doomed to ignominy at school because her parents felt reading The New York Times would improve her social cachet more than any Cabbage Patch doll. All her reading, though, I’m sure, helped craft a formidable mind.
Melvin Handler, her vaguely employed father, is rendered brilliantly, in all his shamelessness. He rents out their broken down home on the Vineyard for summer vacations in order to make a bit of cash. An irate renter demands a refund after finding the house in horrific condition (“Someone had left a package of squid [bait?] behind in the freezer, which had melted … and dripped smelly, fishy puddles onto the bottom of the freezer.”) Handler details her parents’ and family’s flaws with a rare boldness.
As hard as she laughs at others, Handler laughs at herself hardest of all. In a chapter titled “Grey Gardens,” we lie in bed with her for four days as she watches Nim’s Island, Definitely, Maybe and the Sex and the City movie while eating Lean Pockets and showering infrequently. In this drab space of self-loathing, we get the pleasure of lingering with her. The movie marathon ends with her arguing with her partner over having a live dolphin as a pet. Handler helps us revel in her absurdity, in her quirks, in her fetishes and phobias.
Loki is doubtless Handler’s muse: She is a prankster to the core. Her insanity is controlled, intentional, and her acting, unparalleled. Her victims: Dad, boyfriend, Ted, staff members and sister Sloane. We watch as she loops, like a puppet master, the delusions of all around her.
I cried with laughter at the chapter on Dudley in which she stages a fake funeral for a dog at the expense of Ted, whom she gets to believe that she has murdered a friend’s dog by feeding him something fatal at a party. Handler then draws us steadily through the long human play she stages singlehandedly, dragging all their friends into this project of deception.
Finally, Handler’s writing is genuinely witty and sharp. She throws down the perfect, well-chosen turn of phrase at all the right moments because she has a writer’s ear. What’s clear, at end, is the depth of her intelligence: It takes insane intelligence to be able to work through the complicated machinations of an extended prank. She lives for us, along with her, to experience the ultimate pay-off of watching the duped be struck by how far they fell for a simple joke.