Two Talk Shows: One Thumbs Up, One Thumbs Down

Media Reviews for Media People: 'Wendy Williams Show,' 'Chelsea Lately'

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I am highly susceptible to outdoor advertising, especially when it pertains to new and unfamiliar TV shows. If a program is hawked in the New York City subways or on the side of a bus shelter, I will watch it, no questions asked. A Sorkin-scripted dramedy starring the 1985 Chicago Bears, a reality show in which 16 dwarfs compete for a gig in Snow White's entourage, "Vamping with the Von Bulows" -- any content marketer savvy enough to place an outdoor ad in my line of sight guarantees his property an audience of at least one.

Wendy Williams
Wendy Williams Credit: Talk WW
Of all the shows flogged mercilessly in recent weeks, two inflamed my curiosity: the syndicated "Wendy Williams Show" and E!'s "Chelsea Lately." The posters for "Chelsea" billed Chelsea Handler as "the sharpest tongue in late night," while the pressed-on Williams was touted as "the urban Eleanor Roosevelt." I couldn't vest them with cherished DVR-season-pass status fast enough.

Judging by their one-line descriptions -- respectively, "disco-flavored dish from radioland's high priestess of low celebrity" and "culture skewering a la carte, courtesy of a vodka/anatomical-analogy aficionado" -- these are not the types of programs I'd ordinarily watch, being as I have male-type plumbing downstairs. In the end, only one of the shows lives up to the promise implicit in its tagline -- and, surprisingly, it's the one showcasing the performer who lacks anything approaching polish.

"The Wendy Williams Show" is massively, transfixingly entertaining, almost in spite of its host. At times, Williams doesn't appear to be aware that she's being filmed. She fans herself with notecards, swats at flies, tugs at her short dresses as if they're laced with poison ivy. She comes across as unpracticed and uncouth, less interested in presenting a coherent hour of TV than in burning off some nervous energy.

Similarly, as an interviewer Williams is more Jiminy Glick than Tyra Banks. She says whatever the hell is on her mind at any given moment, resulting in comments like "You're really a multitalented type of man" to Wayne Brady and questions like "Is that a wig or a weave?" to Brady's young daughter. And that wasn't even the oddest query from that particular segment. That honor goes to "What can we expect on 'Let's Make a Deal'?" (Brady's response was something along the lines of "Uh, you know, deal making and whatnot").

But what Williams gets -- and what 70% of current talk-show hosts inexplicably fail to comprehend -- is that a televised klatch is only as good as its in-studio audience. Williams goes out of her way to involve the 200-strong crowd, cranking up the club music and plopping them in an environment replete with day-glo polka dots and mirror balls, just like "The Charlie Rose Show" does. That energy translates well to the small screen, and Williams rewards her fans for their emotional investment. She's at her snappiest when working the crowd during "Ask Wendy," a segment in which she gives BS-free responses to queries about relationships, style and more. Williams clearly likes her fans and empathizes with them; they return the favor, and the show feels more authentic for it.

Chelsea Handler
Chelsea Handler Credit: E!
Handler's gabfest, by comparison, is a chore. The host, while whip smart and possessed with a blunt-force deadpan, seems to regard her gig as a mere trifle. Her segues to taped bits are sloppy and delivered with something close to contempt, while she tries way too hard to create on-air foils. Somebody at E! might've thought that tagging one comic as "staff homosexual" and assigning a "fat little Mexican" to an on-air sidekick role would invest the show with some anti-PC edge. But in practice, the "Chelsea Lately" crew comes off as a tame, manufactured version of Howard Stern's "Wack Pack."

Then there are Handler's interviews, which rarely delve deeper than into current projects and the roots of celebrity feudin' and fussin'. Perhaps the problem isn't Handler so much as her targets. Ripping Denise Richards isn't exactly up there with wringing a coherent seven minutes out of Crispin Glover on the sliding scale of talk-show difficulty. Too, what Handler does isn't unique: hundreds of pundits online and off have made glib, practiced bitchery a central component of their professional personalities.

Still, the bottom line is that only a small fraction of Handler's act transcends "What's the deal with that?" That may be wonderful shtick for a PG-rated stand-up comedian, but it lacks the necessary comedic and topical heft to sustain a half-hour talk show.

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