Can Chelsea Handler’s Dinner Parties Revive the Art of Conversation?

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Can Chelsea Handler’s Dinner Parties Revive the Art of Conversation?

In a 2012 New York Times article about dinner parties and their impending death knell, Judith Martin, Miss Manners herself, cautioned that “conversation is in trouble”: “People have been brought up to express themselves rather than to exchange ideas.” We need not look further than those television shows that ostensibly offer us conversations with celebrities and public figures on a nightly basis. Indeed, with its increasingly canned and PR-approved soundbite-ridden banter—often just another attempt by producers and social media interns to turn out viral-ready moments—the late-night interview has all but lost any excitement it once mustered. Currently, there’s little trace of the electric (and sometimes contentious) exchange of ideas that first made programs like The Dick Cavett Show, Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, or David Letterman’s The Late Show must-see late-night TV. Instead we’ve been saddled with Jimmy Fallon’s frat-bro shenanigans and James Corden’s carpool karaoke segments. Even looking at the two most thrilling names in late night right now (Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver), you see a model of talking-to that encourages conversation beyond the screen but not within it. Enter: Chelsea Handler.

Ahead of the May debut of her latest Netflix show, Chelsea, the former E! Entertainment host insisted that she was seeking to upend the late-night template. Her first few episodes suggested she hadn’t been too successful: In The Atlantic, David Sims argued that “the series makes a noble effort, but from the look of its first episodes, it hasn’t yet figured out a way to stand out from its competitors.” A few months’ worth of shows later, though, indicate that Handler has found at least one way to stand out: her dinner parties.

First tested out in her four Netflix specials, Chelsea Does, Handler’s dinner party episodes bring together an eclectic group of people for a conversation on a topic the hostess (the word all the more telling in this new context) is eager to learn more about. From her very first episode (“Appetite for Instruction”), learning and listening have been at the forefront of Chelsea. But her dinner parties, which have featured conversations about parenting (with, among others, Kate Hudson and Randall Park), politics (with W. Kamau Bell and S.E. Cupp) and relationships (with Sarah Jessica Parker and Trevor Noah), stand out precisely because they allow the at-times painfully tone-deaf comedian to take a back seat and let her guests converse with one another, leading to some of the most candid unscripted moments in contemporary television.

It’s the closest the current television landscape has to lively, productive conversation, even as Handler would bristle at the suggestion these segments tap into a decidedly feminine (if not outright feminist) tradition. After all, despite appearing in a “late-night show” (though, given Netflix’s model, such a moniker is almost immaterial), the format seems borrowed from daytime. Shows like The View and The Talk are premised on the value of bringing women with opposing views together, the better to suss out the day’s “hot topics” or dissect the latest news.

Chelsea opts for less timely interactions, aiming instead for broader lifestyle concepts. Take the October 19 episode “These Strong Women,” when her guest list included Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank, Selma director Ava DuVernay, reigning Miss USA Deshauna Barber, and Nashville’s Connie Britton. Their conversation, which tackled aging, dating and sexism, doubled as a mentoring session in real time with the seasoned stars offering advice to the young Miss USA—who awed them all with her military experience and swiftly shut Handler down when she tried to make the argument that women are, you know, biologically weaker than men. The crosstalk in moments like these (as when DuVernay and Handler clashed over their conflicting stances on affirmative action) is refreshing for its candor. Barber even found herself wondering how her newfound role gave her a platform that she nevertheless felt needed to be carefully handled: “Can I say Black Lives Matter on my Instagram as a Miss USA, as a soldier?” The question itself pointed to the types of conversations that many are quick to avoid.

There are, of course, limitations to the template. In “The State of Politics” (September 7), Handler attempted to offer, in her own words, a “hodge-podge” of political personalities that tackled issues of abortion, affirmative action, race and the perils of a Trump win. She closed the episode with a heartwarming closing monologue: “I find it heartening that I could find common ground with a black Republican woman who’s voting for Hillary, a black liberal who touts the Green Party, a journalist willing to discuss his sexual identity but not his political one, and a female conservative pundit I did not hate.” In other words, this remained, despite certain political aspersions, a surprisingly homogenous group, if only in their commitment to constructive discourse—the implicit assumption of the segment was their collective rejection of what Trump, for example, stands for.

Handler is not the first, nor will she be the last, to leverage the dinner party model to craft engaging television. Last month, we saw the premiere of Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party, a VH1 show that, as its title suggests, pairs two unlikely pop cultural icons. The odd couple cooking show structures itself around their seeming incongruity. “When you mix the best of High Society with the best of high society,” we’re told in the first episode, “you never know what’s gonna pop off.” Or, as Ice-T puts it later, still referring to the two distinctly decorated halves of the set (Snoop’s loud and blinged out, Martha’s beige and pristine), “Here’s the hood and Hollywood.” The emphasis on painful (if entertaining) repartee—Martha to Sausage Party’s Seth Rogen: “So Seth, if I wasn’t here, would this be considered a… ‘sausage party’?”—suggests the producers are tickled by the idea of Stewart and Snoop together, but there’s little to suggest there’s any desire to bring their presumed (or very real) differences to the table for any meaningful exchange of ideas.

Thankfully, we can already see the potential of dinner party conversation proliferating elsewhere in the media landscape. Look no further than psychotherapist Matthew J. Dempsey’s “Real Talk Roundtable” video on his YouTube channel, where he brings in gay men of color (including Alec Mapa and Wilson Cruz) to talk about racism in the gay community. And though there may be no food at the table, The Hollywood Reporter’s oft-copied roundtables with filmmakers and actors, which now air on SundanceTV, are premised on the idea that the way to have a productive conversation about, say, the state of the industry or sexism in Hollywood is to bring together people with intimate knowledge of the issue at hand. Just as in Chelsea’s dinner parties, you can witness moments where the very frames of the conversations belie the limitations of their form.

Think of Helen Hunt admonishing the 2012 moderator for wanting to steer the conversation of an actress roundtable toward babies and paparazzi rather than the participants’ acting careers (she compared it to the implicit sexism of the media’s treatment of Hillary Clinton back in 2008), or Amy Adams questioning the burden placed on actresses to speak up about pay equity: “Who you should be asking is the producer roundtable,” she shot back. Who gets asked to the table and under what conditions is as important here as in any other platform. There’s no denying, and it bears pointing out, that in all of these examples, we’ve always got a white host setting the table and the conversation. Dempsey seemed to preempt such a critique by opening up his aptly titled video, “White, Gay, and Confronting Racism,” with the disclaimer that he had decided to host said conversation not just to give voice to gay people (given his guests, we should say “men”) of color but for them to be heard—for such a discussion, he added, “to land.”

In that, he may well have been following in Chelsea’s footsteps. Her dinner parties, which mix lively conversation with illuminating insights, work because they allow her to play both host and audience, student and interlocutor. They also, crucially, lay bare the comedian’s own privilege, leveraging it both as a punch line and as a springboard for enlightenment. In a television and cultural landscape where we’re all encouraged to speak (up and out), Chelsea is at its best when it encourages and models for us ways of actively listening to one another—to admit, every once in a while, that we don’t know everything, that other people’s voices may need to be heard above, and instead of, our own. Preferably over a nice glass of wine.

Manuel Betancourt is a New York-based writer who has contributed to Film Comment, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic and Esquire.

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