RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Netflix debuts its very first talk show today, Chelsea Handler's, "Chelsea." The comic tells NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans her new series is an attempt to break every rule of television talk shows.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Chelsea Handler's new talk show starts with a bold premise. The host is an idiot.
CHELSEA HANDLER: I can admit that I'm an idiot in many regards and that I don't know what a superdelegate is. And I still can't understand, no matter how many times somebody explains it to me.
DEGGANS: It might seem like Handler's kidding, but she's only joking a little. Rather than crank out another talk show where celebrities prattle on about their latest projects, Handler decided to create a series where she could learn something. And best of all, someone else, namely Netflix, is paying for it.
HANDLER: Yes, it's basically them paying for my college education. This is how I like to phrase it. And my point of view is, why am I so stupid? And I'm still 40 years old. And I still don't know half the stuff I'm supposed to know.
DEGGANS: For someone who calls herself stupid, Handler's set up a pretty savvy situation. Unlike other talk shows that air four or five times a week, Chelsea drops new episodes just three days a week, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. This approach is a new step for a service that helped turn binge-watching into a household word. But this new strategy offered a much needed challenge for Handler, who'd already hosted a traditional talk show on the cable channel E!. She's long said she was not interested in taking over a traditional network TV talk show.
HANDLER: The deterrent for me of going into somebody else's show and kind of filling someone else's shoes is that it's already - the format is already set. And I didn't want a set format. I want the show to be different every night.
I don't want it to be one, two, three, four. There's a guest. There's a monologue. There's a band. I'm not interested in doing that. And I have to say interested in order to be interesting I think.
DEGGANS: Her new series will mix material taped live in front of a studio audience with pretaped elements filmed from all over the world. She misleads fans in Russia about who she really is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHELSEA")
HANDLER: I have a show on Netflix. My name is Oprah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter) Oprah.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Laughter) Oprah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We thought she's...
HANDLER: Oh, no, you can say black. It's fine.
DEGGANS: And struggles to assemble furniture while working for the service TaskRabbit.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHELSEA")
HANDLER: I'm just messy when I open it. I can put it together though. And I will put it together.
DEGGANS: Her passion for more serious topics comes from the time she spent on the four-part docu-series "Chelsea Does," also for Netflix. She took a look at subjects like drug use and racism, interviewing a white man in the South who tried to downplay the impact of slavery by telling a story about a former slave.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHELSEA DOES")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Somebody came down from the North in the early 1900s. And he was still living on the farm. And they told him, you've been freed. You can go somewhere else. And he said, well, why would I want to do that?
HANDLER: Have you ever heard of the phrase Stockholm syndrome?
DEGGANS: That comment didn't go over too well. But those shows convinced Handler she was onto something new.
HANDLER: Those documentaries I did - I hate saying docu-series. It sounds so pretentious, like I even know what I'm talking about. Those kind of, you know, displayed that there are many sides to everybody. And that's enjoyable for me, to be able to show a bigger picture to somebody.
DEGGANS: Critics might not have predicted such a turn for Handler, who spent seven years hosting her show on E!, mostly making fun of celebrities. But she left that show in 2014, saying she had grown bored. Now she's going to talk about education in her first episode of "Chelsea," with a surprising guest list that includes actress Drew Barrymore and rapper Pitbull. She's also going to take a test administered by the U.S. secretary of education, John King.
HANDLER: I'm going to have him give me a test of where he thinks a regular, average 40-year-old person should be and where I am.
DEGGANS: We'll see if the results confirm her show's self-deprecating premise. My hunch is that Handler will deliver a series that's a bit smarter than many of her critics expect. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.