How Chelsea Handler & Irving Azoff Became Comedy's Dynamic Duo (Cover Story)
The superstar comedian and her (legendary) new manager plot her next moves, from tours to books to something "a little more mindful, and not as stupid" as what she’s doing at her soon-to-end E! gig
On Oct. 8 of last year, Irving Azoff got a call from Kevin Huvane, managing partner at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), congratulating the megamanager on the latest addition to his client list. There was just one problem: Azoff didn’t know about it.
"Chelsea Handler one day decided I was her manager, and I was only too thrilled to accept the assignment,” says the chairman/CEO of Azoff MSG Entertainment, 66. "She sent an email to her business manager, lawyer and agents saying, 'Please deal with Irving from now on.’ Shortly thereafter a press release showed up where she'd written my quotes."
Handler, who was without a manager at the time, says Azoff already had been “acting as a manager by proxy” — “he had some good, sagacious advice for me time and time again" — so it was simply a matter of making it official. "We bonded and joined forces and now we’re the dynamic duo."
The initial fruit of the partnership came in January, when Handler, 39, announced her first tour in four years — more than 30 dates in theaters and arenas to coincide with her fourth book (and fourth New York Times No. 1 best seller), Uganda Be Kidding Me.
Two months later came a potentially even bigger development: After seven years of Chelsea Lately, Handler will be leaving the E! Network when her contract expires at the end of the year. "We have at least seven suitors and many ideas," Azoff told The Hollywood Reporter at the time.
The Azoff/Handler partnership has landed rather loudly. "Yeah, well, we have a loud footstep," says Handler. "At least I do. Irving’s is a little bit lighter, because he’s so little." (Azoff — who stands 5 foot 3 inches to Handler’s 5 foot 6 — can give as good as he gets. Asked if he’d ever considered trying his hand at stand-up, he quips, “People always tell me to stand up, and I’m already standing up.” Ba-da-boom.)
Azoff, of course, has remade the music business more than once, first as a manager in the 1970s, then again more than three decades later as chairman of Live Nation from 2011 to 2012.
Since the announcement of his joint venture with Madison Square Garden in September 2013 — Azoff MSG Entertainment, which includes management, branding, music publishing and digital media — many have waited to see how his next chapter will unfold, and taking on Handler as a client showed it would include more than music.
Azoff’s entry into the world of comedy is “absolutely good for the business,” says veteran comedy manager and partner at Levity Entertainment Group Judi Brown-Marmel. “Anytime somebody as reputable as he is, with the history of success he has, steps into the comedy game, it signals that this is a serious business.”
Azoff, whose role is to help direct the next stage of Handler’s career, says she will “definitely” continue in TV, though they are exploring other avenues as well. “We’re kicking the tires hard on radio,” he says. “And I really like, and will advise her on, a lot of the things going on in the digital world.” He mentions by example Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, which offers programming through Internet subscription and the Dish Network. “She’s an absolute natural for that,” he says. “We’re going to figure out what’s going on in her life digitally.”
Handler is indeed accomplished in the social media world, with 2.4 million Facebook fans and more than 5.5 million followers on Twitter, where she’s the most-followed female comedy personality, and ranks as the fifth-most-followed comedian overall. She’s a frequent poster, and she’s really doing the posting. “I enjoy social media,” she says, admitting that, initially, assistants did the posting for her. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? Let me do this.’ And about a year into it I said, ‘Let me do my own Twitter.’ ”
Doing it herself is a Handler trait. She started doing stand-up at 21, and launched Chelsea Lately in 2007 at the age of 31, which gave her 10 years to hone her chops to late-night levels. (Her first effort at E! was The Chelsea Handler Show, a sketch-comedy vehicle that premiered in 2006 and morphed into the talk show.) But early in her stand-up career, “I had nights where I wasn’t that funny, and I don’t think people should have paid to see me perform,” she admits.
Her work ethic played a significant role, but so did Handler’s good looks. “I was a girl, and at the time there were definitely girls, but not as many as there are now, so that set me apart,” she says.
“I tried to use that as an advantage rather than a disadvantage, and I think it was an advantage to be a pretty girl doing stand-up. There weren’t tons of them, so it was easy to stand out.”
Rather than her looks, however, it was the way she used her own discomfort that bailed her out many times. “I always start with myself. It’s very self-deprecating, self-referential. I start with what I find embarrassing, and I go on about what other people do that is embarrassing or annoying, or that I find irritating. But I always come back to myself: I start with myself and I end with myself.”
That style also drives Handler’s books, which boosted her profile significantly, starting with My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands in 2005, which has sold 944,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. In 2007 she launched Chelsea Lately on E!, and followed it with Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea in 2008. It is her best-selling book, having sold more than 1.4 million copies.
Handler is “a fantastic example of a multi-hyphenate at work,” says Nick Nucifero, her personal appearance agent at CAA. “The attention from TV fuels her tour, her tour fuels TV, the book fuels both, they fuel the book. Her social media is through the roof, and it’s all ping-ponging back and forth between these different mediums.”
“She plays to win,” says Azoff. “She’s got a work ethic unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This woman is doing her shows during the week, going on the road over the weekend, doing charity work, doing press, all kinds of stuff.
"I don't think I know anyone in the music business that works as hard as her." - Azoff on Handler
With Azoff now helping guide her career, Handler is looking forward to working smart. “I’m listening to a bunch of different offers right now and trying to figure out which direction I want to go in,” says Handler. “I want to do something where I’m exercising my brain a little bit more, something that’s a little more challenging and exciting.”
“What she has in mind to do next does not fit on E!” says Azoff. “She’s loved her time there, and just the way David Letterman is doing his victory lap, she’s going to do hers. You’ll see incredible guests and great shows to the end.”
(Page 2 of 2)
Handler makes about $9 million a year at E!, and her tour has moved 125,000 tickets and grossed $7.5 million in ticket sales to date, according to Live Nation comedy president Geof Wills. Azoff declined to get into specifics, but says the paycheck is not Handler’s primary motivation at this point.
“Does Chelsea make a lot of money? Yeah, she’s very highly compensated. Very few — if anybody — do more concert business than her, and, yeah, she gets paid,” he says. “But this woman never makes a decision just based on money. She never does anything that doesn’t feel right for her creatively.”
Azoff says he has gotten a “good education” in the comedy business from Live Nation’s Wills. “It’s not unlike the music business,” says Azoff. “A lot of what we’ve done for Chelsea, with her touring and her book promotion, were just tricks we learned in the rock’n’roll touring business. We did platinum seating on her tour, an AmEx presale. On the book we did an exclusive version for Target, and they took a nice hefty order.”
The prevailing theme in Azoff's management philosophy is that artists must get out there in front of people, and Handler is no exception. “The parallel with the music business is you have to build a live base," he says. "Once you do, it’s loyal, and gives you a [platform] to do tons of other stuff you want to do."
Handler — who had taken time off from the road after being exhausted by back-to-back tour and book cycles on top of show tapings — “was kind of opposed” to touring again. But she says Azoff convinced her, and “before I knew it, I had two weeks left before I had to go on the road.”
She worked out the kinks through 16 hours at Southern California comedy clubs. “I was really nervous leading up to [the tour] because I really hadn’t prepared,” she says. "I called my agent and said, ‘Please book me, I’ve got to get ready.’ And he said, 'Oh, good, I’m glad you’re asking. We didn’t know what your plan was.' Any time put in is better than no time, and I do pick things up quickly, and I can edit quickly. And I have a good memory, whether I’ve been drinking or not, so that helps."
She says the Uganda Be Kidding Me Live dates have “turned out to be my favorite tour ever” — perhaps tempered by the certainty that there’s a break coming. In June, she’ll tape her first major stand-up special in Chicago, to air on a cable network in October. “Then after my last show at E!, I’m going to probably disappear for a few months,” she says. Whatever comes next, the agreement will include six months off so she has time to "go and be a real person."
Handler says she’s looking for something "a little more mindful, and not as stupid" as what she’s doing at E! "I created my own show ... and I did something that hadn’t necessarily been done in that format or medium the exact same way. And because I did that, I have the leisure of being able to walk away from it and do it again.
"I don’t want to go and fill someone else’s shoes in a job,” she says. “I want to create my own job, for me, and I want to write my own books, and I don’t want anyone telling me exactly what I can and can’t do."
As for Azoff, he says Azoffmusic and its parent Azoff Madison Square Garden Entertainment are “looking at other investments in the [comedy] space.” But rather than focusing on comedy as a genre, Azoff's interest is more on star power and the potential to grow it. Comedy’s top stars, he says, “aren’t just comedians. All these great entertainers are television stars, live stars, authors — pretty much all of them. I’m not really interested in 'comedy' per se, this is just their base."