Late night's leading lady -- Comedian and author Chelsea Handler is garnering fans with her raunchy E! talk show 'Chelsea Lately'

”This is gonna be good,” says Chelsea Handler, with a mischievous look in her eye. The taping of her late-night talk show, Chelsea Lately, is imminent, and her L.A. office is buzzing about some juicy breaking news: A recording has surfaced of Charlie Sheen inexplicably calling his then wife Denise Richards the N-word. Two hours later, Handler’s on camera delivering the punchline. ”That’s offensive!” she declares. ”There are so many better words to call Denise Richards.”

The 33-year-old comedian and author has been building a niche for herself in late night by daring to say what everyone else is thinking. While taking shots at pop culture luminaries and lowlifes isn’t groundbreaking, conquering the 11:30 p.m. time slot as a female talk-show host is. (Joan Rivers was the only woman to get a shot in that hour on a network — in 1986.) Handler’s year-old show is building a loyal audience on E! — it averages 500,000 viewers, with a median age of 35, which is significantly younger than the crowd tuning in to its time-slot competitors on the networks. (Take that, Jay and Dave!) No doubt many of those viewers are the same devotees who propelled Handler’s second book, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in May. Her show is no Ellen-style, stay-at-home-mom nicefest; Chelsea Lately is more like The View, but with a lot of bleeping. A rotating roundtable of comics riff on the day’s news, often followed by taped segments of Handler and her diminutive Mexican assistant Chuy (a.k.a. her ”little nugget”) on such adventures as making sushi and serving it on their naked bodies. Each half-hour show wraps with Handler interviewing a low-wattage celeb like Fran Drescher or Michael Lohan.

It’s tempting to compare Handler to D-list doyenne Kathy Griffin or sass sister Sarah Silverman, but Handler says the only thing they all have in common is anatomy: ”There’s nothing similar about any of [us] girls except that [we] all have hot pockets.” Comic Heather McDonald, who routinely appears on the show’s roundtable and opens for Handler on tour, explains her friend’s appeal like this: ”She’s the king of drunk, hot blondes. They’ve been wandering the earth, they’ve never had a leader, until Chelsea arrived with her big boobs and long hair and sassy attitude, and they’re like, ‘She’s me!”’ In 2005, Handler provided her followers with a guidebook in the form of her memoir, My Horizontal Life, documenting her innumerable one-night stands, with such chapters as ”Guess Who’s Leaving Through the Window?” and ”Skid Mark.” In her latest collection of essays, Handler chronicles her childhood, her dating life, and her ongoing love affair with vodka. ”I’m not falling down drunk every night and blacking out,” she insists. ”I drink like a man.” (And with a little help from her fans, who often bring Handler bottles of her beloved Grey Goose during her frequent sold-out weekend stand-up gigs.)

A Jersey girl more in the mold of Bon Jovi’s down-the-shore partiers than Zach Braff’s Garden State mopers, Handler is the youngest of six children, raised by a Mormon mom and a Jewish dad. At 20, she set off for L.A. ”I thought I’d become an actress, but then I realized I eat too much,” she says. While waiting tables and performing stand-up in 2003, Handler landed a role on Girls Behaving Badly, Oxygen’s hidden-camera comedy series. With a steady part-time job, she started writing her first book. Handler’s an unlikely best-selling author (”You think?” she deadpans); she never set out to write a book, but her friends loved hearing about her outrageous dating escapades, and they encouraged her. ”I wrote 10 short stories that I sent to my manager. I had three [publishing] offers in two days. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I just wrote a book!”’ Actually, she hadn’t; she had 10 more chapters to write. She reacted with her usual grace: ”I have to sleep with 10 more guys? Like, by when?” Most of Handler’s stories end in humiliation — like the time she had a lot of tequila and spent the night with a little person. When she woke up, she writes, ”I was so confused. At first I thought, ‘Oh, great, I had a baby.”’

By 2006, periodic gigs doing wiseass commentary on E! and The Tonight Show had led to her first E! series, The Chelsea Handler Show. It featured comedy segments in which Handler would, for example, interview senior citizens about such pressing topics as Carrot Top or Fergie. Soon, the network wanted her to do an entertainment news show. Handler wasn’t so into that, but she had an idea: ”I could make fun of everything that E! reports.” And Chelsea Lately was born.

Around the same time, her love life took an upward turn as well. In 2006, Handler began dating Ted Harbert, 54, president and CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group, E!’s parent company. ”He asked me at the Chelsea Handler Show wrap party to dance, and I was like, ‘With who?”’ Handler recalls. ”I thought if I dance with the president of the network everyone is gonna make fun of me. [But] once I got over it, everyone else got over it.” Months later, she and Harbert moved in together.

Harbert insists he has no say in Handler’s financial dealings with the network, but the couple do tussle over Chelsea Lately‘s sometimes raunchy content. ”Have Chelsea and I had loud arguments about whether or not she could say something?” Harbert asks. ”Yes. Is it personal? No.” He says he had similar conflicts when he oversaw programming at ABC. ”I’ve had close personal relationships with all the stars I’ve worked [with], from Roseanne on down,” he says. ”My relationship with Chelsea is perhaps closer than my relationship with Roseanne, but I’ve been fighting with talent for a long time.”

Like Roseanne, Handler could become a sitcom star in her own right — she’s just not sure she wants to. She, Jenny McCarthy, and Leah Remini (King of Queens) have been starring as harried moms in a series of online webisodes called In the Motherhood. ABC now plans to turn those shorts into a midseason sitcom, but no actor deals have been secured, and Handler is ambivalent about signing on. ”I don’t love reading scripts and saying lines the way they’re written,” she says. ”I can only say what’s on my mind.” Yeah, we noticed.

Chelsea Bluntly
On TV or on the page, Handler is incapable of keeping her opinion to herself — no matter how taboo the topic

On pregnancy
”Do you think it’s okay to drink while you’re pregnant if you’re planning on giving the kid up for adoption?”

On little people
”Some people have a phobia of midgets. They’re, like, scared of them. I have the opposite — I see them and I want to hold them down, cuddle them, be like, ‘Come here, you little nugget. Who’s your mommy now?’ So cute!”

On drinking
”I went out with a guy once who told me I didn’t need to drink to make myself more fun to be around. I told him, ‘I’m drinking so that you’re more fun to be around.”’

On losing her virginity
”When I was a little girl I was like, ‘I’m gonna wait until I go to college to lose my virginity.’ I had all these big dreams, and then the third grade just ended up being such a nutty year.”

On sex
”Men don’t realize that if we’re sleeping with them on the first date, we’re probably not interested in seeing them again either.”

30-Second Bio
Chelsea Handler
Age: 33
Hometown: Livingston, N.J.
Wiseassery runs in the family:
A few months after her mother passed away, Handler took her father on a vacation to Costa Rica. En route, they were upgraded to first class…because her dad told the ticket attendant they were on their honeymoon.
The golden page:
Handler prides herself on being the most literary member of the E! family. ”My position as the best-selling author at E! is secure, unless Salman Rushdie develops a show with them.”