It’s an unselfconscious sense of humor that has made Heather McDonald one of the most talked about of Chelsea Handler’s band of comedy writers and round table regulars on E!’s Chelsea Lately. With self-deprecating facial expressions to punctuate each newsworthy comment, and her willingness to lampoon herself on the regular, McDonald has gained legions of fans, both civilian and celebrity.
Heather McDonald has built her comedy career on the merits of her personality foibles and neurosis, even chronicling her long and excruciating road to losing her virginity at the age of twenty-seven in her hilarious memoir, You’ll Never Blue Ball In This Town Again.
Unapologetic humor is the calling card of Chelsea Lately and E!’s hit mock-umentary After Lately. Starring Heather McDonald and the rest of the Chelsea Lately staff members, After Lately chronicles the hyped-up machinations of what goes on behind-the-scenes of basic cable’s most cynical, yet charming chatfest.
After Lately highlights a semi-fictional version of the comings and goings of the Chelsea Lately staff as they drift through creative meetings, office gossip, competition for Handler’s favoritism and star-struck encounters with A-List celebrities who pass through the Chelsea Lately offices.
I sat down with Heather McDonald to discuss how much further the cast of After Lately is pushing comedic boundaries in this upcoming second season (airing Sunday, November 27th on E!). Being fellow politicos, we also discussed what McDonald feels are the merits of fiscal conservatism, her take on the public’s love/hate relationship with the Kardashians, and the perils of being married-off in suburbia while her high-profile boss, Chelsea Handler, lives the single life in Hollywood.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): Who came up with the idea of doing a Chelsea Lately behind-the-scenes mock-umentary?
Heather McDonald: It was actually all us, and it took a long time. We had the idea in the first year of Chelsea Lately. So many fun things were happening [behind the scenes] and we were like, “This is like The Office meets 30 Rock.” I think they pitched it to [E!] a good year and a half before [the network] asked for a pilot presentation. They weren’t very confident that people would be interested in anyone other than Chelsea. So we had to really fight for After Lately. People love it and a lot of people had seen After Lately and had never watched Chelsea Lately. People come up now and ask, “Is there a real late night show?” And I’m like, “Yes!” After Lately is scripted in the sense of a Curb Your Enthusiasm…
PR.com: I was just about to ask you if the format of After Lately is in the same vein as Curb Your Enthusiasm, where you know what has to happen in a scene, and you just go for it and improvise to get from point A to point B.
Heather McDonald: Exactly. We had all the storylines and then we have two separate writers other than ourselves. We have our meetings and then they put it into A, B and C storyline order, per episode. So we know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to resolve, and what we need to accomplish in the scene. We “improv” a lot to determine the best lines. The chemistry is there between all of us because we’ve worked together on a daily basis for so long.
PR.com: It’s almost like there’s a sitcom-in-the-making in every office in America.
Heather McDonald: Absolutely! And that’s why it’s so relatable. Even though we’re in entertainment, a lot of the office situations are like the show The Office. We have the birthday parties (laughs), we have the parties outside of work, we have people that are odd, and we start rumors about people thinking something is happening that’s not. We’re exactly like any close knit, five day a week office.
PR.com: For After Lately, do you shoot in your actual Chelsea Lately offices? Are those your real desks?
Heather McDonald: Oh, yes. Those are our desks. We’re right in the studio, so we’ll finish taping Chelsea Lately, and then it’s like, “Your call time for After Lately is six o’clock,” and we’ll shoot scenes at night or on a Saturday. It’s hectic but it’s a lot of fun because I’m so close with everyone. It really is like a family. Definitely, people get on our nerves and there might be little snide remarks, but for the most part everyone loves each other and wants each other to succeed and have a good time.
PR.com: How is it decided each day which writers are going to sit on the Chelsea Lately round table?
Heather McDonald: They schedule it and we’re on once every week or once every other week. You have a schedule and you know that you’re on that day. We come together and decide what the monologue is going to be, or we create the clip, and decide what the topics are going be. From there we write jokes for [Chelsea] to choose from on the topic. Then we each think of our own point of view on the topic. But we don’t share that with anybody, so nobody knows what each other is going to say.
PR.com: Was it Chelsea’s idea to create this on-air vehicle for promoting comedians on Chelsea Lately?
Heather McDonald: I don’t think that was her initial thought when it started, but when she saw the opportunity, then she took it. It was her idea to say, “We’ll plug whatever they want plugged. We’ll plug a book or a comedy CD.” When you look at other late night shows, they barely even feature stand-up. It’s not even a big deal anymore to get a spot on Jay Leno, but if you can be a regular and be seen several times on Chelsea Lately, it can really help people get to know you. And you’re not burning out your stand-up material. You’re writing new jokes for the night.
PR.com: With the show, After Lately, how are you getting so many A-List celebrities to agree to appear and, essentially, have to improvise alongside comedians?
Heather McDonald: For one thing all the stars love Chelsea and adore her. I have to say, her knowing them and asking them certainly helps. Some of them she didn’t know personally and our producers sought them out; and they were totally down for it. I think because stars want to not take themselves too seriously. They want the world to know that they have a sense of humor and that they’re funny, and part of something hip. It’s kind of crazy when you’re doing scenes with Jen Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, but they really are who you think they would be. They’re just completely girls’ girls, someone that you and I would be friends with, really down to earth, really sweet and truly good friends with Chelsea. They wanted to do [the show] which was nice.
PR.com: I always find it interesting when people have to play a fictional version of themselves, the way you do on After Lately.
Heather McDonald: It’s actually more of an exaggerated version and I kind of play into it. I kind of have a caricature going. I am Catholic, I am married, and I am a Republican which is such a dirty word…
PR.com: My God, you’re in Hollywood and you’re a Republican?!
Heather McDonald: And I kind of “came out” on the show in 2008, and when I say “come out” it really is like “coming out,” (laughs) like it’s 1950 and I’m an actor. For me, growing up, my parents were realtors, my dad’s a Marine and we were fiscal Republicans in the sense that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. My parents weren’t rich but they never applied for financial aid. We paid for our own school and we didn’t take out loans. I loved Ronald Reagan growing up. The party has shifted so much to being the way people now think of it: conservative Christian, anti-gay…
PR.com: And that’s describing a socially conservative agenda, rather than fiscal…
Heather McDonald: My dad being a Marine, we were totally gun control people. He didn’t want a gun in the house, so I also learned that you didn’t have to follow every [partisan] thing. I always felt like, “Why are you making every Republican out to be the devil?” It’s unfortunate because we have a lot of gay fans and sometimes they are like, “Say it’s not true that you’re Republican.” I don’t really want to say what I am anymore. I’m totally for gay marriage. Again, it would only help the economy and I’m all about helping the economy. I just want people to have jobs, and who doesn’t want to go to a gay wedding (laughs)?
PR.com: On After Lately, you’re kind of the office scapegoat and punching bag for jokes. That can’t really be the case in the Chelsea Lately offices...
Heather McDonald: Absolutely I am, yeah. It was kind of hard in the beginning. I would get sensitive and be really pissed, and I felt like I was in middle school sometimes. But then it all clicked and I kind of got it. Everyone is in on the joke now. We all get it.
PR.com: So it’s your religion and your traditional married home life that makes you odd man out in the Chelsea Lately offices?
Heather McDonald: Chelsea is single, so sometimes she’ll just invite the single people to something because she doesn’t want to deal with the spouses. She’s really a girl’s girl so she really doesn’t like another guy hanging around. I think she likes Peter (Heather’s husband) but if there’s too many people and it’s getting too crowded… if you’re not invited to something your feelings are hurt, but you shouldn’t take it too personally because something else is coming around the corner, and not everybody can go to everything.
PR.com: Is there an office pet in the Chelsea Lately offices? Do all of the writers vie for Chelsea’s attention and affections?
Heather McDonald: Not only is she our boss, but she’s definitely queen bee. When she comes walking down the hall, and she’s in someone’s office talking and you kind of want to get in on that conversation. She really is so fun. If she invites you to dinner, you want to go because she’s so much fun to hang out with. People always ask if she’s really that mean. Yes, she does talk to us like that in the office. It’s her sense of humor where she says things that, if anyone else said it you’d be like, “Do you hate me?” But you know that she does it. But Chelsea can be really empathetic and if you’re ever one-on-one with her she’s not mean and you can have a really great conversation with her. She’s extremely loyal, cares about everybody’s family and she’s really great like that.
PR.com: Do you see the absurdity of popular culture and celebrity culture, or are you drinking the Cool Aide?
Heather McDonald: I definitely see the absurdity of the instant fame that pop culture and reality shows have done for people. I do really enjoy the Housewives. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are so much fun, definitely my favorite. They take these women who probably always wanted to be an actress, and now at 45 they’re on the cover of Us Weekly. It’s so amazing how many of them, their lives have just destructed from the instant fame. There have been so many divorces in the franchise, so many bankruptcies because it’s all about acting like they’re richer than they are. And they get five of the same type of women who are all type A personality narcissists, so they fight with each other and they’re awful. It’s interesting to watch, but it’s like, “Oh my God! How are you suddenly this super-famous person?” The last decade is really what makes pop culture and entertainment significantly different from the past.
PR.com: That, and also the fact that it’s not like you can just decide not to pick up Us Weekly or not to turn on a news program to get away from it. You turn on your computer and all of these stupid headlines explode in your face. You can’t get away from it.
Heather McDonald: And then even regular news shows are adapting round table ways to deliver their news, because they found that people are getting their news on their computers so they’re not as apt to listen to a boring anchor read off a teleprompter. Now they’re trying to get more interesting types. That’s why I think they got Gayle King, because she’s funny and interesting and they want to have more discussions about the news on the news. We’re not the originators of the round table, but I think it is kind of a reflection of what we’ve been doing on Chelsea Lately. My nephew is in college and he said they call it “info-tainment.”
PR.com: Info-tainment. I like that.
Heather McDonald: You’re getting your news but in an entertaining way. But, yeah, it is ridiculous. At the same time, everyone bags on the Kardashians, and I am friends with them. In this economy why would you bash anybody who is contributing to society and hiring people? Yes, they have several businesses. But people will be like, “Why are these people famous?! Why do they have a clothing line at Sears?!” Well, why not? If someone wants to buy their clothes and it makes them feel good in it, then what is wrong with that?
PR.com: I’ve interviewed all three of the older sisters. My initial impression of each of them was that Kourtney is very down to earth, Khloe is smart and topical, and Kim is a sweet girl.
Heather McDonald: Kim is very sweet, and definitely has the most mellow personality. She’s not a kick in the pants.
PR.com: I found her to be kind of shy and soft-spoken. I don’t think people realize who she is, it’s kind of funny.
Heather McDonald: When people were furious about Kim leaving Kris Humphries, I was like, “I see what you’re saying.” But what about all of the people in Montecito who got to work that day? What about the fact that I paid six hundred dollars for a dump of a hotel room (McDonald was a guest at Kim Kardashian’s wedding)? Don’t you think the city was happy? And people watched it and enjoyed it, and then everybody got to talk about it, and it gave us a topic and it sold magazines.
PR.com: Are you pissed now that you had to pay six hundred dollars for a dump of a hotel room to go to Kim’s wedding?
Heather McDonald: No. I thought it was smart business. I booked it too late and they knew it was Kim’s wedding, so why not charge me six hundred dollars. I’m gonna go.
PR.com: Are you mad about getting Kim and Kris a wedding gift? I know that was a big thing that people were annoyed by. All of those wedding gifts…
Heather McDonald: I didn’t give her a wedding gift yet, I only gave her a shower gift. It wasn’t my plan. I just was kind of busy. And of course everyone at work (at the “Chelsea Lately” offices) was just bashing, bashing, bashing. I’m the only one defending her because if someone is my friend and I’ve been in their home I’m not going to talk behind their back and bash them. I’m going to try to find the good. Every friend that I know that has gotten divorced, they kind of knew, walking down the aisle or on the honeymoon, or they had doubts. [Kim] probably had doubts, but it’s like a Princess Di situation. How are you supposed to turn around now? I don’t think he was a nice guy. I think he’s really not right and way too immature for her. In fact, he’s six years younger. That was my biggest concern. She’s thirty-one, he’s twenty-six, but she’s lived the life of someone much older.
PR.com: When I watched Keeping Up With The Kardashians last season, I found Kris Humphries to be a bit abrasive. But in fairness, he could be a very nice guy. I obviously know nothing about him at all.
Heather McDonald: I think he’s just kind of an arrogant, immature guy. If you read the Us Weekly article (on newsstands November 23rd), it tells a lot more. When people watch Kourtney and Kim Take New York, which is preceding ours, they’ll kind of see it wasn’t a match. I think she really loved him in the beginning and I think she, at thirty-one, wants to be married and have babies. But when she realized he wasn’t it, why should she stay for a year? When you’re thirty-one, those are precious baby-making years and if that’s not who you want to have a baby with, you should not waste a year like that. No one’s brought that up.
PR.com: I read her mother’s book (Kris Jenner… And All Things Kardashian)…
Heather McDonald: So did I…
PR.com: When I read her mom’s book I said, “Ah, I get it!” Kim wants to follow in her mom’s footsteps. She wants to find the man of her dreams, get married and have lots of babies. Maybe she felt like she was running out of time, so when she met Kris it was like, “You, you’ll do!” even though they weren’t the best match.
Heather McDonald: I loved Kris’s book. I thought it was hilarious. I know her very well. And the way she would write… I wanted to read [her book] doing an impression of Kris Jenner, like, “… and then we got in this sexy black jet that was like a black Chanel purse [sic] with champagne and I thought ‘this is exactly where I’m supposed to be (doing her best affected mock-pretentious tone)!’” The first thing I said when I met Kris Jenner was, and this was a long time ago, I asked Kris how she dealt with Kim marrying that music producer who had four kids with different women, who was thirty-two when Kim was about eighteen (Kim Kardashian’s first husband, Damon Thomas) and kept it from her parents. I asked Kris how she dealt with that and she said, “I embraced him because I wanted to keep my family together.” I think that’s why people are attracted to them as a family. They really support each other. That’s what makes the Kardashians unique, unlike a Paris Hilton who’s kind of out there by herself. They’ll have a red carpet event and it doesn’t matter if anybody else comes. There’s enough of them…
PR.com: (Laughs). Wow, this event is packed! And it’s just Kardashians.
Heather McDonald: But I do respect Kris Jenner as a mom. She’s kept everybody close and that’s a hard thing to do when your kids get older.
PR.com: You’re a mom of all boys, right?
Heather McDonald: I have two boys and a stepdaughter who’s twelve, and she lives with us now.
PR.com: So you will have a little bit of the teenage girl stuff.
Heather McDonald: I do have a little bit of the teenage girl stuff happening right now. She got really mad at my husband because he let my son sit in the front seat of the car, and not her, one time, and she’s like, “He’s your favorite! This is like a knife in my heart!”
PR.com: (Laughs). A little dramatic.
Heather McDonald: It was a three minute car ride!
PR.com: How is After Lately going to push boundaries in this second season?
Heather McDonald: It’s edgy and we have storylines and topics that you will be sort of shocked by. We have a storyline with Jenny McCarthy based on something that really happened. We were on tour where Brad, Josh and I, opening for Chelsea. We get really, really drunk girls that come to the shows. This cute girl was there and [slurring her speech]. At first I thought that the girl was really wasted, but then I realized that something might actually be wrong with this person, like, maybe she’s handicapped. I didn’t say anything, but then she gets to Brad who tends to blurt things out inappropriately. He says to the girl, “What the hell is wrong with you?!” The girl’s sister finally said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, my sister has autism, but she’s a huge fan.” We use that storyline in an episode of After Lately and Jenny McCarthy makes an appearance in that episode.
PR.com: What’s Jenny’s role in the scenario?
Heather McDonald: Jenny plays herself, being that she is an advocate for autism and has an autistic son. It’s great that we can go to someone like Jenny McCarthy who actually has an autistic son and has done more work for autism than anybody else, tell her the story and because of who she is, she totally gets it and wants to be a part of it. [She] wants the world to know that she can have a sense of humor about it, in a sense. It’s definitely more edgy than the last season, but you get all the same flavor and for twenty-two minutes. It’s a lot of laughs.
The second season of After Lately premieres Sunday November 27th on E! @ 11/10c.
Follow Heather McDonald on Twitter @heathermcdonald.