Part travelogue, part humor essay collection, E! star Chelsea Handler has scored yet another literary bulls eye with her latest book Uganda Be Kidding Me, a book that covers her travels to Africa on safari as well as stops in the Bahamas. As expected, Handler’s brand of humor – ribald, profane, and often very vulgar – is used to great effect when she describes her vacations with her girlfriends and her sister. And though her love of alcohol and promiscuity aren’t the central themes as they were in her other books, they still figure greatly in this one. But like her other work, Uganda Be Kidding Me also highlights that despite her sarcasm and tendency to default to snark, she’s a devoted friend and sister.
Reading Handler I was reminded of the great comedienne Brett Butler – a wonderful, pioneering standup of the early 1990s whose career flamed out because of personal issues. What was so interesting about Butler was that she represented a fascinating tension: she indulged in Southern humor, often at the expense of those from the South, but she was also a hyper-literate intellectual, and her articulate smarts never strayed far from her delivery: she was the love child of Jeff Foxworthy and Lily Tomlin.
Handler is similar in that beneath the carefully-constructed persona of a wild, often-drunken party animal, there is a sensitive, intelligent soul. The two seemingly incongruous sides of Handler are often paralleling each other in her writing: in one passage, she’ll write about how she casually refers to a girlfriend as an “asshole,” and contemplates ending a friendship with fellow comic Whitney Cummings because of the latter’s tardiness, but yet in another chapter, she’ll mention who a close friend was always there for her, and thinking about their friendship made her cry. As mentioned, friendship is very important to Handler, and her wealth makes it possible for her to be casually generous with her wealth, often tossing off extravagant gestures like buying a house, or treating friends to an all-expense trip. On Handler’s late night talk show and in her standup, audiences don’t see the more attentive, sensitive side to the comedienne, and it’s nice to see it in her books.
But people buy Handler’s book to laugh, not to get all gushy and sappy – and there are lots of moments of laugh out loud humor. Handler’s wit is electric, and it’s quick and devastatingly blunt. Whether it’s focused on herself, her friends, or those around her, she’s never at a loss for a sharp one-liner meant to take down pretension or bullshit. And yes, she and her friends are awestruck at the natural beauty they encounter on safari, but she’s also quick to point out all the inconveniences she must soldier – and it’s all done with a knowing wink, so readers understand that when she’s complaining about not being able to get a good margarita in the middle of the African bush, she knows she’s got champagne problems. But that’s the charm of Handler’s comedy – it’s why she’s funny: she creates a comic persona of the petulant, impatient, spoiled diva who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. It’s great to have this persona travel because whenever Americans travel, we look like assholes, but it’s nice to have someone acknowledge that we look like assholes (though she doesn’t apologize for it).
And though travel is the dominant focus of the book, the final story isn’t a travel narrative, but an interesting caper Handler finds herself in because of fellow comedienne Whitney Cummings. The tale is hilarious, though it does feel a bit out-of-place in the book – but given how funny and well written it is, who cares? Called “Trapped in Bel Air” it details a long and arduous day for Handler who is simply trying to get to brunch, but cannot because Cummings has “accidentally” stolen her car. What transpires is a uproariously tortuous and convoluted day that tests Handler’s patience as she encounters a rude fan, and is splashed with mud by a speeding car, all while waiting for Cummings to arrive. There’s also a lovely aspect to the story, in which Handler again, demonstrates her love for her family, allowing for some depth to the foul-mouth narrative that’s often central to her humor.
We’re only 3 months into 2014, but Uganda Be Kidding Me is probably the best humor collection I’ve read so far – and it’ll be tough to top it; it’s an excellent book, her best, that proves that Handler’s talent is far deeper and more profound that most realize. I hope that Handler trusts her audience to let it see her more sensitive side, because it makes the smart alecky humor all the more interesting and profound.