Chelsea Handler and Gordon Ramsay on Fake Reality TV, the Election and the High Price of Honesty

Gordon Ramsay Chelsea Handler in Conversation
Terence Patrick for Variety

Chelsea Handler and Gordon Ramsay have one thing in common: They speak their minds, and they do so unapologetically. So they naturally hit it off when they sat down for a one-on-one conversation about reality TV, where things got, well, colorful. Here the stars of Netflix’s first-ever talk show “Chelsea” and Fox’s “MasterChef Junior” [among others] sound off on the election, cursing on TV, and why they’ll never change.

Let’s start with a state of the state of reality TV as you see it right now. What do you think of what’s going on?

Chelsea Handler: Reality TV’s pretty tricky for me. I don’t really watch anything like that, because I think it’s brain-sucking. There’s a difference between watching a chef show, which doesn’t feel like a reality show compared to the Housewives. Those shows can, I think, not only lower your IQ, but really just knock the wind out of you, because we’re all here in this business. You want to do something a little bit meaningful, because we’re not saving the planet or anything, but we want to contribute in a positive way, in a way that makes a difference or makes somebody feel something. I think reality television, unless it’s inspirational, which it very rarely is, I think it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing state of affairs that we’re in.

Gordon Ramsay: There’s nothing new. I think that’s the weird thing for me. Over the last couple of months, the keep-fit shows, and then at the end of it you get to lose weight and one of you is going to win a million dollars — that’s not real. In many ways, even 10 years ago that wouldn’t have worked. You see new shows coming out with the same format, slightly high end, a little bit more glossy. You think, “S—. It’s just the same s— but different day.” How are these people deserving huge payouts for losing weight when they should have done it without the camera or without a team helping them? Then, six months later you go back and find out where they are, and they’re in a worse state than they were in before they joined the f—ing show. Then they blame the producer. I think reality TV now needs a big kick up the a– to get creative and be meaningful, I think. Otherwise, people are becoming famous for having no talent, based on pure exposure. That’s the grating part.

Handler: It’s also a terrible kind of sentiment for children and for people. It makes people feel like they all want to be famous for no reason. There should be a talent that goes along with being famous. The idea of just wanting to be famous for the sake of being famous — which, listen, I’ve been guilty of myself when I was a little girl — is gross content and it produces gross content. You lose your individuality when you’re just trying to attain that. It would be nice if everybody were a little bit more mindful of what kind of product you’re putting out there. Nothing’s for everybody. People are liked and disliked, but at least be mindful of what you’re doing and what your message is, and trying to stay true to your authenticity and what you’re trying to attain or what your goals are, and don’t let anybody get in the way of that. At the same time, have a goal, and have a message.

Is that what you’re trying to do with your talk show?

Handler: Yeah, definitely. My message is strong and my belief is strong, in the fact that we can still be provocative and have fun and just get informed. Let’s all be informed and let’s do something. Let’s all help each other be a little bit better at being human beings. I don’t want to be Oprah, I’m not trying to be Barbara Walters, but we can all do better.

“I think reality TV now needs a big kick up the a– to get creative and be meaningful.”
Terence Patrick for Variety

Ramsay: It’s fascinating watching the debates, with the search for the new president. It’s like a car crash, unfolding in front of your eyes. The level of personal attacks! Growing up in Britain, we didn’t have much, worked for everything. To leave food on the plate, Mom classed it as being rude and so we ate because we were hungry, not ate because we had a choice in the fridge. Having worked my a– off over here for the last 10 years really hard, really f—ing hard, to see that unfolding every Tuesday and then watching the interviews, and the Megyn Kelly … It’s just extraordinary. It’s quite a horrible situation because something needs to happen to stop this thing from becoming one of the most embarrassing scenarios ever in the history of politics.

What responsibility do you have as hosts of a TV show? You have a platform to educate.

Handler: Yeah, absolutely I’m going to be talking about it, because it’s in the zeitgeist and it’s happening. It’s an election year. It’s the biggest election. Every election is a big election, so whenever anybody says that it kinds of grates me, but it’s a fiasco. It’s turned into a complete circus act, so of course you have to make fun of it, but responsible journalists definitely are being irresponsible. They’re giving [Donald Trump] so much air time. That just sends the wrong message to everybody. He should have the least amount of air time. People who have experience and credentials, they should be talking about that. I know everybody cares about ratings, but come on. The whole world is watching.

Ramsay: There’s a side to reality TV that is part education, as well. I’ve seen that since doing “MasterChef Junior,” in terms of the effect it has on the confidence given these young kids from 8 to 13, a quality life skill. Even if they never pursue cooking as a job or a career, just learning how to cook for yourself sets you up in a good place. Something you need to do three times a day, seven days a week, and something you need to stop worrying about. If they don’t know how to cook, they go to junk, and then the junk becomes addictive, and then all of a sudden they’re left with no choice. The parents are the issue, because it’s not the kids’ fault. They’re the ones on the playground getting the s— and the jokes and the bullying, because of their size and they’re obese. It’s not the kids, it’s the f—ing parents.

Handler: He knows about being bullied, because look at the size of him.

Ramsay: The kids now, on “Junior,” we educate the parents and it’s quite a fascinating turnaround. You can just see the parents thinking, “S—, 10 years ago I was eating so bad, and now I’m seeing it through the eyes of my kids at 9, 10 years of age.” There is an upside to that side of reality TV. It’s not all negative.

Talk about the experience of working with kids and what that’s meant for you.

Ramsay: Having four kids of my own, fifth one on the way… I think with “Junior,” what’s happened over the last three years is this program’s been implemented across schools. Jack, my 16 year old, was in knots a couple of months back, studying for Latin. I said, “Mate, you’ve got no interest in Latin. You don’t want to go into it after, so drop it.” He said, “No, I can’t. I’m going to get bullied at school because all my mates are in there.” There’s a prime example of why no one cooks at school. You’re studying Latin, you’ve got no interest. Why can’t it be a curriculum? Why can’t it be a life skill that they learn just to look after themselves in terms of a healthy way of eating? I think we need to shake up that whole curriculum and give them a little bit more of a lifestyle early on, before they leave school at 18. From 16 to 26, no one really knows what they want to do for the rest of their life at that age. Latin’s not f—ing one of them.

Chelsea, in your docu-series you incorporated kids frequently as well. Why do you like working with kids? Because they’re truth-tellers?

Handler: Yeah, they’re unbesmirched. They’re kind of sounding off, and they’re not thinking about what they’re saying. It’s unfiltered conversation and I love it. I also like to argue with children, so it’s the perfect platform for me. We’re doing a bunch of shoots with kids about the election, about politics, about racism. I like to talk about heavy topics with kids because you find out what their parents are feeding them at home, and then you find out their quick reactions to things. It’s so refreshing when kids are so honest. Adults end up shading things and shading the truth, and you end up lying and telling people what they want to hear. As you get older, then you finally come back around full circle when you don’t give a s— anymore and you decide I’m going to just tell the truth to everybody. I don’t give a s— if anybody likes me.

Ramsay: That’s what we do on “MasterChef,” on “Junior.” No school teachers, no parents, let it go. You’re going to go on a challenge. We’re going to go to hell and back, and we’re going to have some bumps. A) I’m going to pick you back up, but, B) understand, it’s not about winning this competition, it’s the f—ing journey. What you’re experiencing now is what life’s going to be like for the next four, five decades. You’re going to go through those bumps. Bringing you back in contention and giving you that kind of confidence, they’re huge. But they let it go, there’s no fear, they’re naughty, they’re rude, and they know there’s no parents and there’s no school teacher so they can have fun, and it shows. You get a side out of them that the parents don’t even see, because they’re bare and fearless. That’s a really nice, humble position to be in because it’s just so natural.

Both of you also come across as very authentic on screen. You’re not shading your personalities.

Handler: Two a–holes. (Laughs.) I think it’s important to be authentic to who you are, and if you’re inauthentic at all, people smell that from a mile away. We’re not actors, we’re people behaving like ourselves on TV. We’re both exactly who we are on TV. I don’t think either one is an exaggerated version. You just have to be who you are. Especially now, with everything that’s out there, with social media, with reality shows, with all this bulls—, I think it’s really refreshing to have somebody that you can rely on to tell the truth, whatever their truth is. You can’t make everybody happy, and you can’t pander.

“I don’t want to be Oprah, I’m not trying to be Barbara Walters, but we can all do better.”
Terence Patrick for Variety

Ramsay: Before any exposure on TV, I’m a real chef. I couldn’t go any higher with three Michelin stars. I mastered my craft. I’m still learning and picking up ideas. On the phone this morning for a researcher, for a live interview next week, she said, “I watched those tapes last night with ‘Hotel Hell.’ Come on, that’s all set up, isn’t it?” I said, “Are you f—ing serious? No, it’s not set up.” That’s the problem in my industry. Anyone can go and open a f—ing hotel. Anyone can go and buy a restaurant. It’s not like a doctor or a lawyer, you need certain qualifications. That’s the issue. Being that frank and being that open, there’s more praise than there is negativity. It’s just the negativity gets printed because you’re straight and f—ing rude. It’s not rude, it’s just getting straight to the point. I haven’t been manipulated. I did a documentary in prison three years ago because I was so f—ed off with those lazy bastards in their bed for 18 hours a day, five dishes a day on a menu to choose from, playing soccer every day, going to the gym, watching movies.

We set up a bakery called Bad Boy Bakery, to cook on the inside to sell on the outside. It was huge, because it got them working. I’d give them a certificate to go back in the community with a skill. They could get a job. We set up a little bakery and it’s gone crazy. I need to be that raw to do the glossy stuff. I need to get back to that kind of scenario….

Handler: To your prison roots.

Being so frank and honest, though, has had some repercussions for you. Do you have any regrets about it at all?

Handler: I don’t. It just is more of a stamp on who you are. When there are repercussions or people are offended, it’s like, “Well, I told you who I was.” Again, it’s not a popularity contest. It’s an honesty contest, for me.

Ramsay: People push my buttons, so I’m going to react. I’m not going to blow up just for the sake of it, because it’s on TV. That’s not the issue. I was in Kentucky the other day on the freeway and there’s this guy on a motorbike at 90 miles an hour with no f—ing helmet. You’re worried about me swearing and cursing and getting straight? You’ve got guys on freeways with motorbikes with no helmets on, you can’t drink until you’re 21 and we wonder why so many youth are smoking f—ing cannabis, and you can start driving here at 15. How f—ed up is that?

Handler: You think people should be able to drink when they’re younger?

Ramsay: I think they should have a little bit more access. In the U.K. it’s 18.

How do you keep your shows fresh? What do you do to keep things interesting in such a crowded landscape?

Handler: For me, I like to just follow what I find compelling. In order for me to be compelling, I have to be compelled. I don’t try to think about what people are interested in seeing, I have to be interested. For me, that works the best. Anytime I’ve veered off of that course, then there have been repercussions where I was like, “That wasn’t what I meant to do. I didn’t care about that.” For my kind of show, I think that works. For you …

Ramsay: I challenge the team. You can get caught up in the heady space of awards. I’ve done all that, from a chef’s point of view. I can’t go any higher, but I challenge the team. A couple of examples: a situation blew up in “MasterChef,” or “Kitchen Nightmares,” they’re interviewing the individual two days or three days later. That’s not good enough for me. You’ve got to capture them in the moment, get the real soundbite there and then. They’ll tell you how they’re really feeling with a 40-second insight to how f—ed off they are, that they’re disappointed. Don’t wait till two days later when there’s no one on set and you’ve got a vegetable patch looking f—ing beautiful, and makeup on. They’re preempted. Secondly, it’s fake.

We removed anything to do with fakery that sometimes gets wrapped up in Los Angeles, that that’s the way we shoot it and we need the lighting. No you don’t. I’d rather have a more honest soundbite with a grainy background and bad lighting to get the real person coming over, than fake it two days later in a studio with a vegetable patch behind them, pretending nothing f—ing happened.

Handler: I don’t like pretense either, but I do like good lighting.

Ramsay: I thought you’d like moody lighting.

Chelsea, why was Netflix the right home for you?

Handler: Because they weren’t knocking on my door. I’m always interested by people who aren’t interested in me. It’s like a guy hitting on you. I’m like, I’m not interested in anybody that’s hitting on me. I want to hit on you, and then I’ll let you know.

It just seemed like the right place. I feel like broadcast television isn’t for me. I’m not good with rules and I’m not good with advertisers, and I’m not good with any of that stuff. Netflix is great. They’ve been so collaborative. I can’t say enough good things about the positive experience that I’ve had. I feel like I’m more of an adult than I’ve ever been, and to be in bed with other adults … When you look to them for their opinion, I value it. I haven’t been in a work situation where that was ever the case. I was always me in charge, doing my own thing and telling them that I didn’t want their opinions. Now I value that, and I can get a good one from them. That is a huge bonus. When you go to work for somebody, you don’t know if they’re ever going to be able to collaborate with you in a way that you’re going to respect, so to have that on top of a show that I’m proud of, it’s everything you could hope for in a work environment and creative space.

Ramsay: With HBO and Netflix, you can be you, and you can do those kind of things. I do find it a bit weird at one minute past nine you can’t use the word f—. In the U.K., one minute past nine is our watershed so we can pretty much do anything and keep it real.

Handler: You can say f— in the U.K.?

Ramsay: At one second past nine, yeah. No one uses the C-word, but you can keep it real. You go to Australia and you’re in Melbourne, you’re on a talk show in the morning for breakfast, and the presenters are cursing at you. It’s a drive time with kids in the car and they’re ringing in, “Hey! Come on, stop f—ing around,” and it’s broadcasted live. How does that work? Why is everyone so pruney at 12:30? We can’t even say what we really feel, and you need to bleep it because it’s like, “S—, don’t swear.” Seriously?

And Gordon, all of your shows have been with Fox. Talk about that relationship and how you’ve been able to develop that.

Ramsay: I think because we hit a 100 episodes with “Nightmares,” “Hotel Hell,” they let me be me, I think. I think that’s the interesting part. Gary [Newman] and Dana [Walden], they’ve been great. They said, “What else do you want to do next? Don’t change. Be you, and continue pushing the boundaries.” Five shows on one network is a little bit too much. We’ve got to pull some of them down and come up with some really exciting ideas. In the U.K., we launched the “F Word,” which was a sort of high-octane, raw, studio, fun food program making a difference. My idea is to bring the “F Word” to Fox next year. It’s an honest food show that makes a big difference. The “F Word” standing for food, not f—. There he goes again, he’s swearing.

Is there any line the two of you won’t cross? Anything you won’t do?

Handler: I don’t like to make fun of people’s babies, like unattractive children. That’s not really a topic that I’ll go into. Or somebody who’s dying. That’s not really that funny, except for Sumner Redstone. That’s kind of funny. That story is pretty solid.

Ramsay: No, I’m open. I’d love to go live. We had a big show in the U.K. called “Cookalong Live.” We did it over here, in fact, and we were flown to Afghanistan, Camp Pendleton, New York. I can show you that cooking can be fun. You may be 30 seconds behind me but you’re going to get there, and how to transform $10 of six or seven ingredients into something delicious across a 45 minute show. Yeah, I’d love to go live.

There’s been a lot of conversation about a lack of female late-night hosts. Why do you think it’s taken so long for Samantha Bee to finally break that barrier?

Handler: It’s not really a job for a woman. You can’t have kids and be a late-night host. I mean Samantha Bee has children, but you’re there all day and all night. No one has a life outside of it. I would never try to have a family. I care much more about a career anyway, than having a family, so that’s my own prerogative. It’s just not something that a woman … It’s like being a stand-up comedian is what leads to being a talk-show host. That life is not cut out for a woman, being on the road at these disgusting hotels. What girls want to do that? Gross guys want to do that. I think that the dearth in female comics is just the nature of the business, but there certainly isn’t a dearth anymore, so I think it’s just silly. As a woman, we should all stop talking about it and just acknowledge what’s happened and act like we own the space, because we do.

What lessons have you learned over the course of your career?

Handler: To really just stick to your guns. When you have a vision, you have to see it through, and you can make anything happen. You really can, especially in this industry. I think when I envisioned my documentaries, what I wanted to do when I left, I had no business doing those documentaries. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was delving into an arena that I had no experience in, and Netflix paired me up with two documentarians that really executed my vision perfectly. That was great, to see that. All of a sudden I’m at Sundance, and those are premiering. I just thought, “Wow, they were four ideas I pitched one day, and now it’s coming to fruition on this scale.”

The same with the show. I knew what I wanted it to look like. I wanted the set to be fluid, I wanted to have all these elements, and then I shot my first show the other day and it was exactly the way I had envisioned it. I think being able to have follow-through, I think a lot of people who are in charge, that is the one quality that you can’t forsake. You can get opinions, but you can’t have too many cooks in the kitchen when you’re envisioning something. Obviously you want to be smart enough to take other people’s advice and take that into consideration, and obviously try to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. As far as sticking to your guns, I think there is no better advice than to just find something that you really give a s— about and then go do it.

Ramsay: Stop taking things personally. Throughout the time with “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Hotel Hell,” when they work, you don’t get any praise. When they fail, you get blamed. You’re f—ed either way, but it doesn’t stop me doing them, I think. I said earlier, that’s the problem. Anyone can go and buy a restaurant. I want to be at that f—ing dinner party where they say, “Hey, Bill, your food’s great. You should buy yourself a restaurant.” That’s not right. Taking it less personally. I think, to Chelsea’s point, I still need directing because sometimes I go a little bit off beat in a way that it’s like, rein it in. I welcome that kind of support.

Handler: I’d like to come and direct you.

Ramsay: You’d be a nightmare. Seriously, you would be an absolute f—ing nightmare.