How Busy Philipps Spun Her Intimate, Wildly Popular Instagram Stories Into E!’s Newest Talk Show

The actress's journey from accidental social star to late-night TV host

Scott Witter for Adweek

By 11 a.m. in Los Angeles, Busy Philipps has seen her daughters off to school, hauled herself to a LEKfit dance workout, met with her team on the set of her new E! talk show and worried about how her chin looks. After we talk, she’ll pick out a new iPhone (blue) with her husband, discover that refrigerator lights are great for selfies, don a pair of horse-shaped earrings by local jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth and meet up with friends at The Grove shopping mall.

And that’s just what she posted on Instagram.

The second-screen queen, well known for roles in Freaks and Geeks, Dawson’s Creek and Cougar Town, reached a new and surprising-to-her level of fame last year after she began using Instagram Stories, the social platform’s feature that lets you post photos and videos for up to 24 hours. Feeling stalled in her career, she picked up her phone one day in 2016 and talked until 300,000 people were tuning in and she was earning more money from brand endorsements like Michaels on the social network than from acting.

“I was just kind of lonely and looking, like so many people that turn to social media,” says Philipps, whose memoir, This Will Only Hurt a Little, became a New York Times best-seller last month. “I started doing the Stories, and people started really responding to them and watching them.”

Philipps' show is an extension of her Instagram account.
Scott Witter for Adweek

The New Yorker likened her Stories to a sitcom—“Imagine I Love Lucy mixed with a modern lifestyle guru.” But Philipps realized she had a talk show on her hands, and partnered with Tina Fey and E! to create Busy Tonight, a 30-minute late-night show that debuted Oct. 28. The network is banking on Philipps to succeed where other talk shows recently failed, including The Break with Michelle Wolf and The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale, which lasted mere months on Netflix.

Philipps is attempting something wholly new: creating a linear show that’s an extension of her Instagram account. The hope is her fan base will stay glued to her Stories, then tune in to E! at 10 p.m. for what producers call a “treat at the end of the day.” For the season opener, Instagram users saw the host backstage, psyching herself up to step in front of the cameras, and the TV show picked up right where Instagram left off. She starts each episode with a nightcap—the official Busy Tonight Instagram account shares the recipe each day—and ends it by singing a Mr. Rogers-style goodnight song in her nightgown. In between, she’s interviewing guests like Julia Roberts, Mindy Kaling and Kim Kardashian West.

All of this quirkiness and oversharing adds up to intimacy with viewers, something showrunner Caissie St. Onge says is the star’s strong suit. “The word that’s a refrain in my head is ‘connection,’” she says. “I think we’re hoping to build an audience out of this community that’s already there on Instagram. They’re coming to her for very honest, real and funny takes on things—and she definitely has a take on everything.”

In a candid conversation with Adweek, Philipps shares what’s on her mind and not always on her social account, from navigating politics and brand partnerships to working with Tina Fey and an all-female writing staff, plus the one item she’s nervous to fly with.

Adweek: When you started sharing your life on Instagram Stories in 2016, did you have any notion it could lead to this talk show?
Busy Philipps: No, certainly not. I was sort of in between acting jobs and a little bit adrift in terms of what I wanted to do, so for me it was a very organic thing. I wasn’t planning on building a brand from myself and Instagram. It didn’t occur to me that that was a possibility. I backed into it a little bit.

Busy's Instagram: 1.4 million followers get a direct view of the star’s life, from sweaty morning workouts to bedtime face masks. It’s an intimate, unvarnished look.
Instagram: @busyphilipps

People who know you talk about your ability to connect with people, whether it’s with your friends, your staff or your audience. Why do you think you’re able to connect with viewers on Instagram so intensely?
I think that a lot of it—for me, at least—has been fairly intuitive. But I also think that the word “relatable” gets thrown around a lot. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I do think that the kinds of things I talk about and the kinds of things that I go through are just things that women my age and maybe even younger are all experiencing—whether it’s, like, in your marriage or with kids or career ups and downs.

I opened up in a way that was like, I wasn’t asking anything of the people watching. I wasn’t asking for them to participate. I was just telling them where I was at, and I think that was why people felt like they had a connection to me. … I really wasn’t trying to do anything, except for just being entertaining and entertaining myself.

Scott Witter for Adweek

Obviously, a late-night talk show is a different medium than social. How are you thinking about bringing that sense of connection to the TV screen?
Well, I don’t think it’s that different, if I’m being totally honest. People consume media in all different kinds of ways now, and I don’t think that generally the public differentiates between what they watch on their phones and what they watch on screen. But I do think that they’re just getting to a place—I know I am as a viewer—where they’re just more savvy in terms of, like, again I guess that word “authenticity.” They’re savvy about what they feel is either a lack of authenticity, or they don’t want to feel like things are so polished.

We’re trying to imbue the show with the sort of conversational way that I am on Instagram and [Instagram] Stories. But we are doing segments with guests and talks with celebrities and those kinds of things as well. So there is a hybrid between what you would expect from Instagram or my Instagram Stories and then a more traditional talk-show vibe.

In your book, you write that you had an epiphany while smoking pot at a party in Palm Springs that you wanted to host a talk show, and you called Tina Fey. How did that conversation go?
Other people have talked to me about hosting over the past 10 years, and I never felt like the timing was right. I never was really interested in it. And then I filled in for Kelly Ripa a bunch [on Live With Kelly and Ryan] and then co-hosted with her when she was looking for someone, and I really enjoyed it.

But that being said, the nighttime talk-show space was not something that women—I just feel like there was a space for a woman to have this kind of a show. In the daytime world, there’s Kathie Lee and Hoda and Kelly and Ryan and Ellen. And in nighttime, you have your choice of watching the network dudes, and then there’s like Samantha Bee once a week but more like a political deep-dive show. And Sarah’s show [Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America] is once a week and a more political deep-dive show. I just felt like there was an opportunity and that it should be me. Why not me?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyyQRmh2RCM

You have a really diverse writers room and a lot of women on staff. What do you want to bring to late night that’s not there right now?
Me, is the short answer. I want to bring me. And my friends and the things that we care about and the things that we want to see. I love all those dudes—I love Stephen and Kimmel and Seth. I’ve known Seth for a long time. They’re just doing a different thing. So having a diverse and mostly female staff was something that we really thought a lot about.

Because we’re a new show and we have, like, $3 to make it, we only really could hire three writers in addition to me and Caissie and Eric Gurian, who comes from Tina Fey’s company. So we met, we read everyone’s [applications] and blindly chose the people to call in to meet with, and it just so happened that we were able to staff up with a lot of diversity and women. And the same on the producer side. That was very important to us.

I’ve worked in this business for 20 years, and this is the first time that I have a female showrunner. That’s crazy. That’s crazy that in 20 years—and I’ve been on so many television shows—I’ve never worked for a woman before now.

That is amazing. And Tina Fey is your executive producer. How involved is she in the creative process?
She’s been incredibly involved. She had reached out after we had done a failed pilot for NBC and said, “Maybe if you’re interested in developing something, I’d be interested in figuring out something to develop with you.” And she was for sure thinking more along the lines of a sitcom. But I was really having a hard time wrapping my head around continuing acting. It’s something that I talk about in the book. But we sort of left it open-ended. I mean there’s truly no one better to work with than Tina Fey, right?

Right. It’s like the dream team.
It’s a dream, yes. I definitely kept it very open, and then when I had that moment in Palm Springs where I decided that this was what I wanted to do, I called her company and just said, like, this is it. This is what I want to focus on.

To their credit, this is not entirely along the lines of what they were thinking initially, but she had a conversation with E! and within a couple of weeks we were like, “Oh, this is going to really happen.” I mean, it was actually, like, very fast, which is cool.

So this is kind of funny. I have to tell you, you and I have crossed paths. You and I both worked as teen correspondents for The Arizona Republic in the 1990s.
Oh, my god. That’s hilarious.

Isn’t that crazy? Something that people might not know is that before Freaks and Geeks, you were a local celebrity in Phoenix because you starred in a very memorable antismoking commercial.
Yes.

In an interview years ago, you told me a funny story about how a local reporter busted you for smoking after that ad came out. Obviously, much later in your career now, having a show and working with advertisers, do you worry at all about pissing off sponsors?
That’s really interesting. Like, I haven’t really thought about that. The brands that reach out to work with me directly, I try to make sure that they’re brands that make sense for me to work with, something that feels organic. I have had the thought like, Oh, I probably shouldn’t get caught flying with weed. I’m just being totally honest. Do you know what I mean? Because I live in California, and I am very open about my use of CBD and THC for my anxiety as opposed to using prescription drugs. But sometimes when I fly, I’m like, Oh, that probably wouldn’t be a great idea if I got caught. Some people don’t care—they’re like, whatever, it doesn’t matter to me. But for me, with brand partnerships, that’s probably not the best look. Even though I talk about it publicly and it is very much in line with me. Because I have had that thought. I’m going to be, like, targeted by the TSA now.

No, I hope not!
I try to be vocal on Instagram about certain political things. I don’t worry that that would drive away someone who would want to work with me, only because I feel like my personal brand is so well established at this point that if you didn’t know that as a brand—like, I can’t help you.

And I think that we’re in a place, especially right now, where being apolitical can be seen as just being wimpy. We’re all so excited that Taylor Swift joined the conversation and told people to get out and vote. … People look at what an amazing thing that was. They had a 60 percent increase in voter registration in Tennessee the day after she posted that on Instagram.

I think that part of our responsibility for people who have these voices and these platforms is to also use the platform to help highlight things that we see as injustices or to help give voice to people who don’t have the platform. So I don’t think about it in terms of losing brand partnerships because I posted in support of Planned Parenthood or in support of something that I believe in. That just doesn’t occur to me. We’re at a place right now where you have to stand for something, and if you don’t, I don’t know, it’s not interesting to me.

The show's Instagram: 79,800 followers can pick up cocktail recipes, play games and submit photos that often appear on air. It’s a polished, playful vibe.
Instagram: @busytonighttv

You hit on something that’s so crucial. Brands used to want the buttoned-up, controlled pitchman—often a man. And now they are looking for authenticity. Authenticity is not without risk, but I think it’s a risk that brands are willing to take right now because it’s important to their customers.
Yes, I think it is, and I also just have never been a person who in life has shied away from speaking for what I believe in, even if it makes me not as popular in the moment. Especially right now, I don’t feel like there’s a negative to standing up for something that you really believe in.

So how political will your show be?
We want our show to be like a treat, and part of the impetus behind what I wanted to put into the world was something incredibly positive and something where my viewers and my fans could relax at the end of the day and watch it and not feel panicked. It’s a scary time right now in the world, and I feel like a lot of people take that anxiety and really hold onto it. Anecdotally, I was finding myself just watching reruns of Friends and Seinfeld at the end of the night because I couldn’t deal with hearing one more thing about the dumpster fire of the world.

We want to keep the show fairly light and fun and focus more on topics that make us laugh and make us feel, I don’t know, something other than terrified for the state of the world. But that being said, again, I’m not an apolitical person, so we’ll certainly address something [political]. I just don’t know if it’s necessary in a half-hour celebrity entertainment show to do 10 minutes on a current administration. But if things come up that are big, then I’m going to speak to it.

I want to ask you about L.A. I know you’ve lived there for most of your adult life.
I’ve lived in L.A. longer than I’ve lived anywhere else.

What inspires you about the city, and how has it changed since you got there?
I’ve lived all over Los Angeles, from the west side to the east side and in between. L.A. has so much diversity. It’s huge, obviously, and I love the food in L.A. We lost [acclaimed restaurant critic] Jonathan Gold this year, but he was always a great person to turn to to figure out what taco stands you should go to, what restaurant you should try.

And I understand the bad rap L.A. got. I feel like it’s a holdover from the ’80s or the ’90s maybe. Before my time, certainly. Like the L.A. Story version of—is it L.A. Story? Is that the Steve Martin movie?

Yes.
Yes, where everyone’s so fake and blah, blah, blah, whatever.

Yes, exactly.
I find people here to be truly trying to live their lives in a creative pursuit. And I’m not bummed out that my waiter is also trying to be an actor. I find people’s stories to be fascinating, like why they moved here and why they wanted to make movies or tell stories and what that means. And you can be a snob, certainly. Everyone has the right to be a snob, but I find L.A. to be a fascinating place, full of interesting people who aren’t just seeking fame. They’re seeking something more noble, which is to share stories. And ultimately that’s what it’s all kind of about, is connecting. So, I don’t know, man. I’m over people being snobby about L.A. L.A. is the best.

This story first appeared in the November 12, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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