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?

This story first appeared in the November 12, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@stephpaterik Stephanie Paterik is the executive editor of Adweek, where she leads the editorial staff and strategy.