Busy Tonight Ended Just as Its Host Was Finding Her Voice

Busy Philipps exited the late-night lineup right when it felt like she’d finally arrived.

Jordin Althaus / E! Entertainment

As soon as E! canceled her late-night talk show, Busy Tonight, the host and actor Busy Philipps addressed the news—where else?—on Instagram. It’s where she thrives, as one of the first and most prominent celebrities to have capitalized on social-media brand building. “I’m so proud of all of the things that we’ve done, that we’ve been able to do, and I feel the show is really successful in that way, but … I don’t know what to say,” she explained. “It does seem lame that there would be just, like, one woman in late night at a time.”

Indeed, with the end of Busy Tonight—the show aired its final episode on Thursday—Samantha Bee of TBS’s Full Frontal is now the only female late-night host still on TV. But what’s perhaps equally disappointing is the fact that Philipps’s exit came just as she had begun to find her footing as a host with a point of view.

On May 7, in response to Georgia’s new anti-abortion law, Philipps discussed the abortion she had when she was 15. She’d written about it in her memoir, This Will Only Hurt a Little, but that night, she spoke with a candor that few celebrities, let alone late-night hosts, ever express on television. She didn’t offer extra context by explaining why she had opted for the procedure; she just presented it as fact. “Maybe you’re sitting here thinking, I don’t know a woman who would have an abortion,” she said. “Well, you know me.”

This week, Philipps turned those last three words into a hashtag—#YouKnowMe—as part of a campaign encouraging women who’ve had abortions to tell their stories and help remove the stigma around the issue. “1 in 4 women have had an abortion,” she wrote on Twitter. “Many people think they don’t know someone who has, but #youknowme.”

Philipps is known for her frankness on social media, but that quality didn’t translate naturally onto Busy Tonight—not at first, anyway. The show had relatively low stakes: For four nights a week, the 39-year-old greeted her audience with a short monologue (popular topics included self-care, Oprah, and margaritas), chatted with one of her celebrity pals over drinks, and then jammed out to an artist. The vibe was, to put it in Philipps-ese, chill AF, and the aesthetic (bold hues, neon wall decor, shelves full of cute tchotchkes) was designed for Instagram picture-taking. Philipps opened each show with a lo-fi, Snapchat-style video hyping up her studio audience. She ended each one in a nightgown she called “Mr. Nightgown” while singing a lullaby to the camera.

Busy Tonight was basically one big half-hour slumber party, and it took some time for it to click. The series stumbled at the outset. Interviewing didn’t come easily to Philipps, especially when she had multiple guests. And despite her comedy-acting prowess, Philipps isn’t a comedian who’s accustomed to delivering zingers for several minutes at the top of a show or making bits—such as exchanging asides with her writers sitting in the audience—feel unforced.

But if Busy Tonight was more frothy than newsworthy, it was still, in its way, illuminating. Philipps is acutely aware of (and has admitted to) how her openness on social media has netted her more opportunities than her acting—on Freaks and Geeks, Dawson’s Creek, and Cougar Town—ever did. She understood that the fans tuning in were doing so because they had followed her online and liked how brassy she was there; that when she mentioned “Marc,” they’d know she meant her husband, the screenwriter Marc Silverstein; and that all of this—being the center of attention on her own show after a lifetime of supporting roles—was utterly new to her, as a longtime TV actor.

As a host, Philipps toggled between being confident and self-deprecating, charming and awkward, bringing to late night not just a rare female presence but also a breezy, experimental energy. When a joke failed to land, she acknowledged it. When she made jarring transitions in her monologue, she called herself out. When she didn’t know about something in the pop-culture zeitgeist, she leaned into it. (In an episode with Geena Davis, Philipps revealed that she hadn’t watched a single Marvel movie, including “the one where they’re in a spaceship and there’s a raccoon.”)

Since Philipps is a well-connected star, her interviews tended to be fun and lighthearted; occasionally, she’d make her friends dive into gossip that could fuel headlines. She grilled a sick but still game Andy Samberg on being a sex symbol. She made her former frenemy Chad Michael Murray revisit their time together on Dawson’s Creek. She coaxed an impressive Matthew McConaughey impression out of her best friend Michelle Williams. “You’ve ruined me ever doing another talk show again,” Mandy Moore tweeted after her appearance on Busy Tonight. “No one can compete.”

Even with the YouTube star Lilly Singh poised to replace the retiring Carson Daly and take over Last Call this fall, the late-night landscape—with its dominant lineup of Jimmys—remains relatively women-free. Sure, newcomers overall have it rough (think The Joel McHale Show and The Opposition With Jordan Klepper), but male hosts more often get the chance to work through the learning curve. Seth Meyers didn’t figure out how to reinvent the monologue until more than a year into his gig. James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” didn’t become a sensation until Adele’s edition in Season 2. Female hosts, however? Even the shows on streaming sites that don’t have to abide by TV schedules failed to survive. Netflix canceled Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea in late 2017 after two seasons and axed Michelle Wolf’s The Break after 10 episodes in August. A month earlier, BET ended Robin Thede’s The Rundown. And in January, Hulu opted not to renew Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America.

Now Philipps has gone off the air, right when she appeared to be figuring out how to make her show work. Her discussion about abortion was broadcast the day after the cancellation news broke, and her final episode demonstrated how far she’d come as a host. She landed every joke by embracing her rambling sensibility. (“I just want to give you a statistic: There are more men named Todd in the entertainment industry than there are women,” she began one. “I, actually, we made that up. I don’t know if that’s true. But it feels true; it feels right.”) Philipps welcomed her famous friends Linda Cardellini, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Carpenter, Whitney Cummings, and Christa Miller for a conversation that could’ve devolved into cross talk, but instead flowed smoothly with banter and tears. The half hour ended with Philipps singing one last lullaby before shedding Mr. Nightgown and exiting her studio to cheers from her staff—a mostly female creative team led by Caissie St. Onge and that also includes Philipps’s sister, segment producer Leigh Ann Dolan.*

The team looked ready to party; after all, Busy Tonight doesn’t have to be over for good. Philipps is shopping the series to other networks, and in April, she hinted at the show’s developing point of view. “Our show is political. It’s just not necessarily partisan,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “But … having a woman on television in late night is inherently political. And my body is political, and me talking casually about bleeding and my period … and talking freely about sexuality and women’s bodies is an act of defiance.” The show was just beginning to find a way to express that defiance—and if other late-night hosts are allowed time to push through growing pains, shouldn’t Busy Philipps get a chance, too?

*This story previously misstated the role of the producer Leigh Ann Dolan. We regret the error.