Busy Tonight, the new talk show featuring actor turned Instagram personality Busy Philipps is trying to do a lot with not that much. The premise, similar to her social media presence, is that Philipps is a normal woman with a relatable life that is just like your life. But unlike your pedestrian existence, Busy Philipps has famous friends. And she’s going sit down with them for a half-hour late night show on E! to see if her very specific and relatable brand of authenticity translates when it’s pre-taped and in front of a studio audience.
Shot on a cavernous set that looks sort of like the kooky cousin of the Instagram penthouse apartment and the Wing, the show tries hard to be your friend. Philipps is personable, dashing around the set like a harried hostess, pointing out various aspects of the decor as if she had selected them herself. There are crystals and brass owls, and a hallway full of art that leads to nowhere except backstage.
The formula for what we can expect is similar to the faux-casual nature of the set, Philipps’s affect, and the entire show. After a few minutes of lighthearted banter—including a comment on Burritogate that requires a correction at the end of the show, and a musing on that viral photo of a Chinese taxi driver wearing a sheet mask—a guest appears as if summoned by happenstance. Surprise, it’s her friend Mindy Kaling, who sits down for a casual conversation about nothing really—much like friends do, of course.
Deviation from the traditional late night format is either wildly successful or a massive failure. Busy Tonight doesn’t hew to either of those extremes from the first episode, but plays it closer to the middle. Philipps’s continued cultural relevance has nothing to do with her acting career and everything to do with her Instagram presence, which is a charming and unfiltered view into the life of a wealthy mother of two in Los Angeles. The show is clearly attempting to mold that spontaneity into something a little more controlled—with the help of three writers who sit in the front row of the studio audience and are consulted occasionally to do a bit.
For a late night show to work successfully, a vibe of some sort must be established up front and then faithfully. For James Corden, sycophancy is the name of the game. Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon are similar in their approach, often campy and leaning on pranks, skits, and established sketches as a stand-in for genuine bonhomie. As a host who isn’t quite as visibly high on his own supply, Seth Meyers is a bright spot on the late night circuit, with interesting guests and a bantering style that suggests he knows that as a late night host, his job is not to be the most interesting one in the room. Pitting Philipps against these stalwarts is an unfair comparison, but technically their shows are doing the same exact thing. It’s not that we don’t need more late night shows. We just need to change the format, and unfortunately, Busy Tonight isn’t yet a show that gets it right.