‘Busy Tonight,’ the difficult truth about women-led late-night TV shows | TribLIVE.com
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Busy Philipps will soon be free for the foreseeable future.

The actress and late-night talk show host has drilled this fact into viewers since announcing the cancellation of her series, “Busy Tonight.”

Philipps joined the male-dominated late-night lineup in October, but she confirmed the show’s cancellation in a May 6 Instagram post after only one season and just over 100 episodes.

“My show Busy Tonight won’t be returning to the E network after May 16,” Philipps wrote. “We have 8 more shows on E and then who knows what the future will bring.” Now, Philipps is trying to find the show a new home amid a harsh TV climate for female-led talk shows.

“It does seem lame that there would be just, like, one woman in late night at a time,” Philipps wrote.

Following Philipps’ cancellation and the January axing of “I Love You, America” with Sarah Silverman on Hulu, Samantha Bee will be the lone female late-night host until Lilly Singh heads to NBC this fall in the time slot currently occupied by Carson Daly.

Even novice late-night audiences could spot inherent differences between Philipps’ starring vehicle and her predecessors. Instead of a desk, she sat on a cozy blue couch. Her wardrobe featured a bright palette, not run-of-the-mill suits. Instead of a simple sign-off, Philipps ended each episode dressed in a frock dubbed “Mr. Nightgown,” waxing ditties on tequila and the guest of the night before earnestly telling the audience, “I love you.”

Philipps’ Hollywood inroads helped land A-list guests such as Julia Roberts, Kim Kardashian West, longtime bestie Michelle Williams and Tina Fey. But Philipps recently admitted, “I’ve been texting (prospective guests) personally. … It’s hard to book people on my show.”

Even with a solid guest list, the homey setup and female-first attitude — “our creative staff is, like, 89% female” Philipps said on Instagram — the show fell flat with some critics. They often denounced Philipps’ tendency to redirect interview questions toward her own experiences and rarely thought-provoking commentary. And the ratings, which stayed flat in a series of time slots, caused the cancellation, network insider said.

But few series nail it right out of the gate. Conan O’Brien had “all-but-overwhelming nervousness” when he started on “Late Night” in 1993 and Jimmy Fallon was described as “eager to please almost to a fault … auditioning to be accepted into homes” when he started on “The Tonight Show” in 2014. Those hosts, however, were given a chance to find their footing. O’Brien’s incarnation of “Late Night” had a 16-year run, and Fallon is contracted to host until at least 2021.

Joan Rivers became the first female late-night network talk show host in 1986 when she launched a short-lived incarnation of “The Late Show,” which faltered in part due to a bitter feud with competitor Johnny Carson. His influence led to some Fox affiliates refusing to air “The Late Show,” as well as guests being banned from Carson’s show after they appeared on Rivers’ program. She was forced out less than nine months after the show debuted.

Rivers’ experience with the then-fledgling Fox network is typical of the hurdles female hosts face. Unlike their male counterparts, they are handed tougher gigs (almost exclusively on cable and web-based platforms) and get cut for smaller missteps, highlighting networks’ priority to keep men at the forefront of the genre.

A recent example is “The Break with Michelle Wolf,” which drew indignation after Wolf’s set at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, but held lots of promise when it debuted in May 2018 on Netflix. Despite Wolf’s 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, her stint lasted a matter of months. Another Netflix series, “Chelsea” with Chelsea Handler, was canceled after two short seasons.

Once the writing on the wall became a cold hard reality for Philipps’ show, the host seemed to toss her remaining filter out the window. On a recent episode she spoke of being “f — king free” to attend an awards show (now that she no longer has a nighttime work obligation) and ended the show with a semi-sardonic “I f — king love you.”

A benefit, in fact, to being “freed” from the proverbial shackles of the network is Philipps’ newfound desire to use her show to speak candidly about potent and controversial issues.

When news of Alabama’s restrictive abortion ban picked up speed, Philipps took to “Busy Tonight” to speak about her own abortion at the age of 15: “Maybe you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know a woman who would have an abortion.’ Well, you know me.”

Philipps spearheaded #YouKnowMe on Wednesday just hours before Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law. The hashtag trended on Twitter that night, encouraging women to speak up and out about their own experiences with abortion, in a move echoing #MeToo.

There’s no mistaking Philipps’ late-night show as flawless, and the host could certainly have benefited from PR-minded guidance (like not telling 1.7 million Instagram followers she’s never watched “Game of Thrones” shortly after interviewing one of the series’ stars), but it’s hard to not credit her for trying, venturing on rare ground. Despite the show’s determination to remain light and happy and fun and Insta-worthy, it’s Philipps’ voice on crucial issues and her unwavering advocacy for women, be it the right to choose or the need for more representation, that strikes the most enduring and crucial chord.

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