The Best Of Times
Since taking over The Late Late Show less than two years ago, joyful James Corden has charmed U.S. viewers with his British good cheer.
Maarten De Boer
Maarten De Boer
Maarten De Boer
To understand why James Corden is the consummate late-night talk show host, consider ho he deals with the guy who has just knocked on the side door to his office at CBS’s Television City.
When the host of The Late Late Show opens the door, he finds a total stranger looking at him blankly. The visitor instantly realizes he’s made a mistake, but Corden greets him with the same genial smile he would give Tom Hanks.
“I think you’ve come to the wrong place, but honestly, this happens at least three times a day,” Corden says cheerily. “It’s no big deal. I’m sorry I’m not who you are looking for. But how is your day?”
He’d probably invite the guy in for tea and biscuits if it weren’t for the interview he’s currently giving. So Corden thanks the intruder, points him in the right direction and settles back into the conversation.
The moment is over quickly, but it’s a hint of what Corden will be doing in just a few hours. That’s when he’ll be on the set of The Late Late Show, singing and dancing and joking around to make all the strangers in his audience feel as welcome as that guy at the door.
Just watch him leap off the stage at the end of every episode, as gleeful as a five-year-old at Chuck E. Cheese. He then high-fives as many audience members as possible on the way back to his office.
“That moment every night with the audience is exactly who and what James is,” says David Stapf, president of CBS Studios, which produces The Late Late Show. “It’s genuine, not part of any shtick. And you should see him right afterward, in the greenroom — [he’s displaying] his true enthusiasm for what he does, and for people in general.”
Corden is not the only one who loves what he’s doing. Earlier this year, his Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Prime Time Special won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special, and the interactive components that support The Late Late Show won for Outstanding Interactive Program. The Late Late Show itself was nominated for Outstanding Variety Series (Talk) and director Tim Mancinelli for Outstanding Direction for a Variety Series.
It’s been a whirlwind trip to the top for Corden, whose first Late Late Show episode aired in March 2015.
Since then, he’s done everything from playing dodgeball with One Direction to dancing on a giant piano keyboard with Sean Hayes to reenacting Tom Hanks’s entire film career — with Hanks himself — in less than seven minutes. Recently he reenacted the films of Tom Cruise — with the actor — in less than nine minutes.
The show’s ratings have been respectable, hovering in the 1.3 million range, but the bigger story is the afterlife of the clips, which have exploded online. His YouTube channel has nearly 8 million subscribers and almost 2 billion views. And nothing has been more popular than his recurring Carpool Karaoke segment.
Every successful late-night show has a signature comedy bit, whether it’s Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets or David Letterman’s Top Ten List. Corden never expected his trademark to be a spinoff of a 13-minute bit he’d done in 2011, for Britain’s Comic Relief benefit, which included some driving around with George Michael and belting out Wham! tunes.
“People really responded to that,” Corden says. “So when we got to Los Angeles and realized how much people talked about the traffic and carpool lanes, we wondered, ‘Carpool karaoke — is that a thing? It sounds like a thing. Could that be a thing?
“’What if the biggest stars in the world drive with me to work? We could sing along in the way most of us do when we’re driving.’ Now all we had to do was convince those stars. God bless Mariah Carey for having the creativity and vision to be our first.”
Carey’s Carpool Karaoke aired in Corden’s third episode and quickly made its way around the internet (to date, it’s been viewed nearly 28 million times). The segment became the first big moment for the brand-new show, and before long he was booking the likes of Adele, Justin Bieber, Elton John and First Lady Michelle Obama.
The bit embodied Corden’s take on the talk format: make the comedy quick, make it relatable and make it something fans will want to watch repeatedly on their cell phones. Ben Winston, however, differentiates between the signature segment and the show.
“We’re very proud of it, but it’s fundamentally different from the atmosphere of our show,” says Winston, a longtime friend of Corden’s who executive-produces The Late Late Show with Rob Crabbe.
“The show is about inclusivity and joy and celebration. ‘Carpool’ is the one moment when we come out of that madness and go to a private environment. There’s no more intimate place for an interview, and I think that’s why it works.”
But Carpool Karaoke was an accidental invention, a byproduct of having to pull a show together in just a few months.
“I’m very proud of how quickly we found our feet,” says Corden, who arrived in L.A. from London in January 2015 with his wife Julia Carey, son Max (then three years old) and daughter Carey (then only nine weeks). “We had 10 weeks to hire a staff and create a show.”
Corden’s fame had not widely preceded him to the States. He wasn’t known on the CBS lot, and couldn’t get on without a pass. Crabbe admits that he had to Google the Brit after being approached about the job.
“These could feel like negatives,” Corden allows, “but not having the luxury of time was a good thing. I fancied our chances right away because we were a blank slate, an empty canvas to paint whatever we wanted.”
Crabbe agrees: “We turned a disadvantage into an advantage. Because James was totally unknown over here, he could start at zero instead of minus-20 because there was no baggage. All we wanted to do was show him off doing the things he’s best at and see what happens.”
Still, late-night talk is tough. Pat Sajak, Magic Johnson and John McEnroe are among the many hosts who’ve crashed and burned. The Late Late Show has been around since 1995, but by Corden’s arrival, it had gone through three full-time hosts — Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson — and dozens of guest hosts.
Chat with Corden, though, and it’s quickly clear why he’s connected with viewers in a way others haven’t. like the perfect party host, he welcomes guests to his comfy if somewhat cluttered office. books and clothing are strewn about, including a Jamaican running jersey from the previous day’s race in the CBS parking lot between Corden and his staff and Olympic hero Usain Bolt.
(Winston’s production company, Fulwell 73, which produces The Late Late Show, is behind a feature documentary about the world’s fastest man; I Am Bolt, directed by Fulwell’s Benjamin Turner and Gabe Turner, is due out November 28. Corden is associate producer.)
“Here, take one of these,” he says, holding up two tubes filled with a yellowish liquid. “It’s good for you. Just shoot it into your mouth and swallow. It’s got turmeric, ginger, lemon and cayenne. It doesn’t taste great, but it’s good for you. Try it!”
He’s right. It doesn’t taste great. So he offers a small container of his other morning pick-me-up, raw cacao and chia-seed almond yogurt. No worries — he grabs a spoon and burrows into the brown goop.
As he quietly devours his breakfast, it’s hard to imagine this contemplative health-food fan is the same cheerleader who barely 12 hours earlier was bouncing around the Late Late Show set like Richard Simmons on a diet-pill binge.
“He’s a vulnerable and sensitive and compassionate man,” says Ruth Jones, who created and starred with Corden in the British series Gavin & Stacey. “It’s the combination of all of those qualities that’s got him to where he is and makes him such a creative powerhouse. He hates being bored, so he’s always interested in whatever is going on around him.”
But that doesn’t apply at 12:37 a.m., when The Late Late Show airs as Corden sleeps — along with most of its viewers. Here again, he turned a negative into a positive by deciding that the concept of timeslot is essentially irrelevant.
The advent of the internet, Corden figures, changed everything in late-night talk — to the point where “I don’t even consider our show to have a timeslot. We launch it at 12:37 every day, but we’re really on 24 hours a day on the web.
“We want to make a show that opens its arms to everyone and says, ‘Here we are, and we’re here 24 hours a day.’ And without the internet, I’m not sure that this would be a show that I would be as excited as about as I am right now. Because there’s nothing more exciting than putting a show out on a Tuesday night, and come Thursday morning, 6, 8, 10 million people have watched it around the world.
“When our show started,” he adds, “we were [broadcast] in eight countries and now we’re in 155, which I think is only because of our success online.” Corden’s goal is to introduce “a bit of levity and light at the end of the day, but also during the journey to school or between classes, at your desk on your lunchbreak, on the train to work and with your kids on a Saturday morning. Our show is there. ”
But “there’s a lot more to this show than what you can see in a two-minute clip,” insists CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller. “[James] checks a lot of boxes for a lot of people. That’s why you, your teenage daughter and your mom can like the show. He’s not necessarily about clean humor, just being honest and real, which comes across in those clips.”
Winston observes that his friend “thinks he’s the funniest, most handsome host ever — and even he can’t stay awake for his own show. Which means we have to make this show for a broader audience than late-night shows have done before.”
That works for Corden, who spent much of his pre–Late Late Show life far from the talk-show circuit. The son of Malcolm Corden, a musician in the Royal Air Force band, and Margaret, a social worker, he admits he “can’t remember a day when i didn’t want to perform in some capacity. That’s all I cared about in school. There was nothing else for me.”
He remembers getting his first laugh at four years old, when he accompanied his family to his sister Ruth’s christening at their local church in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England.
“I went up to the front, but I couldn’t see,” he says, flashing a 100-watt smile. “So the minister got a chair for me to stand on. I remember looking out at the 18 people there, but it seemed like a football stadium to me. I started doing silly dances and looking back at everyone. Everyone was joking and laughing, and it felt great.
"The more important feeling, though, was when I went back to sit with my parents and thought, ‘It’s dull down here, but up there was great.’ So my life became a quest to get back up there on the stage.”
His boyhood crowd included some funny friends, but they “grew up and said they had to be serious and get a proper job. That epiphany never came to me.” So while his classmates went off to lives as auto mechanics and scientists, he graduated into roles in plays like History Boys and British TV series like Fat Friends (where he met Jones), Boyz Unlimited and Teachers (where he first worked with Winston).
Still, it was hard for a guy who looks more like a plumber than a television star to find work.
That’s why, according to Jones, Corden decided to “make things happen for himself. That takes a lot of determination and self-belief, and enables those he knows to be like that, too.”
He and Jones ended up creating the Brit-com Gavin & Stacey. The series premiered in 2007 on BBC3 and ran for three successful seasons, featuring Corden as Smithy, Gavin’s down-to-earth best friend.
Not only did its viewership rise to 14 million by the end, it also won several awards, including the BAFTA Audience Award and Best Comedy Performance for Corden. Suddenly, stardom swallowed him up before he was ready to process it.
“Just before we started the show, I’d broken up with a girlfriend of eight years, so that was a very heady mix,” he recalls. “I was single for the first time in my adult life and was sort of newly famous in a way. There was too much opportunity, and what I did was feel like I had to do it all.”
He may have felt stressed by the way his life had changed, but his friends couldn’t tell.
“James is good at seeing the bigger picture,” Jones says. “You could go to him with a huge life dilemma and he’d have excellent advice as to what to do. We used to have a lot of ‘what if…’ conversations. So I always knew someday he’d go to America. I just didn’t expect him to go there to host a chat show.”
Neither did Corden. In 2012 he’d lived briefly in New York, where he won a Tony reprising his West End role in the farce One Man, Two Guvnors . That Broadway gig led him to a starring role in the 2014 film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, opposite Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt.
Around this time, Craig Ferguson decided to exit The Late Late Show. The network started searching for a replacement before Ferguson officially departed at the end of 2014, and Corden got the job in September.
“I felt reticent about taking it,” he admits. “Very reticent indeed. I hadn’t really considered that this would be my life. But I’d rather regret doing something than regret not doing something. And I thought the experience would be good for my wife and children as much as anything.”
His attention to his family convinced Stapf, the studio president, that the network had made the right choice.
“We’d just concluded all the details of his deal,” Stapf recalls. “I called him to say welcome and to let him know we wanted to help with this massive move he was about to make with a wife, a one-year-old and a baby on the way. I remember his concerns weren’t things like, ‘What size is my office?’ It was, ‘Where should I live? How close should I be to work?’
"He wanted to make sure his family was comfortable and he could spend as much time at home with them as possible. My first impression was, ‘This guy is a loving, caring husband and dad.’”
Corden and his family arrived in L.A. barely three months before his show was set to debut, leaving little time for innovation.
“This format is very difficult to manipulate and change,” Crabbe says of the talk show. “There’s a lot of, ‘People have done it a certain way for 50 years,’ so you don’t get a lot of wiggle room. But one way we found to differentiate ourselves was by bringing the guests out at the same time. Ultimately these shows are guest-driven, so having everyone out there can create fun stuff for James, who is like an excellent host at a party.”
Late-night viewers are used to one-on-ones between host and guest, who is likely plugging a new project. Corden felt obliged to try “something else.” That something became introducing all the night’s guests one right after the other, have them walk through the crowd to the stage, then wait for Corden to initiate a group conversation, “more like a dinner party. You hope every night to lose track of the fact that you’re out there doing a show,” he says.
That’s because, under Corden, The Late Late Show has transcended its boundaries, and not just by hitting the road in that carpool.
Next year, TBS will debut Drop the Mic, a series executive-produced by Corden and Winston and based on the rap battles seen on The Late Late Show Also, Apple Music will debut Carpool Karaoke, the series; again, Corden and Winston will executive-produce.
Meanwhile, in late night, Corden will continue to curate conversation. In so doing, he’s also practicing what was preached in one of his early plays, The History Boys. A free-spirited teacher dies tragically in that drama, but his spirit attends his funeral, Corden explains, “to remind his students to always pass along life lessons they’ve learned because, ‘It’s not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, someday.’”
So it’s not surprising that this most exceptional host declares: “My proudest moments since taking over The Late Late Show are when “[teenagers] on the street say, ‘I love your show!’ and freak out a little bit. That’s everything we wanted this show to be — something fun that excludes nobody.”
For a behind-the-scenes look at James Corden’s cover shoot, go to TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.