Unlike the vast majority of critics online, I'm aware of who James Corden is. He's the slightly love-hate B-list British celebrity, who created and starred in hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey, before becoming a panel show regular and hosting the Brit Awards almost every year. He's also an award-winning stage actor, best-known for The History Boys. In the U.S, he's less known, although recently had the ostensible lead role in Disney's Into the Woods musical. That's about to change now he's taken over from Craig Ferguson as host of CBS's THE LATE LATE SHOW, which airs in a ridiculous post-midnight timeslot and yet can still book Hollywood elite as guests. Only in America.
How did Corden's debut episode fare? I thought it was rather good. Makes you wonder why no British broadcaster gave him a chat show, but instead push stand-up comedians like Michael McIntyre into those positions. As you'd expect from a U.S chat show aiming to make a splash, a lot of celebrity firepower was thrown at the premiere: a rather uninspired 'Golden Ticket' sketch explaining how Corden got the job was fortunately bolstered by famous faces, which segued into a better sketch where Corden underwent 'chat show training' (again packed with celebs). By the time the show's actual guests, Tom Hanks and Mila Kunis, were brought out on-stage, my pupils had turned to Hollywood stars.
We'll see how Corden copes when the show's deeper into its run, which could last many years, and he's having to interview celebrities he hasn't grown up with, or really knows. A problem that affects all chat show hosts, it will inevitably be exacerbated when an Englishman in his mid-thirties is being asked to chew the fat with Americans from areas of pop-culture and politics he has little familiarity with. Or maybe they'll avoid that by only booking celebs Corden has a working knowledge of, in the hope he'll immerse himself into L.A life and become more aware of America's foibles. That certainly happened with his predecessor, Craig Ferguson, who even became a U.S citizen.
It was interesting to see how Corden's Late Late Show deviates from the norm, and how much was clearly "borrowed" from UK chat show host Graham Norton—most obviously in how Corden's guests are brought out together, which inspires a more informal 'hangout' vibe. Corden also eschews siting behind a desk like a glorified newsreader, a la Norton. The set contains a bar sponsored by Bud Lite, but it's unclear if the guests are plied with booze before filming begins—which happens on The Graham Norton Show, to occasionally hilarious effect. I'd be surprised if that's the case for a country that once had prohibition—but small steps, James.
The opening monologue was more about self-mockery and heartfelt assurance than razor-sharp quips about the day's events, and it'll be interesting to see how well Corden fares when having to make gags about American issues and situations he's a newcomer to. How long did it take John Oliver to truly grasp such a different culture. It helps that U.S culture exports so well to Britain, of course, but I've seen countless chat shows from across the pond where the topical jokes go completely over my head. No embarrassment in that because I'm not the target audience, but James Corden's going to be the one delivering the punchlines. Good luck to him—I hope the pre-show briefings go well.
The U.S chat show has been quite a stagnant genre for decades, but Corden arrives during a period of change. Jimmy Kimmel's young and irreverent; Jimmy Fallon's breathed new life into The Tonight Show post-Jay Leno; Stephen Colbert's poised to succeed chat-king Dave Letterman on The Late Show; John Oliver's beating The Daily Show at its own game for HBO, which perhaps helped nudge Jon Stewart into relinquishing hosting duties. Where does Corden fit into all this? Well, he's playful and likeable, but hopefully some of his British sensibilities will creep into the show more. Like Fallon and Kimmel's output in recent years, it felt like Corden's Late Late Show knew it had to make an impression with its sketches—as those are the things that can be YouTube'd and go viral the following morning. And in that respect, Corden's rapid-fire re-enactments of Tom Hanks movies (in front of a greenscreen with silly props and wigs), with Hanks himself reprising some signature roles, was a huge amount of fun. Hopefully that will become a recurring feature, whenever an actor or actress with a big enough filmography is booked.
Ultimately, there was much to like about James Corden's U.S debut. I just hope that future Late Late Show episodes (lacking in celebrity glamour, with a reduced budget and less preparation time), are on par with this opening salvo. But he certainly grabbed our attention, and it's hard to imagine anyone condemning what he delivered here—even residual Corden cynics back in Blighty, who still can't forgive his atrocious BBC sketch show.