Well, I understood everything he said.
If you read any of the headlines leading up to James Corden’s debut as host of The Late Late Show, then the British actor’s highly touted and much fought over premiere episode was a rousing victory. Articles asked “James Corden: Do U.S. Audiences Understand British Presenters?” and “Will Americans Find James Corden Funny?,” as if the star would be speaking some strange tongue or turning late-night TV into an incubator for experimental theater. As it turns out, his accent and comedy—as any rational person might have expected—was very easy to comprehend. It was pleasant even!
While that debate was definitively settled, the episode was, in almost every other way, an oddly—and, again, pleasant—self-aware manifestation of the last several months of hand-wringing. Who is James Corden, and does he deserve this coveted late-night spot?
By the end of the first hour there still was not a clear identity of who Corden is and what his show would “be.” A loose structure, an enthusiasm that bordered on excessive, and an anything-goes kind of joy painted Corden’s first night as a bit of a hybrid of Jimmy Fallon and his British counterpart of sorts, Graham Norton.
The perspiration-filled and at times hectic hour hinted that Corden isn’t quite sitting comfortably in his late-night seat just yet. But a little gumption and some good-old-fashioned flop sweat goes a long way to ingratiate yourself to an audience. Corden’s maintained time and again in his exhaustive press assault for The Late Late Show that he's going to need time to settle into a groove and really discover what his take on this genre is. But premiering much stronger than the 12:30 a.m. time-slot debuts of Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon before him, the good news about Corden’s first episode is that he’s proven he deserves that time.
The truth is there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Corden’s hiring, and he knows it. Much of that had to do with the “who is this guy?” unfamiliarity. But even more had to do with the fact that Corden is the last to arrive in a wave of very new broadcast late-night talk show hosts, a job that doesn’t hire new talent very often—a handful of times a decade, really. And he is the last in a string of white guys in suits to be given those jobs, despite a glut of qualified female and minority candidates and an overwhelming public demand to hire them.
And despite that, Corden managed something a bit unexpected. For all that he would shamelessly borrow from them across the hour, he seemed markedly different from that pack he’s lumped in with. In fact, he was even refreshing.
Some of that comes by virtue of structure. His monologue was brief. His set was flipped, with him sitting stage right of his interview subjects versus the usual stage left. Gone is the typical late-night host desk, and both of his celebrity guests—Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks, both at the top of their irresistibly charming games—came out to be interviewed at the same time. And, with the exception of a brief mention by Kunis of a jewelry line she works on, there was no oppressive shilling of new shows and products.
But more than the bones of his show are different. Much is made of the transition of late-night from the cynicism and wryness of the old guard of hosts—Carson, Leno, Letterman—to the joy and warmth of the new guard, spearheaded by Fallon and Meyers. Corden is right in line with that, too, but seems to take it even a step further. There was a jarring earnestness that permeated his debut, and was out in full force during a goodbye song he sang at the end of the night.
And there was a humility, too, that fell just shy of self-deprecation. “However shocked you are that I’m doing this job, you’ll never be as shocked as I am,” he said during his opening monologue. “It really isn’t lost on me what a privilege it is do a show like this. And I will really do my best not to let any of you down, truly.” This earnestness, this humility… does Cordon get away with it just because he’s British? Maybe.
But when a late-night TV show host is so overcome with emotion during his opening monologue that he cries, it is incredibly endearing. And certainly indicative of how much late-night has changed.
This isn’t to say that Corden’s debut wasn't funny. Once the weepy monologue was dispensed with, the show aired a clever-as-hell pre-taped bit mocking another question that’s been on many of our minds since he was announced as the new The Late Late Show host: How did he get the job?
The sketch mocked his hiring by asserting that he, quite literally, won the golden ticket. A Willy Wonka spoof had CBS putting a golden ticket that would give its recipient the job as late-night host in a candy bar. Cut to a red carpet's worth of celebrities opening candy bars and reacting with dismay when they don’t see the golden ticket, including Simon Cowell, Joel McHale, Lena Dunham, Katie Couric, and Chris Rock. The most inspired gag came when Chelsea Handler drops the candy bar she had purchased. When Corden picks up the chocolate, he sees that it contained the golden ticket—a brilliant nod at all those who thought Handler should have gotten the seat instead of him. (And even more brilliant self-mocking on the part of Corden and Handler.)
The rest of the bit was a celebrity-led boot camp for training late-night hosts. Jay Leno taught Corden how to deliver a monologue. He learned how to fake laugh at Allison Janney’s anecdotes (as if anyone would have to feign laughter at Janney’s delightfulness), and how to have a heart-to-heart with Shia LaBeouf without yawning.
And just when he thinks he can’t do it, enter his guardian angel to give him a pep talk. Or, as said angel says, “I’m better than an angel. I’m 19-time Academy Award nominee Meryl Streep.” (Meryl Streep believes in James Corden. All the haters can go home.)
Sure, it’s doubtful that a dozen celebrities will cameo in a seven-minute pre-taped segment for each of Corden’s ensuing episodes. But as a measure of Corden’s sense of humor, which was the sweet cocktail of absurdist and self-effacing, the bit served as a promising forecast of what could be in store.
Perhaps the biggest question mark leading into Monday night, however, was how Corden—an established actor and comedian—would fare in the arena with which he has zero experience: the celebrity interview.
It was a shrewd move to have both guests come out at once, especially when the guests are bubbly pros like Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks. From the start, it looked as if they could have cannily carried the interview segments without Corden’s moderating at all, though Corden was at his most genuine and best telling two quick anecdotes about a paparazzi mix-up and talking about his children while having sex with his wife. (Tom Hanks was mortified at that one, too.)
His line of questioning needs work, and it will take time for him to feel natural as an interviewer—an area in which rivals Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel excel. Is there much interest in James Corden asking Mila Kunis if she gets to have date night with Ashton Kutcher now that she’s a mom? Is there an interest in anyone asking Mila Kunis such questions? And his freewheeling style was especially startling when his questions for Hanks veered from “manspreading” on the subway to what he looks for in scripts.
He’s onto something though. There’s a casualness and ease that’s apparent immediately, which seems to be a direct byproduct of the “we’re just hanging out!” vibe having both guests appear at once gives. Like it does on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live, this gimmick will live and die by the chemistry of the guests, or lack thereof. But I predict that will be the fun of it going forward, especially once Corden hones his chops as an interviewer and moderator.
And when he does, he will have seemingly ticked off all the boxes of a modern successful talk show host (from Page 3 of the Jimmy Fallon Guide to Late-Night TV For Dummies). Be an unabashed and ebullient fan of the interview subjects? Check. Celebrity cameos? Check. Excessive humility? Check. Sing a song? Check. Go viral? By the time Tom Hanks had finished his first “life is like a box of chocolates” line from Forrest Gump in the highly entertaining, highly 2015 marathon re-creation of scenes from Hanks’s entire filmography, that box had already been checked.
Viral is what the kids are all about these days, folks. That’s what’s made all the talk of “Will Americans even watch James Corden?” so laughable from the start.
Late-night viewership numbers are down sharply from their heyday. Late-late-night viewership numbers are down even more. But the genre is more relevant than it’s been in years thanks to an old-school embracing of variety and new-age shareability of content the next day. A classic song-and-dance man with serious acting chops and a ceaseless let-me-entertain-you willingness, Corden, as evidenced by that Hanks bit, is tailor-made for success in that realm.
Corden’s Late Late Show debut was hardly perfect. But it was different, and in all mostly positive ways. Based on his debut performance, will I, or anyone, be making an effort to stay up until 1:30 a.m. to watch going forward? Dear god, no. But that’s the beauty of late-night TV these days. We don’t have to. Morning-afters, however—we predict we’ll be giving him a few.