When The Daily Beast first spoke to James Corden in 2014, he offered a word of warning to those anticipating his late-night debut on CBS: “They should lower their expectations.”
In retrospect, it seems those expectations may have been way too low. “If you think about where we started from, it’s inconceivable,” he says now.
We’re sitting in his office on the roof of CBS Television City in Los Angeles on a recent Wednesday evening. He’s just finished yet another episode of The Late Late Show and has already changed out of his tailored suit and into jeans and a casual polo shirt. The almost manic energy on display for the one-hour taping has given way to palpable exhaustion.
“I remember seeing articles like, ‘Who the fuck is James Corden?’” the host continues. “I get it. In truth, I don’t think I realized how brave a decision it was for my boss to have taken. I didn’t realize how bold that decision was.”
Then, he finds the joke. “Part of me wondered if they gave me the job because they just wanted to kill the franchise,” Corden says with a laugh.
If that was the plan, CBS has failed miserably. Thanks in large part to his insanely popular “Carpool Karaoke” segment—now its own standalone spin-off show on Apple Music—Corden has become the most popular host on YouTube where his show has the top three most-watched clips across all of late-night television, each with more than 100 million views.
“Our plan, which we felt was really ambitious, was to try and gain a million subscribers to our channel a year,” Corden says. Less than two and a half years in, the channel has nearly 12 million subscribers.
While Corden says his show’s YouTube numbers are “not ever an obsession” for him, he is very aware that his channel has the second most subscribers in late-night (behind Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, which, with a one year head start, has just over 14 million). “It’s where you can see your show’s relevance,” he says. “That’s really what our show’s about.”
When Jimmy Fallon started hosting The Tonight Show, he already had five years at NBC’s Late Night under his belt, plus another seven seasons on Saturday Night Live. Corden, meanwhile, was a complete unknown to the vast majority of Americans. The London native had created and starred in three seasons of the British sitcom Gavin & Stacey, but that show was never even shown on American television.
Corden seems to have arrived on the late-night scene at precisely the right moment. Never before have nightly Nielsen ratings mattered so little.
“I’m sure they matter to someone,” Corden says. “I don’t really know what they are. I’ve never looked at a single piece of paper about what our ratings are.”
Times have changed since the late-night wars between Jay Leno and David Letterman. “Then you had to make a choice,” Corden says. “Then America had to make a choice who they were watching. That was the only way you could watch them and it was the only metric by which you could mark success.
“Today, you can watch everyone,” he continues, helping to explain why there seems to be less competition between hosts in this new era. With a little more than 1 million viewers on average watching The Late Late Show when it airs on CBS at 12:35 a.m., it is very clear that most people are seeing the show on YouTube the next day, where individual clips regularly exceed that total.
“I don’t really think about ratings,” Corden adds. “I’m amazed when anyone does. I’m genuinely gobsmacked, I sort of can’t believe it. I think, well I don’t know how many people watch House of Cards, but I know it’s good and I know it’s a hit. Because I hear people talking about it.”
Creating moments that people will talk about has become a huge part of the job for Corden and his executive producers Ben Winston and Rob Crabbe. And more often than not these days, those moments involve President Donald Trump.
Trump has already helped lift The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to its highest ratings since the week it premiered and given renewed relevance to Corden’s time slot competitor Late Night with Seth Meyers. But while Fallon’s avoidance of all things political likely cost him an Emmy nomination this year, Corden still managed to make the cut in the crowded Outstanding Variety Talk Series category despite a similar reputation for shying away from politics.
Corden has, however, managed to find his own unique way into the barrage of terrible news that comes with covering the Trump administration on a daily basis.
“We do politics every night on the show,” Corden says. “What we always try and do is go, when something happens, what is our show’s version of this?” Often that means going above and beyond what other hosts are doing with simple monologue jokes.
The night I visited the show, he had reworked the lyrics of Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” to include references to North Korea and Charlottesville. “Donald Trump made comments that brought him shame, kept saying that both sides are to blame,” he sang. “After denouncing neo-Nazis slowly, slowly.”
When Trump announced his transgender military ban, Corden and his staff gathered and asked themselves, “What’s our version of this?” They ended up doing of a parody of Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E” called “L-G-B-T” that featured four costumed dancers and an elaborate wall of lights.
And then there are times, like after Trump announced his ban on Muslim immigrants, when Corden decides he needs to put the jokes aside and get serious. It’s a posture that comedian Norm Macdonald mocked in a recent interview with The Daily Beast, using Corden’s name as a punchline.
“It happened at some point that talk show hosts had to be political pundits,” Macdonald told me. “And if a train explodes outside of my house, I have to have James Corden talk me through it.”
“My biggest thing that I’m very conscious of is I think you have to earn the right to be a voice in those things,” Corden says. As a British citizen who has been living in the U.S. for just two years, he adds, “I’m a visitor here and I’m guest here in this country that I believe to be the most magnificent place in the world. And I don’t think that that has changed because Donald Trump is the president. I still feel privileged and lucky to live here every day.”
Corden had perhaps more moral authority when London was hit with yet another terror attack just as he was preparing to broadcast his show from that city for the first time.
“Going to London was a massive thing for our show,” Corden says, thinking back to this past June. By the time the attack happened, he says they had already shot what he describes as a “very, very stupid opening” called “The Corden’s Back in Town” set to the tune of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
“It was me going around London like I’m some big dick, I’m back!” he explains. “And no one in London giving a shit, kids on the bus flicking me the bird. We had probably shot 70 percent of it and then that—” His smile fades and he takes a long pause. “That tragedy happened in London and the hardest thing about it was a lot of our crew were out in London that night.
“We were in London, of course we had to change the opening of our show,” Corden continues. “And we thought the best way to open the show was to do it on these rainy cobbles, saying, this might seem like a strange time to be doing a variety show. But, in another way, maybe it’s the greatest time. Because there was also a lot of media reports that were saying London was terrified and it was a city under attack and people were scared and that was just not the feeling there. That was not the feeling as you walked around. If anything, it was the opposite. It felt like the city was going, ‘Fuck you!’”
It was just a few weeks after the bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. “And you could feel London as a place go, ‘No, fuck off,’” Corden says. “We wanted to try to go, this is our show, we’re going to absolutely show off the incredible cultural diversity of this city, the absolute embracing of all cultures. And we will not be harmed by a group of idiots.”
In the cold open that ended up airing that Tuesday night, Corden told his viewers, “I’m so proud to be broadcasting here from my hometown. I’m proud to show off its beauty, its diversity, and its stoic British determination to let nothing, or anybody, stand in our way.” He then added, “This is not a country that feels afraid.”
It was almost a year to the day after Corden hosted the Tony Awards as this country was reeling from the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“The harsh realities of that story just grew and grew throughout the day,” Corden says, thinking back to the Tonys gig, which also earned him an Emmy nomination for writing. “And then it became it clear that, well, OK, we have to say something about this. But what do we say?”
As he was waiting in the wings to go on and address the tragedy on live television to start the ceremony, Corden became overwhelmed as he realized how difficult it would be to transition from a somber tribute to a massive production number. “I just remember having a very real feeling of like, the next 12 minutes are going to define the rest of the night,” he says. “If this doesn’t work, we’re going to have to keep trying to pull the night with it.” It worked.
Calling the Tonys “the mecca of award shows as far as I’m concerned,” Corden says he had “two of the best nights of my life in that ceremony.” The first was in 2006 when The History Boys won Best Play and the other was 2012 when he won Best Actor for One Man, Two Guvnors. “For that night to go the way it went was incredible,” he says. “It just felt like everything I hoped it would be in that 12 minutes.”
Given his two-for-two success rate on Broadway—“I feel like I should probably never be in another one, because what are the chances?” he jokes—Corden thinks a lot about returning to the stage at some point. “I am too busy right now, but I would be really disappointed in myself if I didn’t do another one,” he says.
Before he was offered The Late Late Show, Corden was in talks to play the lead role in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway, a part originated by Zero Mostel and later played by Nathan Lane. Those two actors also famously portrayed the character of Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ The Producers on screen and on Broadway, respectively.
Corden already has the latter role in his sights. He’s even identified the perfect co-star to play Leo Bloom: Jim Parsons. “That’s sort of as good of casting as you could imagine, really, he’d be so amazing in that role,” Corden says, imagining the possibilities.
“Look, I would love to go back and do something like that, but who knows?” he adds. “We’ll see.”