One Man, Two Guvnors

James Corden Talks About Improv and ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’

Master of improv James Corden explains why socks win over women and discusses his new play, ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ with Janice Kaplan.

Nominated for a Tony for his hilarious turn in One Man, Two Guvnors, James Corden may be the funniest British import since The Trip. His TV show Gavin and Stacey became an unexpected hit in London, sweeping the Brit equivalent of the Emmys a few years ago. Now Corden, 33, is happily watching his fame increase on this side of the pond too.

You’re a huge star in London, where fans follow you down the street. How does it feel to come to New York and have people say, “Who’s he?”

My girlfriend enjoys it a lot. I get frustrated only when I’m trying to book restaurants and I’m told the only opening is 10:45. Who eats at 10:45? But in every other aspect, it’s lovely. If anything, the reaction from the audience here has been even more overwhelming than in London. Maybe when you don’t expect anything from a performer, you see it and go, whoa! It’s such a joy to do this every night.

How much improv do you actually do in this play?

I have bits that are tried and tested, but from the first moment that I bring two people from the seats to the stage, you never know what’s going to happen. I had two guys yesterday who started talking to each other, and I turned to the audience and said, "Please bear with me. You can see what I’m up against." It immediately makes it me and the audience against these guys. If you watch the show tonight, I can promise 100 percent there will be lines I don’t even know I’m going to say.

This is one of the outright funniest shows I’ve ever seen. And I’m not sure why. I’ve been to other shows that try to do what you do and there’s not a titter in the audience.

I don’t know if anyone does what we do. Comedy moves at double the pace in the world, and you have to evolve all the time. On one level, our show is an incredibly traditional British farce, and yet within that, we’re doing things so absolutely modern that we’re probably the first show doing them on Broadway. I can think of one-man shows that take people from the audience and bring them up on stage, but a scripted play? The truth is you don’t quite know where the audience stops and the play begins.

In the scene where you complain about how hungry you are, people often respond. It’s very rare in a play for the audience to get so involved.

Yesterday a woman in the second row offered me a beef stroganoff. I’m thinking, Who carries around a beef stroganoff? Then someone shouted from the side, "I’ve got some cupcakes if you want one." And a bloke at the back put his arm up and shouted “nuts!” I came forward and said “Are you all here on some kind of special coach trip? And I think we all know what we mean when I say ‘special.’"

For years, the London tabloids have been full of headlines like "The Gorgeous Girls Who Cluster Around James.” Are you proof that what women want is a sense of humor?

Yeah, absolutely. You can absolutely laugh anyone into bed. It’s all confidence. I was in a relationship for about nine years, and when it broke up, I went a bit nuts. Now I’m settled down. My girlfriend and I are getting married. We’ve been together almost three years and we live together and it’s great. She’s way too attractive for me.

Anything I should know about the pink-and-white-striped socks you’re wearing?

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It’s important to have a well-dressed ankle, my mum used to say. These socks started when I was single and one of my best friends, my sex guru, told me that good socks are really important. If you get back to a girl’s house and you’re not sure quite what’s going to happen, you take your shoes off, and a killer sock is likely to tip the balance in your favor. It’s the last chance you’ve got to impress. It worked all the way. I have a child now so at least one person slept with me.

Where did you get all your confidence?

I have two sisters and my dad was away a lot, so I learned about being around women. All you have to do is listen and you’re already in the top 10 percent of blokes anywhere. Ninety percent of men are going “Huh, what? Where’s the remote?” If you’re a guy who says, “What do you think?” you immediately become more attractive.

Now that you have a 1-year-old, are you going to become one of those soft, soppy comedians who wants to do voices for Disney animation?

I’ve always been all soft and soppy. My favorite film is When Harry Met Sally. I’m genuinely as soppy as it gets. I have a big family movie in development, and I’d love to make something that I could sit down with my son and watch. I understand why Jack Black is doing Kung Fu Panda. But I don’t consider myself a comedian. In fact, before Gavin and Stacey, I’d done only dramatic roles. I used to say to my agent, "I think I could do some comedy," and she’d say, "I know, but nobody will even see you." Then we wrote Gavin and suddenly that show becomes a success and I’m a comedian.

History Boys was a pretty good credit to start with—even though you played the fat kid.

When we did History Boys, we were eight boys, and the other seven would get sent film and TV scripts. Dominic [Cooper] sometimes had four film projects that he was being offered, and I would get two pages as the guy who fixes Hugh Grant’s TV. It must have been the way I looked. I was the same age as the other boys, the only difference between us was I was a bit heavier. I wanted to have a seat at the big table, and I realized I had to write the parts for myself. [Playwright] Alan Bennett said, "You should write down some of the things you say at rehearsals, the funny little stories." His encouragement was so critical.

History Boys translated beautifully to America and so did One Man, Two Guvnors. But some big hits in London flop badly here. Were you worried?

It’s in the back of your mind. But what you realize is that if it’s good, it’s good. And when it’s good, it travels. The loveliest thing about this play is that all it wants to do is entertain you. Our only mission every night is to make 1,000 people go away feeling a little lighter. In this current climate, it’s nice to go to the theater and leave your troubles at the door. There’s a point about 15 minutes into the play where I can absolutely feel the audience relax as they realize, ‘Oh great! This is silly fun!” It looks like chaos but it’s absolutely precise timing and the most physically demanding thing I’ve done. I’ve torn my knee cartilage and my hip, scratched my eyeball and caught my elbow so it locks. It’s hard doing this eight times a week, but it never hurts when you’re on stage.

You recently wrote a book called May I Have Your Attention Please. Do you have enough attention now?

I was a ridiculous attention-seeker back when I was in school, but now that I’m happy in my personal life, I get those needs filled from my wife and son. His attention is worth more than a million people’s to me. I still have my ambition. My ambition burns more than it ever has.

I bet the scripts coming in now are for more than Hugh Grant’s repairman.

They’re coming in thick and fast and I can’t help but be flattered. There are a million people I’d love to work with, and I have been in this room [his dressing room at the theater] since 10 o’clock this morning writing a new TV show for the BBC. I have the feeling that the harder I work, the luckier I’ll get. In one respect, it’s hard doing the show, going to bed at 1 a.m., then getting up at 7 a.m. with the baby, coming here and writing all day. But the other way to look at is that I’m sitting in a room writing my own TV show and then I’m about to do this dream part in a great play. So yeah, I don’t intend to let up at all. I’m well aware that these purple patches can come and go and I want to enjoy every minute.

Is your fiancé looking for the house in Malibu that you’ll probably need for the next step in your career?

I’m a fan of Los Angeles! You grow up in the U.K. and America is, quite rightly, the mecca, the pinnacle of what you can do. There are a number of incredibly cool British actors who moan about Los Angeles, and yet they spend a lot of their lives there. I think—you don’t have to be there. Nobody is making you. The Brits all talk about how much they hate L.A., but I love it. The sun is shining, you know what I mean? Someone parks your car for you. What kind of world is this where someone parks your car for you? My [soon-to-be] wife and I say London is our home, but for next few years, we’re certainly up for laying our heads anywhere.