When James Corden calls and says he is currently driving down Sunset Boulevard on his way to work, your mind goes to one place: What famous person is sitting in the seat next to him?
“There are a bunch of papers and a phone charger,” he apologetically informs me. “I’m sorry if that’s disappointing for you.”
The British host of CBS’ The Late Late Show With James Corden might not be filming an installment of the show’s meteorically popular “Carpool Karaoke” sketch, which has enlisted everyone from Adele and Mariah Carey to Michelle Obama to sing along to their catalog of hits while Corden drives them through Los Angeles. But the day’s docket is still packed: a rundown of the news, a meeting to brainstorm new celebrity-driven segments, an afternoon shoot for one such sketch airing in the near future, and, of course, actually filming his nightly talk show.
Now in its fourth season, Corden’s The Late Late Show has arrived at a crucial milestone for a host and show that, in the notoriously volatile field of late-night, hopes to achieve longevity. It finally feels like itself, in that it has honed its own, recognizable identity. And, with steady ratings, a strong online presence, and award nominations, people seem to actually like that identity, too.
On a typical episode of The Late Late Show, sure, there’s a monologue and there are interviews, but the celebrity guests join him on a couch all at the same time, adjacent to a flowing bar. The show’s bread-and-butter has been recurring celebrity-driven segments that capitalize on Corden’s Sondheim-approved singing voice and Tony-winning put-on-a-show enthusiasm: “Riff-Off,” “Crosswalk the Musical,” and a bit in which actors act out their entire film careers in a matter of minutes.
There’s a reason that magazine covers championing Corden typically style him in a tux and snap him with a goofy grin on his face. He’s the consummate party host with the best guest list, but his party is bound to be a little demented.
“We try to make a variety show in the truest sense,” he says, marveling over how fruitful that tried-and-true old showbiz variety format has proven to be in the age of digital content consumption. “I thank god every day that we’re making this show when the internet is around, because that’s where it’s worth the effort.”
The Late Late Show’s YouTube channel recently passed 14 million subscribers, a number eclipsed only by Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show and more than triple that of his time slot predecessor, Stephen Colbert. Two of his biggest YouTube hits, Carpool Karaoke and Drop the Mic have been so successful they’ve been turned into TV shows.
Corden echoes the general consensus of TV talent—he has no idea what Nielsen ratings mean and can’t gauge their relevance—but he is the one who had the YouTube subscriber number at the ready, and has each time we’ve talked since the show launched in 2015.
“That’s a huge number of people subscribing to our clips,” he says. “But what you can’t do is make stuff only for that audience. Then we can get into where, if I run naked down Sunset Boulevard that would get a lot of traction, but I’m not sure that’s the traction we want.”
We joke about expecting to see “Crosswalk Streaking” become his next regular segment if ratings ever go down. “Well, we came close to that with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Crosswalk the Musical,’” he laughs. “But I think we can justify that because we did Hair, and that is very much a big plot point of Hair.” Plus, he’s quick to clarify, “we were never actually naked.”
That Corden, who is also coming off a scene-stealing turn in Ocean’s 8, is embraced for a certain kind of British goofiness, honed through years as a working stage and screen actor, is obvious.
In a world that’s increasingly dark, depressing, and even scary, it’s a needed distraction, and he may be TV’s most skilled distractor. But as the genre he’s in evolves to no longer distract from, but also engage the harsh realities of that world, Corden and his show are evolving, too. Even if, with our craven appetite for famous people crooning in cars, we might not have noticed.
The role of late-night hosts as society’s ombudsmen is one we have a tenuous relationship with. The hosts themselves have had to navigate the new world like nimble agents, bending and twisting with acrobatic agility so as to not trigger a tangled web of seemingly arbitrary alarms: What’s off limits? What’s too personal? When do you opine? When is silence complicit?
Cheap nyuks about politics are nothing new to late-night monologues, but increasingly the one-liners are barbed, meant to serve not just as comedy but as activism. Ruthless demands for accountability from the Trump administration are celebrated daily, with morning-after headlines recounting the most cutting lines from the night before. These bits now go viral with as much, if not faster, speed as the celebrity-driven sketches that Corden, especially, has become known for.
When Jimmy Kimmel shared the emotional story of his son’s health scare as a means to make a plea to Congress for health care reform, the reaction was passionately polarized, with debate over whether advocating at all was out of line. Stephen Colbert and, as we’ve all heard about recently, Samantha Bee have both had to publicly apologize for jokes that met the ever-ambiguous standard of “too far.” But a lack of toughness is similarly pilloried. Jimmy Fallon may never do enough penance to appease those outraged over his softball Donald Trump interview in 2016.
Corden’s unique position in this conversation is two-fold. As a late-night host he is, by virtue of the genre, compelled to weigh-in on American politics but, as becomes obvious the minute he opens his mouth, he’s not from here. Does the Brit have the right?
More, his show’s surging popularity was, by all accounts, rocket-launched by “Carpool Karaoke” before being sent into turbo-drive by other creative song-and-dance celebrity sketches.
Can you be late-night’s fun-guy British emcee, and still be taken seriously as the political commentator we’re demanding late-night hosts to be?
“I’m very aware of that I’ve only lived in America for three years,” he says. “In fact, I live in Los Angeles, and you could say that’s not even reflective of the majority of America. I am very conscious of the fact that, growing up in the United Kingdom, if someone from L.A. or Chicago or Wisconsin arrived in Britain and started telling the people of Sunderland facts about their nation, I feel like it would be not received particularly well.”
He’s been able to use that lineage to his advantage, in fact using it as the basis of his show’s distinct political perspective. “We have a great plot point where we can be like, wait, is this what things are like in America?” he laughs.
As we talk, Corden keeps going back to the fact that keeping the show and his voice distinct from his colleagues in late-night is the thing about his show he thinks about most often.
“I’m also very aware that we follow Stephen’s show, which I think it’s safe to say is a very political show,” he says. “And nowhere else on television will you go, right, from 8 till 9 we’re going to have a medical drama, and from 9 till 10 we’re going to have another medical drama with the same diseases. So what we have to do is just find our show’s lane.
“We never ever avoid politics. Not once,” he stresses. “We talk about it every night on our show. But we also feel like what we don’t want to do is make the same show as everybody else.”
He points to how the show handled Donald Trump’s tweeting out of the ban on transgender people serving in the military as a chief example.
“I was appalled by that,” he says, explaining that his staff sat down and, in about five hours, wrote new lyrics to Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E,” and called it “L-G-B-T.” They recorded the track, hired a bunch of backup dancers, and by 12:37 a.m. ET, he was on TV performing a top-hat-and-tails classic Hollywood routine shaming the president’s transphobia, crooning, “Trump’s got hate for me and you.”
“In a world where there’s so many shows, you’ve got to define your voice,” he says.
Nothing if not self-aware, he’s cognizant that people are skeptical of the Brit who duets with pop stars having a voice at all. He remembers his anxiety after the Parkland shooting—“one of the worst days in the office”—because he and the show were criticized following the Las Vegas massacre for weighing on America’s gun violence epidemic despite not being from the country.
“We thought, well OK, if people are going to say we’re not American and we shouldn’t talk about this, then why don't we just present how other countries have dealt with this, and perhaps bring an international point of view to what that is? And say well, this is what happened in Australia, this is what happened in Japan, this is what happened in Britain, and talk about it like that and show the facts. That’s what we try to do.”
He knows that, especially in the world of entertainment, there’s a tendency to place people in lanes and expect them to stay there, to the point that no one even pays attention if they dare move out of it. Because of Corden’s viral sketches, there’s an assumption that politics isn’t his lane. But watch the show on any given night and you’ll see that he discusses politics daily, and in creative ways—even if the show doesn’t always get credit for doing so.
“I don’t think about getting credit, really,” he tells me when I bring up that disparity. “I’m incredibly proud of our show and the voice that we have. I think it would be strange to think about credit that you aren’t getting, when I feel like we have had so much credit for the things that we do do.”
He says he looks forward to when he’s lived in America a few more years and feels like he’s able to have more of a voice in these discussions. “But in truth, I know the voices that I look to at home and I know the voices I look to here. In times like this you’re always going to look to adults in the room. And I’m aware that right now in this current moment I’m not the adult in the room, and that’s great because I think it would be terrible if I was.”
Having only been in America for three years, there are still things that are strange to him, and chief among them is that, with so much focus on the Trump administration’s minute-by-minute buffoonery, there are few voices of reason for the other side to turn to. “That’s why I think the relevance of late-night hosts has taken this turn,” he says. “Because when you feel lost you look for voices to tell you what’s going on and perhaps your opinion.”
With a defeatist air of nihilism pervading so much punditry and even much of late-night discourse, Corden’s intent to be a distinct voice in the conversation proves to be a boon: an earnest, honest-to-god bit of optimism.
Growing up in the tiny British town of High Wycombe, “America was this shining light of positivity and hope and good and a place where anything is possible,” he says. “I still believe that’s the case. I think the worst thing that could happen to America right now in this political climate is that it would lose that notion of what it stands for to the rest of the world.
“It’s important to remember however disenfranchised you might feel or however disconnected you might feel from each other, the truth is that the majority of this country didn’t vote for Donald Trump to be our president,” he says. “The majority of this country wants greater restrictions on guns. The majority of this country does want America to be a place of hope and joy and love. I really do believe that is the majority of people. I think you’ve always got to remember that. However much your Twitter feed might tell you differently, if you look around there are little patches of miracles happening everywhere.”
So what is Corden’s role in this? What does his distinct voice bring? What have I spent this entire conversation trying to get at?
He summarizes it all with almost laughable simplicity, to the point that it’s profound: “I feel like my job is to always just remain authentic to who I am, talk about the things that I care about, but try to do that with as much levity and light that you can bring people in the last hour of their day.”