Many showbiz careers have a strange, twisted arc. Such is the way with James Corden.
The Late Late Show with James Corden (CBS, CTV, Monday to Thursday, 12:35 a.m.) is taped and broadcast from London this week, starting with Tuesday's show. (A promised highlight is a Carpool Karaoke session with Ed Sheeran, who is as big as it gets these days.) It's a homecoming for Corden, of course. He's a very English performer. His late-night show is a big hit in Britain and, unlike many of his U.S. competitors, it is easily available on TV there.
It's also a triumphant homecoming. When Corden went to Broadway to perform in the comedy play One Man, Two Guvnors in 2012 he wasn't exactly fleeing Britain, but he was trying to recalibrate his career. While enormously popular for a time in England due to the success of the Gavin & Stacey TV series, his stage work and his hosting of awards shows, a new series he'd done in 2009 had gone off the rails. The sketch show Horne and Corden received savage reviews. The Daily Telegraph called it "about as funny as credit default swaps." The New Statesman said it was "excruciating." Corden became petulant at awards shows for a while and elements of the British press were savouring a possible career meltdown.
These days, Corden is riding high and has carved out a unique niche for himself in the late-night landscape. It's remarkable because it's a formidably cutthroat arena. And formidably rigid. Corden and his British producers, who followed him to L.A., tweaked the standard format of host monologue, consecutive guest interviews and a music segment to end the hour.
He includes the audience, which is physically closer than on most late-night shows, and brings all his guests on at the same time. It's difficult to explain how significant this shift is in U.S. TV. Many stars (and their PR people) always want to be on stage, on the show alone. There's a hierarchy, you see. Don't want to be sitting beside riff-raff. Yet Graham Norton does it on his BBC chat show, interviewing several celebrities together, and Corden learned from that.
But what propelled Corden and his show's quick success was those prerecorded social-media and YouTube-aimed elements, especially Carpool Karaoke. The Late Late Show with James Corden could be the first late-night talk show that doesn't have to worry at all about ratings. The ratings that count are tens of millions of online hits for those bits he does and they generate money and increasing fan support for the show.
All the late-night shows have in the past year benefited from the Trump era that started when Donald Trump strode into the Republican contest and has continued through his often chaotic presidency. Corden's time-slot competitor on NBC, Seth Meyers, has become a must-see for his acid commentaries on the White House. Airing before Meyers, Stephen Colbert has seen his ratings rocket since he found a voice to mock Trump.
Yet while Corden does his fair share of monologue jokes about Trump, he keeps the material broad, not savage. He tends to talk about Trump as "a crazy man" and rely on cute video to generate humour. Nobody is watching James Corden to get their fix of Trump humour.
A recent monologue went like this: "You remember two years ago when we all made jokes that if Trump ever became the president, he'd be like, 'You're fired! You're fired! You're fired.' They were good times." After a pause, he continued, "I'm worried this puts Trump in a real bind. He doesn't have enough kids to fill the vacancy. The White House is saying Comey's been fired for his handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, other people are saying he's being fired because of the Russia investigation, while I say Comey's being fired because Donald Trump is crazy. He's a crazy man!"
That's as ferocious as it gets. People are watching for the showbiz stuff, for Carpool Karaoke and other song-and-dance bits that Corden carries off with aplomb. He's not a stand-up comedian. He's an English-style entertainer.
It's reported that when he was on Broadway in 2013, CBS boss Leslie Moonves saw the play and told his people, "I want Corden on my network." Eventually, Corden replaced Craig Ferguson as host of The Late Late Show. It had a rocky start. Corden joked that he had to drive around trying to meet publicists to persuade them to put celebrity clients on his show. Most had never heard of him.
Now they have. Corden's London excursion will be worth watching: he revolutionized late-night TV and he's entitled to celebrate.