James Corden's Showrunner on Leslie Moonves' Ratings "Joke" and Simon Cowell's Advice
'Late Late Show's' Ben Winston, at 33 the youngest showrunner in the genre, reveals his original pitch to CBS and makes cracks about how the Brit could be a total bust.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"Have you seen this?" Ben Winston asks excitedly, passing around iPhone shots he'd taken of a new The Late Late Show With James Corden billboard hanging high above CBS' Television City lot.
On March 23, the Brit and his close friend and frequent collaborator will have a coveted slot on CBS' schedule to tout as well. But on this morning in early March, the Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson replacement is still coming together. A flurry of construction workers are nailing down seats on the show's comedy club-inspired set, while James Corden and executive producer Winston are logging long hours working out the series' format.
The latter could differ from the many other offerings in late night in part because of the pair's British upbringing. "People like to say, 'Are you going to rip up the late night rule book?' But the truth is we never read the rule book because we didn't grow up here," says Winston, who at 33 is the youngest showrunner in the genre.
That neither Corden nor Winston has much experience courting U.S. TV viewers was of little concern to CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves and his entertainment chairman Nina Tassler, who hired the pair within weeks of each other this past fall. Corden, who's best known stateside for his starring roles in Disney's Into the Woods and Broadway's One Man, Two Guvnors, offered the network an opportunity to freshen up a time period that was growing stale; and Winston, whose résumé is lined with directing and producing credits on The X Factor U.K., the Brit Awards and a slew of One Direction projects, has plenty of experience working beside him.
But now, as that late March premiere draws closer, both Corden and Winston, who met 16 years earlier on the set of British sitcom Teachers, have been busy managing expectations, making cracks at every pass about how a show featuring a 36-year-old Brit who few in America have heard of could be a total bust. Winston, the son of a renowned scientist, who moved to Los Angeles with his wife in early January, sat down in the Late Late Show offices to discuss the advice pal Simon Cowell gave him, the chat he had with Moonves and his plans to have Corden stand out in an increasingly crowded landscape.
How did James first approach you for The Late Late Show?
I was on the road with One Direction, making their NBC Christmas Special in Rio, when my phone rang. James and I had been talking about doing a sitcom together, and we'd been taking meetings. He called to say he'd met with CBS that day, and he was like, "I don't know how to put this but I think I might of talked myself into the 12:30 late-night show. I said how brilliant the appointment of Stephen Colbert was [it had just been announced] and then I went into a speech about what the 12:30 a.m. slot should be going forward. On the spot, I came up with ideas and bits, how the show needed to be a slightly more controlled anarchy and have an atmosphere to it. When I finally finished this 20 minute speech, Les looked at me and said, 'Well, would you be interested in the job?' To which I replied, 'I would swim across the Atlantic to do it.' "
And you said?
"You are mental." (Laughs.) But I've got to be honest, I thought nothing more of it because I felt like CBS wouldn't really want to go with an unknown, and James had a huge amount on his plate both with Into the Woods and The Wrong Mans and he was signed up to do a Broadway play that was supposed to start in January. I just thought it was James being James because he often comes to me with ideas and thoughts of what we're going to do. And then my wife and I were in his garden having a barbeque a few months later and he said he had gotten a call from Les Moonves. I went into the conversation [with him] thinking it was a bad idea and James shouldn't do it; and by the end, I was certain he should.
How'd you become involved?
I was thinking I was more advising him this whole time. I didn't think he was serious about me exec producing it, and I didn't necessarily know if CBS would want me to [produce] it because they wouldn't necessarily know who I was. But he asked me to fly out here and meet Nina Tassler and [CBS Television Studios president] David Stapf.
What was your pitch to the CBS execs?
I spoke about what I felt would make a successful show and what was needed to get the best out of James. Everything is formatted and you know exactly what's coming in late night here: It's a monologue, a bit of comedy, your first guest, your second guest, potentially a third guest with human interest, then it's a band at the end that no one watches and that's your show everybody, good night. I said, "Well, hold on. We've got a performer who's a Tony Award‑winning actor who can hold his own in a Disney film. He's a writer of a sitcom that's won many awards; he can dance, he can sing and he can move for a big guy like you wouldn't believe. What he is not is a stand-up comedian." What I wanted to bring to the show is an unpredictability, so you're never really sure what's going to happen.
I spoke about bringing all the guests out at the same time and about what somebody like Reggie Watts could bring to the party as a bandleader. I spoke about maybe bringing guests from the back of the auditorium, so that they walk through people and it immediately creates an atmosphere. James is really a man of the people. He doesn't stand in front of you and say, "Listen to me." He's more like, "Hey, love that blouse. Where did you get it? Are you on a date? How's it getting on?" — and he's sitting in between the two of them. I thought, "Why don't we put some of the audience on the floor so that it's not us and them?" I came in with ideas for how we should structure the team, too, and how we should start shooting the day before rather than the day of to get used to it, at least for the first few shows. Really, I don't know how this has been done [in the U.S.] for years, and actually that's quite fresh.
Still, you hired Rob Crabbe away from a traditional late-night show, The Tonight Show, to work with you. Why?
As a showrunner, I was entirely aware that there's stuff about the way American network television works that I don't understand. And I've lived in England my whole life, so there will be guests that I haven't heard of in the same way that [Americans] won't know the chef who's the judge on MasterChef or who the winner of Big Brother is in [the U.K.]. So I was very aware that I needed to bring in somebody who had late-night experience but hadn't necessarily run other shows because I wanted it still to be fresh. We met a lot of people, but Rob stood out.
One of the biggest hurdles now seems to be that the U.S. audience isn't familiar with James …
And familiarity is the reason why these shows work. Look, when any of these hosts come on the air, people are like, "I don't like this guy. He's not the guy I do like. I prefer the other thing." They don't like looking at new sets. "What the hell is that?" They don't like looking at a new guy. "Who the hell is that?" They don't like looking at a new band leader. They like familiarity. So we won't succeed when we start. But if we can start saying, "This is our building, this is our wallpaper, this is what James looks like, this is who he is and he's never going to be cynical or nasty," then we can start breeding familiarity hopefully by September when Colbert comes on.
James keeps joking about how the show won't work. Is that just about managing expectations?
Us Brits are far more cynical, grumpy people than you lovely Americans, so we go, "What are you excited about? It's gonna be awful! It's gonna be a sham! Lower your expectations!" The truth is that we're very aware that it will take time for people to allow James into their homes every night. And remember, we're going to spend three months in the summer not following anybody. There will be repeats at 11:30 p.m. [until Colbert debuts in September].
Les Moonves likes being No. 1, you know.
He had a party at his house to welcome us, and he was very funny about that. He very sweetly said to James and me, "Guys, I believe in you, I'm excited about the show and honestly I am absolutely not bothered at all about ratings." Before we could say anything or, you know, hug him, he said, "For the first two weeks." Then he laughed, but he didn't laugh as hard as I hoped he would!
You're doing the show here in Los Angeles. Does that help or hurt you?
Oh, I want Television City to be at the real center of this show. When you're watching a show in New York, it's "Live from Rockefeller Center" or "Live from the Ed Sullivan Theater," and there's something exciting about that. As a kid, I'd go to New York and walk past the Ed Sullivan Theater and I knew that's where David Letterman was and it excited me. With Kimmel, Conan and Jay Leno, I'm not really sure where we are. I just know that we're in Hollywood because there's a backdrop. So every night on our show I want to start with a shot of Television City. It's got such history and it's the home of big entertainment shows like American Idol. We should be proud that we're here, and I want to establish that we're here. I want a kid to come here on holiday from Philadelphia and drive past and go, "That's CBS TV City and that's where James Corden's Late Late Show is filmed!"
You've said that booking has been a bit challenging. How come?
Some people are a bit worried about being on the couch at the same time, but I think immediately it's a more interesting program that way. I was telling Tom Hanks [our first guest] about how publicists were worried and he said, "Oh, don't worry about it. It's going to be different and refreshing. I can't wait." I asked if he wanted to know who will be on the couch with him, and he said it didn't matter. But if it doesn't work, we'll be flexible. We're not precious.
You've rented out your house in England, but you didn't sell it. Should we read into that, as far as your confidence in the long-term success of this show is concerned?
No. (Laughs.) I run a production company, Fulwell 73, and we do a huge amount of work in the U.K. I will focus on this and nothing else for the first year. But it was very important to me to bring in the right team to help make this show because hopefully if things are going well after a year I will be overseeing this show and the business back in the U.K. James thinks I will be here forever, but my job right now is for this year and then to look after the show going forward. The way I work and the way my business at Fulwell is, it would be impossible to just work on this show full-time for 20 years.
You've worked closely with Simon Cowell on X Factor. Has he given you any advice about tackling U.S. TV?
Every week my phone rings at 7 in the evening, which is 4 in the morning in London: "How's it going?" He just calls to say, "What's the set looking like? How you feeling? How you doing on guests?" It's a 10-minute check-in, and it's very kind of him. He's agreed to come on when he comes back to L.A. in April. He's given me lots of advice, but mostly it's, "Really take it all in."
How do Cowell and Corden compare as bosses?
They're incredibly different. I've watched dress rehearsals with Simon on X Factor in London and he'd ask for lights to be changed from yellow to gold. His attention to detail on how things are shot and vision mixed and lit is phenomenal. And to produce for him is a crazy experience because he works from noon until, like, 7 a.m., whereas James works more normal hours and doesn't have the same eccentricities. But they're both onscreen talent with brilliant producing brains, and you can spar with both of them. They're not talent that you ever need to placate and go oh, "You were amazing."
You've known James since you were 17. How did you become so close?
I was a [production assistant] on a sitcom called Teachers in the U.K. I was supposed to be there for two weeks and I ended up staying for three seasons and I made two incredibly close friends: Andrew Lincoln, who now plays Rick Grimes [on The Walking Dead], and James. He had this small part but we immediately got on and it was partly because we just felt like he could be the lead one day and I could be running the show. We talked about that a lot. I remember one night early on we all went out to this depressing, quiet pub for karaoke night. You've never seen more miserable people sitting in a pub in your life. And then James takes the mic and sings 'Let Me Entertain You' by Robbie Williams, which was a massive hit in the U.K., and suddenly everybody including James was dancing on the tables. I remember seeing him turn that room on its head and thinking to myself: He's the most talented person I've ever met.
What was your first true collaboration?
In 2009, we decided to make a sketch for Red Nose Day, which is a big charity that helps amazing causes across Africa and the U.K. We pitched this idea to the England soccer team about James' sitcom character [on Gavin & Stacey], Smithy, who's a plumber fixing the pipes in a hotel and by mistake walks into the England soccer team's meeting room where David Beckham and the other superstars are sitting. At first he says, "I'm so sorry, I've got the wrong room," and walks out; then he walks back in and goes, "Actually, while I'm here …" and he goes through each one and tears them apart. We thought never in a million years would the England team agree to do it, but they did partly because it's an amazing cause and partly because James is a real phenomenon in the U.K. I was very nervous because the team manager, Fabio Capello, was very strict and he had said, "You have 20 minutes and not a second more." I was just starting out as a director and it was a big gig and I was very worried about time, and then right before I say "action," James says, "Sorry, sorry, I just need a minute. Ben, can you come here?" I'm like, "What the hell?" I think something must be terribly wrong. And then he says to me, "I just thought we should take a moment. You're the PA from Teachers and I played that part of Jeremy and now we have the entire England team waiting for us."
March 23rd is almost here. How are your nerves?
Oh, I have days when I don't sleep. I wake up with a list of things we haven't sorted out. And then I have other days where I'm just like, "Let's get on with it. We're going to learn on-air and we need to just do it." It's a very green team making this show. I'd say out of our seven or eight writers, one of them has late-night experience — that's both nerve‑racking and incredibly exciting. But I can't show James that I'm nervous because you look to your EP to give you confidence.