'Awards Chatter' Podcast — James Corden ('The Late Late Show')

Late night's king of viral videos (see: "Carpool Karaoke"), who is poised to land his first Emmy nom for outstanding variety talk series, speaks with THR 15 months after replacing Craig Ferguson and one month before hosting the Tony Awards.
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James Corden

"I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved," James Corden, the gregarious host of CBS' The Late Late Show for the past 15 months — who also will host the Tony Awards on June 12 — says as we sit down at his offices in Los Angeles' CBS Television City. Among the accomplishments to which the 37-year-old Brit is referring: "We have 5 million subscribers to our YouTube channel, we've got billions of views on YouTube, and we've delivered the two highest-rated episodes of The Late Late Show in the franchise's 25-year history."

(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven SpielbergAmy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady GagaWill SmithKristen Stewart, Harvey WeinsteinBrie LarsonJ.J. AbramsKate Winslet, Samuel L. JacksonJane Fonda, Michael Moore and Sarah Silverman.)

Many pundits doubted that Corden — who was unknown to most Americans when he was hired to succeed Craig Ferguson in the 12:37 a.m. slot — would prove a good fit for late night, but he did not. “Honestly, I don’t meant this arrogantly in any way," he says, "but I sort of thought, 'Well, I've written two multi-award-winning sitcoms, I've been in two plays on Broadway, I've won the best actor Tony Award, and I have a film coming out at Christmas with Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp.' I felt like, 'I’ve done my 10,000 hours,' you know?"

Back in England — which Corden, his wife and their two young children called home before his five-year CBS deal brought them to L.A. — he was very famous. A former child actor, he'd appeared in films like Mike Leigh's All or Nothing (2002) and several TV series, and enjoyed his big break in The History Boys at the Royal National Theatre from 2004-05, then on Broadway (where the play won six Tonys) and in a film in 2006. "It was an incredible time in my life,” he says. “If you imagine how Hamilton feels now on Broadway, that's how it felt then."

Corden's more conventionally attractive History Boys co-stars were quickly offered other plum gigs, but he was not, which spurred him to write material for himself. With Ruth Jones, he penned Gavin and Stacey, a series that aired on the BBC — and in which he starred from 2007 to 2010 — that became "arguably the biggest sitcom in the country." Then, in 2012, he returned to Broadway in One Man, Two Guvnors, for which he won the best actor in a play Tony. "That was the greatest time of my professional life, doing that play in New York," he says. "There were moments, doing that play, when I would think, 'If I could stay in this moment — this moment right now — I would for the rest of my life.'"

Corden's work in that show sparked a host of other opportunities for him: It led John Carney to cast him in the film Begin Again; Rob Marshall to cast him in the film Into the Woods; and CBS chief Leslie Moonves to request a meeting with him about working at the network. "I sort of realized that if I sort of stayed in the U.K., I could only really repeat the success that I'd had," he recalls. "And I thought, 'Well, maybe the next thing is to try and make a show for American television.'" He pitched a comedy series around and received offers from many networks, including CBS, but ultimately went with HBO, which felt like a better fit for that story. But CBS requested a follow-up meeting, during which Corden commended network suits for hiring Stephen Colbert to succeed David Letterman as host of The Late Show.

"I said, 'I think it opens a real opportunity for you for the show that you're gonna put after that," he remembers. "I said, 'It should be about atmosphere, it should be about feeling, it should feel like it's alive and a party almost, it should feel intimate, it should try and reach out to a generation of people that perhaps aren't watching network television and it should be a launchpad for the internet, really.' And then that afternoon they said, 'Would I like to host The Late Late Show?' And I said, 'Absolutely not.' I just didn’t see that as being my career." Why did he reconsider? "I was thinking, ‘What do I want from my career and life? All I really want is to be creative every day — that’s all I’m really striving for is creativity every day — and here is a job which offers almost nothing but that. And I just thought I'd much rather regret doing something than not doing something."

There were just 10 weeks between Corden committing to the job and hosting his first show, but in that time, and in the weeks that came after — he followed Letterman for seven weeks, then assorted repeats over the summer and then Colbert — he upended many traditions of the late-night format. He requested a lower ceiling and 360-degree set to create a more intimate feel to his show, and had a bar built on it, since it seemed that people coming from a Broadway venue like the Ed Sullivan Theatre, where Colbert tapes, would enjoy an after-show drink. He scrapped a desk, preferring to sit on a level playing-field with his guests, who enter all together through the back of the theater, so they can pass through the audience and then all engage together. And he decided that his opening monologues would each be devoted to a single topic, rather than a random assemblage of jokes.

Most notably, he created content — starting with his very first episode, in which Tom Hanks re-enacted moments from all of his films — that went viral online. The recurring Late Late Show segment that has proven to be most popular, however, is "Carpool Karaoke," in which Corden drives around with a huge music star singing their greatest hits with them. When he first pitched the idea — which was inspired by a sketch that he taped with George Michael for a charity back in England and a portion of a documentary that he made with Gary Barlow — some of his colleagues were skeptical that it would work. But, he says, "The truth is, personally, I've never felt as sure of an idea." Guests have included Mariah Carey, Elton John and Jennifer Lopez — and two others, Corden notes with a smile, that are now "the number one and two most viewed online clips in the history of late-night TV in America," Adele and Justin Bieber.

Those who question how CBS benefits from viral videos are missing the point, Corden insists. "The truth is I don’t really know how many people watch our show," he says. "I've got no idea, I couldn't tell you. But what I do know is our ratings haven't really changed whether we were following CSI: Miami or Stephen Colbert's show." He continues, "The only point of the show is relevance. … Make content that people like. … If your content's good enough, people will share it the next day. It's not about trying to create viral moments; it's about making a show that's good enough that people go, 'Did you see this? I'll send it to you now.'"

"I love network television," he emphasizes. "I think it’s brilliant, the people it can reach, the generations it can reach, the idea of families sitting down to watch a show." But, he believes, the future is all about the message, not the medium. "TV channels are just gonna become apps. They're just gonna be apps. The line between your phone, iPad and TV is already blurred. Your screen is gonna be a group of apps that you will either subscribe to or not subscribe to, and that's it. And there's not gonna be any notion of, like, 'When's it on?'"

For now, though, there is one time slot he'd like you to remember to tune in to CBS for: June 12, at 8 p.m. ET, when he'll host the Tony Awards. "To host the Tony Awards means more to me than, genuinely, any other awards show in the world. I have had the two best times of my life working on those 10, 12, 15 blocks of New York. It is incredibly supportive and brilliant and it's buzzing with creativity." He continues, "Theater is the truest art form. When it’s at its best, I don't think anything comes close to it." And, he believes, regardless of its host, it's "the best awards show on TV." Why? "What is an awards show? Usually a collection of people walking up to a stage and receiving a statue and thanking their agents — that's what we're watching! The Tony Awards? You're gonna watch 10 performances of the best shows on Broadway right now."

He continues, "I defy anybody to go back and watch the cast of Matilda's performance from a couple of years ago and then show me anything else in any other awards show that stands up to it. Or Andrew Rannells singing 'I Believe' at the Tonys. Or the cast of Newsies doing a performance. It's an absolute live theatrical event. The amazing thing is we talk about, like, the Super Bowl, and, 'Oh, what's the halftime show gonna be?!' Like, there's 10 halftime shows in this two-hour awards show! And this year, more than any other year, there is — very, very fortunately for me — there is a musical that is, without question, a cultural phenomenon, an absolute phenomenon: Hamilton is a life-changing experience when you watch it, and to be there on a night when you're gonna see that cast perform excerpts from that show — If you wanna go see it, it might cost you a thousand dollars — and you can watch it in your living room? It's great!"

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