James Corden, 'Late Late Show' Producers Talk Fears, Envy and Why Being an Unknown Has Its Perks
"We’re making a show for America, which is massive, and most of the country doesn’t have a clue who James Corden is," says showrunner Ben Winston.
"Deep down," says James Corden, "I fancy our chances."
It's a rare moment of positivity from the man who will inherit the Late Late Show throne on March 23. And it quickly passes, as the Into the Woods star reiterates the primary concern that's been dogging him ever since his name first was floated for the gig this past summer: “What are the chances of a chubby 36-year-old from a tiny town like High Wycombe who has predominantly written narrative sitcoms and acted in plays and films being able to talk to American audiences and have them come around to that?"
Fortunately, Corden has two executive producers — former Tonight Show supervising producer Rob Crabbe and British X Factor producer (and Corden’s longtime friend) Ben Winston — who are considerably more optimistic. “James is the most talented man I’ve ever met,” says Winston, who offers a unique understanding of Corden’s diverse skill set and an influx of fresh ideas. Adds Crabbe, who brings seven years of late-night experience and a keen sense of American pop culture: "James is about as unusual a choice you can make to host a show like this, but there are so many tools in his belt."
Ahead of The Late Late Show’s Monday premiere, Corden, Crabbe and Winston sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to explain why they’re trying to manage the public’s expectations, reveal the advice they’ve received from the other late-night hosts and gauge how their show will fit into the crowded landscape.
What’s the best piece of advice other late-night hosts have given you?
Corden They’ve all kind of said the same thing, which is, “You've just got to be yourself.” The truth is, these shows are just bred on familiarity. They’re bred on a sense of recognition, and that’s going to take time for us to achieve. It’s going to take time for us to reach the kid in Ohio or Nebraska.
If Kimmel is the prankster, Fallon is the class clown and Meyers is the intellect, how will we describe you?
Corden Good question ... I don’t know. You just hope that you do find a place. You hope you can find an audience that will respond to you and enjoy watching you. But it’s going to be an uphill struggle, and I can’t really think about that too much. I hope that I can have elements of all of those things, really.
How much do you intend to stray from the traditional late-night format?
Crabbe With American talk shows in general, there is a format that was created and has been stuck to over 50 or 60 years now, and there’s a reason that the format keeps coming up. But I feel like Fallon changed it up to a great degree — as much as it could be changed — with the way he interacts with guests and things like that. So we’ll try to put our own little twist on it. We recognize what it is: He’s still going to have to walk out in the beginning of the show, we’re still going to have to do something fun at the end of the show. But with what happens in between, we feel like we have a little bit of a looseness.
Corden Look, if we were making this show at 11:30 p.m., then we would be thinking about the home comforts that I think American audiences want, need and require in that time slot. They enjoy knowing where they are with a show — that it starts like this, that it ends like this. That’s not to say it can’t be molded and stretched in any way because if you look at The Tonight Show today, it’s completely joyous and wonderful to watch. But I think in the time slot we’re in, we have a carte blanche, in a way, to make a looser show and for it to feel like a more fun environment. All I would want people to say about it is, “I don’t know what it will be like tonight.”
You're taking a page from Graham Norton and having your guests out at the same time. What are the advantages to that?
Crabbe People used to see it a lot more in America with Johnny Carson's show, where guests would sometimes come out in pairs and they’d stick around. The couch would get crowded and you’d have this sort of raucous cocktail party by the end of the show. Then it sort of drifted away. Graham Norton has done it hugely successfully in England, so we like the idea of putting people together. It opens a conversation up, and James is an excellent host. If you're around him, he'll make sure you have something to drink. He’ll ask you a question and try to find commonality with you. Having a group of people out there together will play to James’ strengths.
Corden It’s not even about playing to my strengths. It’s about finding a way to ignore my weaknesses. That’s the truth. I just want to create an environment that feels different and a little more organic somehow, and I think maybe that’s a way that it can. It might be a disaster, but there’s only one way we’re going to find out.
How has it impacted the booking process?
Crabbe It will make the guests look better because it’s not a singular focus on an anecdote. It’s a conversation. The trick of it is that people aren’t necessarily used to it, so you have to convince them that it’s a good idea. It makes it slightly more difficult from a booking standpoint because we find ourselves in the position of playing matchmaker. You can’t just randomly shove two or three people together on a couch. You want to have some idea that it’s going to be a good conversation.
Winston We’ve been surprised by how much people have embraced it, though. The biggest names in Hollywood, from Will Ferrell to Tom Hanks to David Beckham, have all gone: “We’re up for it. We think it’s refreshing and exciting.” There have been one or two publicists who've been like, “Oh, I’m not sure.” But I hope they’ll come around because it would be a real shame, and they’ve all done it on Graham Norton. You only need to listen to Matt Damon on Graham Norton saying, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had on a talk show.”
Success is measured now not only in late-night viewers but also in eyeballs on next-day clips. How do you plan to capitalize on viral videos and social media buzz?
Winston The digital side of things is important to us, especially because we need people to know that we’re here and that we’re doing this thing at 12:30 a.m. on CBS. We have the two youngest showrunners in late night and the youngest host in late night. If we weren’t bothered about the digital side of things, there would be something wrong.
Crabbe The way in which these shows are viewed now — and Fallon shined a real spotlight on it — is that, for whatever number of viewers you’re getting at nighttime, you’re getting exponentially more from people sitting at their desks, eating their lunch, watching clips on the Internet. Either way, you’re still servicing an audience. It will never be far from our minds that, in a lot of ways, this is just as much of a daytime show as a late-night show.
Corden The truth is, there is an absolute correlation between the things that are great on the show and the things that then get shared virally. So what you have to do is go create a great TV show and hope someone somewhere deems a portion of it brilliant enough to share with their friends. If you’re thinking only about a viral clip, then we really don’t need to have this huge set. We could easily make a viral clip. I could strip naked now and run down Sunset Boulevard, and it would be shared a lot. The trick is to make a great show.
What’s the last late-night bit that made you insanely jealous?
Corden The Tonight Show, every night. I’d give anything for the resources of that show. It’s a different thing. We have seven writers and I think they have, like, 20. We have to make those restrictions positive and go, “We’re going to be the show that’s really good fun.” But I’m always watching him and thinking, “Ugh, man.”
You’ve spent a lot of time trying to manage the public’s expectations for your show. Why so pessimistic?
Corden I don’t know any other way to be, really. To publicly come out and say, “This show is going to be this, that or the other” would be ridiculous because it won’t be, straightaway. They never are. No one ever watched Jimmy Fallon’s first Late Night and went, “Oh, my God, this guy is going to raise The Tonight Show and single-handedly bring late night into a relevance that we didn’t know would come around again.” No one [who] watched that first episode when he’s talking to Robert De Niro would have said that. It just takes time. This isn’t, in any way, some faux humility. It’s just a fact.
Winston In Los Angeles, you can die of compliments. In England, you get grunted at. If you’ve got a hit that wins BAFTAs and makes loads of money, people just go: “Yeah, it was alright.” Whereas in America, you don’t even have a show on air [yet] and people are going, "Oh, my God, I’m so excited! This is going to be the greatest thing on television." We’re also just aware that it’s going to be tough, to begin with. Yes, in the New York Broadway circles and in the Hollywood film circles people know James. They know what he can do and are therefore really excited. But we’re also aware that we’re making a show for America, which is massive, and most of the country doesn’t have a clue who James Corden is.
Corden We also have a tough year where we follow [David] Letterman for seven weeks, and then, in the summer, we’re following NCIS repeats. That is not a natural lead-in for your show, or for people to stick around until 12:30 a.m. But we have to be thankful for that and use it to our advantage to really take this time to experiment and figure out exactly what this show is, what it can be and what we want it to be. I think we’re going to.
Is being largely unknown an advantage in any way?
Crabbe It’s an advantage, in a weird way, in that he doesn’t come to this with any baggage. No one knows him in America. Nobody is rooting against him because no one has a reason to do so, whereas if you’re anybody else who hosts one of these shows — if you’re Seth, if you’re Jimmy, if you’re Kimmel — people have assumptions about you when you step into the role because they’ve seen you and they know you: You’ve hosted “Weekend Update,” you’ve made three movies. Corden comes into it with a blank slate, and that’s its own positive starting place.
Winston He’s starting his career again in a brand new country, but this time he has hours and hours of experience to go with that. He is a newcomer who is anything but a newcomer, and that makes me excited.