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A version of this story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Hours before James Corden‘s first installment of The Late Late Show aired March 23, a food truck arrived with lunch for the CBS show’s staff. Behind the premiere day treat: the staff of The Tonight Show on rival NBC.
The outpouring continued, with host Jimmy Fallon sending over a foosball table and a note welcoming Corden to the “premiere” league. David Letterman and Seth Meyers gifted him with whiskey and champagne, respectively, and Jay Leno turned up without warning to offer Corden a vintage bottle of Dom Perignon and a note welcoming him to “talk show hell.”
“If the show goes out in a blaze of glory and is pulled off the air in 12 months’ time, it’s not going to be because we didn’t try things,” says Corden, who pretaped episode seven with Jeff Goldblum (right) and Beck in a stranger’s L.A. home.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie,” says Late Late Show executive producer Rob Crabbe, noting a shift from the Letterman-Leno era. “And it’s because they’re the only ones who know the strains of that job.” Indeed, Jimmy Kimmel sent the British host notebooks featuring different states and a card that read, “Welcome to the very small fraternity of late night hosts in the very large country of the U.S.A.” He followed up with a congratulatory email after seeing show No. 1. And Stephen Colbert, who begins as Corden’s CBS lead-in in September, sent over “the single most impressive thing of orchids I’ve ever seen,” says Corden, with a touching card that concluded: “I’m here waiting in the wings. Love, Stephen.”
Fortunately for Corden — and the CBS brass making a multimillion-dollar bet on him — his late-night peers weren’t the only ones eager to welcome him. With a mix of snark-free humor and viral bits, Corden won over both his studio audience and the many critics who’d been scratching their heads about the choice of the 36-year-old Brit. The show averaged a respectable 1.5 million viewers in week one, besting NBC rival Meyers’ show in total viewers, before falling to an average of 1.2 million in week two. More impressive: In the first five episodes alone, Late Late Show produced five bits that generated more than 1 million views online.
Corden’s green room, which Winston’s interior decorator wife designed, and set both house bars.
The first viral spot, which addressed not only who Corden is but also how he landed the coveted late-night gig, was a month in the making and featured 14 bold-faced names. According to his showrunner and longtime collaborator Ben Winston, it began when Meryl Streep, with whom Corden co-starred in Into the Woods, agreed to participate. Allison Janney was another Corden connection (they’d workshopped Into the Woods in New York), as was Shia LaBeouf, with whom Corden had read for a film and hit it off. “I just wrote to Shia and said, ‘Will you do this?’ And he said he would,” says Corden. “What was amazing is his publicist going, ‘I’ve never known him to do anything.’ ” Winston had worked with Simon Cowell on The X Factor U.K., and Michael Kives, a rep at Corden’s agency, CAA, helped lock in Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Kives received a bottle of vodka from Corden in return.)
One of Winston’s key jobs was keeping Corden’s nerves in check. They’d been riled by a Daily Mail report that blasted Corden’s test shows. “It was hard to take because it was just utterly factually inaccurate,” says Winston of the piece.
But snagging Joel McHale, Chris Rock and Chelsea Handler — all names floated for the gig — fueled the bit, which set up a Willy Wonka-esque competition in which the golden-ticket winner would get to host the show. “It was important that we featured all of the people who people assumed would be getting this job,” explains Winston. “And the whole thing had a message to it, which was the theme of that first show: ‘I know you’re surprised to see me here. I am, too.’ “
For his part, Tom Hanks, who had nothing timely to promote, proved a particularly generous first guest alongside Mila Kunis, another CAA client. Hanks flew in from New York a day early and spent a Saturday rehearsing the “Every Tom Hanks Movie in 7 Minutes” sketch, which Corden had come up with a month earlier and had been practicing with a production assistant stand-in. “I just kept saying, ‘Thank you so much, Tom,’ and he said: ‘James, this is show business. You rehearse and you rehearse and then you do it and forget all about it,’ ” says the host. The bit was filmed before an audience that included Corden’s parents (they returned twice more, with his dad joining the band for episode six) and already has been viewed more than 12 million times.
At week’s end, Hanks sent over drinks for Corden, Winston (right) and the staff, here prepping for an elaborate bit.
On day three, “Carpool Karaoke” became another early breakout (4.9 million views and counting), but persuading Mariah Carey to participate wasn’t easy. The producers ultimately sold her on the idea by showing her video of a duet Corden had done with George Michael in the U.K. Her segment, filmed in 35 minutes a few days prior to air, showcased Corden’s vocal chops and what likely will be the core of his appeal: “No one’s ever going to look sillier than me on this show,” he says. His producers suggest “Carpool Karaoke” will be a recurring feature on the show.
Bandleader Reggie Watts (left) sent a mass text to late-night bandleaders, including Questlove and Fred Armisen. “The chain was crazy,” he says. “They all said, ‘Welcome to this weird job we all have.’ “
Considerably quirkier were an April Fools’ Day bit in which a Katie Couric stunt double tumbled down a staircase (it was in the works for a week without a shocked Corden’s knowledge), and a much discussed week-two episode filmed entirely at a stranger’s house in L.A. The bit: Corden knocked on doors until someone finally let him in with his crew and guests Jeff Goldblum and Beck. “It felt like we were students again, making films where you thought the police might shut you down because you don’t actually have a permit,” says Winston, with Crabbe noting that there will be more experimental fare to come: “At that hour, you’ve got to try things.”
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