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James Corden, the affable 36-year-old Englishman who has the endearing habit of telling people he’s from High Wycombe — and then saying that people in England don’t even know where that is — took over an American talk show last night and started the long, enviable task of making it his own.
Like Craig Ferguson before him on CBS’ Late Late Show, there’s really not that much pressure on Corden this early on to make the show a hit. Part of that is because it did well with Ferguson but was never in the zeitgeist, and CBS is just hoping the youthful and engaging Corden — a virtual unknown here, last seen in Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods — can, over time, draw an audience to his particular brand of hosting.
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And yes, finding out exactly what that brand is will take a considerable amount of time, if history is any indication (and it is) about how these things evolve. That’s why this is no review of Corden or The Late Late Show or even a review of the very first night — that wouldn’t be fair at all. At best, this is a quick-take look at how Corden introduced himself to America in one hour — an hour that will be forgotten when he does it again on Tuesday. And again on Wednesday. See, that’s how it works in the talk-show business — you do what you can on one night and try to improve upon it the next night, erasing your mistakes, improving your comfort level, honing your jokes and jocular interactions with guests. Every new day is a clean slate. It is the ultimate slow-build, learn-as-you-go job. All you can hope for is that after six months, people start paying attention more than they did at the beginning. And that in a year, you’re more confident, the show has worked out some kinks and there’s a welcome vibe you give off every new day going forward from there so that you can survive the competition.
It’s not an easy job. And certainly not one you can pass judgment on after 60 minutes.
But this much was clear from Corden’s debut — he’s different. The glaring difference is that he comes without almost any snark, which is a modern American late-night talk-show host must-have quality that was only recently spurned by Jimmy Fallon. Corden doesn’t put a layer of cool between him and the viewer (or his guests) — he’s as affable and sincere as Fallon, with just a little less goofiness. It’s a welcome trait, one that should put guests at ease.
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And they might need that reassurance, since Corden and the Late Late Show have opted for having guests appear together, simultaneously, a la Graham Norton (and early American late-night shows including Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show). While not utterly unique, it sure seems different in the current climate. But first-night guests Tom Hanks and Mila Kunis paired well together (go figure) and were able to mesh their stories in response to Corden’s questions, and the whole thing felt only slightly stilted. Eventually, the goal will be to get a dinner-party or cocktail-party vibe on that couch, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility to imagine it because Corden has a very welcoming sense to him.
Then again, how hard is it to have this little conceit work when you’ve got Hanks as a guest? He’s the consummate professional, able to roll with whatever you want to do, his gregariousness infectious and his ego in check. The trick will come later, when other such pairings maybe don’t work so well, and Corden will either have to herd the cats or make fun of the whole thing as it’s going completely sideways. Either way, it does make you want to watch again.
Corden also decided to spin his chair around from behind the desk — a desk that didn’t have a fake microphone on it, by the way — and that getting-in-close decision was something that caught Hanks by surprise as he joked, “I’m a bit thrown by it!” Kunis said she liked the intimacy, and Corden admitted that the idea had been hotly debated leading up to the show. (Everything should be hotly debated in these early days, by the way — it’s how you hone a successful show.) Although it looked a little different — because Corden was sliding around in a (stylish) desk chair while the guests lounged on a couch, which created a disparate sense of comfort and thus a slight bit of unnaturalness — the camera really didn’t linger on this disparity in wide shots, so there was still some intimacy.
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One of the interesting decisions the producers have made is to have the guests descend down dual staircases with audience members standing and high-fiving them as they come down — almost as if they were athletes taking the field or gladiators coming into the pit. This could work either way, getting the guests to loosen up or conversely freaking them out by having overzealous fans trying to touch them. We’ll have to keep an eye on this idea.
The set was small and intimate but not something that was truly memorable — they are often tinkered with throughout the first year. The studio did seem to have strangely low ceilings, which gave it a cramped feel. But all of that can be tweaked via camera location.
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Prior to the unique introduction of guests coming out of their dressing rooms and down the stairs, Corden pitched to them from what wasn’t exactly a traditional monologue (he was basically introducing himself, not telling jokes). So the guests would open their green-room doors and address Corden via camera as he announced them. It’s different, and anything that’s different at this point in the cookie-cutter world of late-night talk shows is at least temporarily welcome. But all the guests really did is wave and say they were happy to be there. Hanks made it seem like there was a party in his green room, but again, that’s Hanks. He’s always going to make you and your idea look good. We’ll see how this little bit works going forward with less professional or affable guests (but at least it’s fresh).
Bandleader Reggie Watts was an exceptional “get” for Corden, and it’s apparent that he could be a real character and asset to the show well beyond his musical brilliance (a la The Roots on Fallon’s Tonight Show).
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Corden’s introduction — in place of a traditional monologue — also was precisely what was called for. Despite all the attention he’s received before the premiere, Corden is still an unknown on these shores, even though he’s starred in, created and written his own British comedies and has appeared in movies and in theater. On Monday, he talked about being married, his two young kids and the fact that his parents were there for the first show (which, engagingly, made him choke up briefly).
This being late night, which means the need for videos that might go viral (or will be watched online by those who didn’t bother tuning in live for that night’s show), Corden taped a bit about how he got to be host, which spoofed the Willy Wonka golden-ticket idea and featured a bevy of stars like Lena Dunham, Chris Rock, Simon Cowell, Meryl Streep, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others playing out the fairy-tale long shot of Corden getting the ticket, using a few advisors — most notably Jay Leno — to get him into shape for the task at hand. Points to Leno, who did very well in the bit, for allowing Corden and his writers to close out the skit with Leno saying, “In three months, this show will be mine!”
The debut night’s standout moment by far, however, was the idea of having Hanks and Corden act out bits from a string of Hanks films. It was inspired, as the duo rushed into and out of props from the films, acting out lines and singing songs (the one from Big was especially popular) as a bell sounded, creating a contestlike environment as they raced onward through Hanks’ filmography. The more films they did, the funnier it was, with wigs and green-screen moments blending into songs and banter. It was very funny, very creative and played to Corden’s strengths as a multitalented performer. Here’s the caveat — this was a feat so impressive you have to wonder how many actors will be able to pull it off. This was the Hanks Factor in full effect. Hell, 70 percent of other actors might not be able or willing to pull off the ambition here.
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But hey, keep it. That was a winner.
It was also interesting to see the multitalented Corden sing a short song at the end of the night talking about, well, that very first night. He was faux-playing the piano and winking at the cheekiness of the very bit as the lyrics rhymed with precision and wit, and it was also creative and sweet and brought up the question of whether this parting song was something he’d do every night — which would be very ambitious.
Let’s hope he tries it.
As first nights go, this was a winner for Corden. But again, even if he’d stumbled badly, it’s only the first hour of what will be hundreds of hours and beyond. The true nature of this revamped Late Late Show will take some time to unfold, but that’s how it should be. Talk shows are, in some ways, vibrant and changing entities. If they get staid, that’s a bad sign. Corden and Watts and the producers will find a look and feel that works soon enough — give all of them time to breathe a bit. Corden’s got seven weeks of David Letterman saying goodbye and then a bunch of weird reruns to deal with — this is very much a show under construction. The good news is that modern audiences are savvy about these growing pains because there’s never been more churn in the late-night world as there has been in recent years.
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