JAMES CORDEN IS NAKED AND HAPPY
It’s late afternoon in the Hollywood Hills, and Corden, the 37-year-old host of The Late Late Show on CBS, is basking behind clear glass in a luxurious shower inside a lavish $20 million home. Here’s the thing: This is not Corden’s house. And he is not alone. Not far away from the shower is an audience of writers, assistants and camera operators, none of whom can quite believe that Corden has actually stripped bare for a comedy bit in which he’s playing a bumbling luxe real estate agent who’s trying to sell the house to potential buyers including the L.A. Clippers basketball player J.J. Redick.
This is what Corden does: surprise people. A British entertainer barely known in the United States, Corden hadn’t even appeared as a guest on a U.S. talk show when he was awarded a chair behind a late-night desk for an American broadcast network. His selection was a stunner.
But over the past year, Corden has become one of the merriest revelations on American TV, defying early skepticism and finding a loyal audience in the cluttered late-night landscape. He also launched a cultural phenomenon: “Carpool Karaoke,” a repeating segment in which Corden drives around musical superstars like Adele,Justin Bieber, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, singing duets of their biggest hits and revealing hidden sides of their talents (Adele, it turns out, can rap).
“We’re talking about, genuinely, the biggest stars on the planet, who—not always by choice—are surrounded by people all of the time,” Corden says. “Security, makeup, assistant, manager, publicist. Then suddenly they get in a car and are on their own—with me.”
Corden smiles. We are sitting in his narrow office at the Late Late Show studio in CBS’s Television City, where a replica of the metal world map that used to dangle behind Walter Cronkite hangs in the spartan lobby. Corden, a bit of a clotheshorse, is dressed head to toe in casual wear from Lanvin, a fashion label he adores (“I was devastated when [designer] Alber [Elbaz] left…. I’m worried they’re going to stop making clothes that fit me”) and for which he admits a mild addiction. (“If my financial adviser were to read this, he’d lose his s—.”)
Don’t let the fancy leisure wear fool you. Since he moved to Los Angeles in early 2015 with his wife, Julia, and their two children, Corden’s been working nonstop, engaging in every aspect of The Late Late Show’s production, filming segments, schmoozing agents and executives, navigating the ever-volatile digital era of television. (Not every task is so high-minded: Later on, Corden will spend time racing a porcelain bathtub down an office ramp for a possible show segment.)
By now, Corden has surprised himself. He too had his doubts about whether he was ready to host a late-night talk show. Now he does not.
“In many respects, it’s the dream job for me,” he says.
Because late-night TV plays to your strengths?
“I don’t know if it’s playing to my strengths,” Corden says drily. “It’s more like ignoring my weaknesses.”
WHO THE &%!#@ is James Corden?
Les Moonves must have heard it. Of course he did. The president and CEO of CBS (who this year also assumed the title chairman of the board) had selected Corden to fill a desirable slot behind David Letterman and his soon-to-be-successor, Stephen Colbert. In fairness, Moonves had handed this job to an outsider before—Craig Ferguson, a Scot who enjoyed a cultishly beloved run from 2005 until 2014. But Ferguson had previously spent eight seasons on a hit U.S. sitcom, The Drew Carey Show.
Seriously: James who?
“Ninety-five percent of people didn’t know who I was talking about,” Moonves confesses. “The only people who did were either Brits or people who knew the Broadway theater scene. When I mentioned it to [British-born Vogue editor] Anna Wintour, she was over the moon—she thought I’d gotten Johnny Carson back.”
Indeed, Corden was like one of those U.K. bands the cool kids in high school told you to listen to. Most people over here had no idea who he was. But those who did bordered on the obsessed. In his 20s and early 30s, Corden, the son of a social worker and a Bible salesman, had become a sensation as a stage actor (The History Boys and One Man, Two Guvnors, which both played on Broadway) and a TV phenom (he co-created and starred in the popular BBC sitcom Gavin & Stacey). His talents made him something of a vaudevillian throwback: a deft comic actor who could sing, dance, ad-lib and generally steal anything he was in.
Moonves and then–CBS head of entertainment Nina Tassler had been dazzled by Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors, an improvisation-rich comedy of misdirection in which Corden played a servant to two criminals (and for which Corden wound up winning a Tony in 2012). “I just walked out of there saying, ‘This guy’s extraordinary,’ ” says Moonves. CBS was eager to get into business. Meetings were arranged. Sitcoms were discussed. Corden, who had just starred with Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp in a big-budget movie of the Sondheim musical Into the Woods,was edging toward doing a show with HBO when another subject came up: CBS’s vacancy at 12:30 a.m.
Late-night talk show jobs seldom open and are typically the domain of seasoned comedians: Jack Paar and Carson, Letterman and Jay Leno. Corden had shined as an occasional host in the U.K., but a full-time talk show is a grind, with four new shows a week and little room for anything else. For many, such a job is viewed as a career summit, coveted and clung to like a Supreme Court appointment. As Lorne Michaelshas famously said of The Tonight Show: “There is no job after this.”
Corden was thrilled at the idea but unsure he could commit. After CBS made an offer—“in retrospect, a lowball offer,” Moonves concedes—Corden’s side went quiet. Corden admits he was hesitant. “I thought, I love the variety of my career,” he says. “I went back and forth on it. I just wasn’t quite sure what was the right thing to do.”
CBS kept pushing and upped its offer. Corden, meanwhile, was making a BBC movie in South Africa. “I was Skyping my son on his birthday, and my wife was pregnant at the time,” he says. “And I was like, This is only going to get harder. Here’s someone offering me a job—[and] all I really want is to feel creative every day. And I realized it doesn’t come around again. CBS doesn’t go, ‘Let’s go back to that guy who passed.’ ”
In the end, Corden concluded that such an opportunity was too good. “I just thought, There’s no way one day in the future I won’t regret saying no.”
Corden scrambled to get his Late Late Show on the air by spring 2015, as Letterman was winding down his three-decade-plus run in late night. Comedian-musician Reggie Watts signed on as bandleader. Corden’s friend and producing partner from the U.K., Ben Winston, was hired as executive producer, as was Rob Crabbe, a late-night veteran fresh from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Fallon had entered late night as a Saturday Night Live star, but Crabbe thought Corden’s anonymity in the U.S. could be an advantage. “You’re not carrying around any baggage when you’re an absolute unknown,” Crabbe says. “You get a pure introduction.”
Winston points out that Corden was hardly raw, having spent years in the pressure cooker of British TV, not to mention live stage. When The Late Late Show debuted March 23, 2015, with Corden and Tom Hanks doing a skit compressing Hanks’s lengthy movie career into a hilarious six-minute romp, it was as if Corden had been doing this for years—because, in a way, he had. “People went, ‘I don’t know this guy, but he’s acting with Tom Hanks, he’s telling jokes, he’s getting a good interview, he’s doing a song,’ ” Winston says. “ ‘Where did he come from? How did I not know him?’ ” (Letterman, who initially razzed Corden as “the tubby kid,” later told colleagues he was impressed by the new host.)
Corden’s Late Late Show stood out from its start. One early episode was filmed inside the home of a stranger named Tommy, after Corden and a camera crew knocked on Tommy’s door and asked for permission. (Tommy wound up playing hide-and-seek with Corden, Reggie Watts, Jeff Goldblum and Beck.) But the seismic breakthrough was “Carpool Karaoke.” The concept is so simple: Corden and a musical guest ride around in a Range Rover outfitted with cameras and sing a handful of the artist’s biggest hits. Usually, Corden simply drives the SUV off the CBS lot with a small convoy of vehicles, and they spin a few laps around the neighborhood. The whole thing can get knocked off in roughly an hour (Adele, who did hers in London over Corden’s holiday break, wound up enjoying it so much the pair drove around for two hours).
Corden had done a version of “Carpool” in the U.K. with George Michael, singing old Wham! songs in a car in a skit for a charity show. Corden and Winston were eager to try out a version for The Late Late Show, but booking a first act proved difficult. “We knew we had to start it with a huge star,” Corden recalls. “I would be on the phone and we would pitch and pitch. No one would do it.” Shortly before the premiere, an associate of Mariah Carey ’s agreed to take the idea to Carey, who was a huge fan of George Michael. Carey was in. “Carpool” had its debut act.
The brilliant twofer of the segment is how it’s a showcase for the artist as well as a stealth platform for the host. Corden sings with unbridled joy—you can see Adele’s eyes practically pop out of her head when Corden, sitting driver’s side, perfectly harmonizes on her monster hit “Hello.” One Direction, frequent Late Late Showguests, looked ready to offer Corden a slot in their boy band.
“Carpool” has become one of the most successful YouTube franchises of all time. By late January, Bieber’s had 57 million hits. Adele’s was at 62 million, still ascending like a rocket. Those are approaching Super Bowl numbers. One of Stevie Wonder’s greatest-hits albums surged to the top of the U.K. iTunes chart after his “Carpool” came out. For Moonves and CBS, the segment has exceeded all expectations. It’s as if Corden were a rookie point guard and scored 60 points in his third game in the league.
That type of impact is what late-night television is increasingly about—building what Corden calls “relevance.” This means obsessing less over Nielsen ratings (which, in an era of social media and streaming TV, mean less and less) and more about making a cultural footprint. Fallon has been a savant about this, creating a show of clever bits (lip-sync battles, a cappella routines) that glide effortlessly from TV to YouTube and Facebook. It has redefined the audience, too. Gone are the days when the makers of late-night shows could imagine their viewers as puttering insomniacs or stoned college kids. (Corden knows there are probably many fans of his Late Late Show who have never, in fact, stayed up late.)
The energy is different now. Letterman once built a reputation by coolly deconstructing the talk-show format and reveling in the chilly awkwardness of celebrity interviews. The newer generation of hosts tends to offer celebrities a smoother landing strip, often soliciting their help in an effort to create content that will go viral. Corden says he’s spent time assuring publicists that The Late Late Showwould be “a safe place, a fun place…. They don’t want their client going, ‘What the f— did you book me on that show for? I looked like an idiot,’ ” he says.
On The Late Late Show, Corden brings out all the guests at once instead of one at a time—a maneuver that might be strange to U.S. audiences but has long been practiced in the U.K. on popular programs like The Graham Norton Show. Corden serves as both host and mixer—Billy Bob, meet Brie Larson ; Brie Larson, meet Billy Bob—and there’s a bit of plate spinning to keep the conversation natural while allowing guests to get in their plugs for movies and TV shows. Not every grouping turns into the Algonquin Round Table, but the idea is to get away from the usual celebrity interview routine (here’s my funny story, now here’s my clip), or find the magic in charming opposites ( Betty White, meet Amar’e Stoudemire!).
Corden mentions a show in which guests included Sir Ben Kingsley, heartthrob Zac Efron and comedian Bill Hader. When Efron mentioned he was going to star in a Baywatch movie, Kingsley volunteered to play a drowning man, and Corden asked what such a scene would look like. “Zac Efron’s got his arm around Ben Kingsley’s chest, and Bill Hader gets on his knees and starts pretending to be a shark,” Corden says, laughing. “Pretty much all of our guests leave going, ‘Oh, that was great fun.’ ”
Off camera, Corden is still adjusting to Los Angeles. He and his family live near the beach—“It feels like a brilliant place to have a family”—though he worries about his kids growing up in an L.A. bubble and wants his son, Max, 4, and daughter, Carey, 1, to understand that not everyone has a pool in their backyard. He and his family do return to London (Corden spent New Year’s Eve there celebrating with Adele and others), and in Los Angeles, he has slipped easily into the community of showbiz Brits in town. Winston shows me a recent clip on his phone of Corden singing with Coldplay’s Chris Martin at the West Hollywood chapter of Soho House, a club that started in London. (Soon after, Martin appeared on “Carpool Karaoke.”)
Not long ago, Burberry’s Christopher Bailey tapped Corden for a campaign and to close out his “London in Los Angeles” runway show at Griffith Observatory. “James is a true gentleman and a wonderfully talented chap,” says Bailey. Fashion and Corden are definitely a thing; he was tapped last June to host the Council of Fashion Designers Awards in New York. Corden talks with affection of the first pair of fine clothing he bought with showbiz money—a Paul Smith bomber-style jacket. “I just didn’t take it off for about 18 months,” he says. “Mostly I loved it because it made me a bit slimmer.”
Is there a job and life after this? Corden, who will host the Tony Awards in June and in his rare free time is writing a screenplay for Disney, is familiar with Lorne Michaels’s famous comment about the permanence of late night. “He might be right,” Corden says. “I’m going to give it a good crack and try to prove that wrong. I don’t know. I can’t even tell you what television will look like in 10 years’ time.” He knows this: He isn’t in a hurry to find out. James Corden has found himself an unlikely dream job in America—late nights, singalongs with Stevie Wonder and the right to take a good hot shower on TV.