It’s the final countdown to James Corden’s debut as the new host of CBS’s The Late Late Show, which he’ll take over for Craig Ferguson on March 23, and he’s trying his damnedest to drum up an audience for the first episode. The TV commercial onslaught is all systems go. He painted his own billboard in L.A. advertising the premiere.
And in a bit of cheeky (quite literally) marketing that is perhaps our best indicator yet of the type of humor and personality the 36-year-old Brit will bring to late night, he’s gone full Kim Kardashian and bared his bum in the pages of GQ, mooning the camera as he washes dishes clad only in an apron bearing the Union Jack flag.
James Corden, did you #breaktheinternet?
“I don’t think so, no,” he laughs, revealing that the photo shoot’s NSFW turn was his own idea. “We originally shot lots of me in Union Jack underpants. I just said to the photographer, ‘The only way this is remotely funny is if I don’t have these pants on.’ His eyes just lit up and he went, ‘Would you do that?’ I said sure.”
Seemingly lost on Corden, however, is that not everyone would “do that.” In fact, perhaps no one would. “Yeah, but it’s preposterous enough that I would even be in GQ, you know what I mean?” he says. “I’m always up for fun, really. It’s all I really care about, having a good time, you know?”
At that, he simultaneously laughs and yawns. It perfectly encapsulates the boundless delight with which he’s been charging into this project mixed with the reality that it is an exhausting, unfathomably stressful undertaking to launch a new late-night talk show. When we talk, it’s days after his first test show, which received mixed reviews from audience members in leaked reports.
“They’re just test shows which every show does. I think Jimmy Fallon did 17,” he says. “There were positives that came from it. And there were things that we thought, ‘OK, we need to work on that.’ But on the whole I think it was a very positive experience, given I’ve never ever done it.”
All of it—the fun Kardashian shoot, the discernible fatigue, and the self-awareness—is indicative of what makes up Corden’s persona. The overabundant humility, willingness to be in on the joke, and intense seriousness about the opportunity he’s been given all could end up defining the kind of late-night he’ll be. Although Corden repeatedly insists that, less than one week away from his debut, even he’s still not sure exactly what that will be yet.
In a string of late-night appointments mined from other late-night comedy shows—Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon both are Saturday Night Live veterans, and Stephen Colbert, of course, is coming from The Colbert Report—Corden’s hiring sticks out like a sore thumb with Union Jack fingernail polish.
Reactions to the announcement that he’d be taking over for Craig Ferguson as host of The Late Late Show ranged from “who?” to “whoa!” depending on the person’s familiarity with the British actor’s work—which, while prolific and award-winning both across the pond and on Broadway, didn’t indicate any particular proclivity to hosting an American late-night talk show. That turn of events came about when CBS reached out to him about writing a sitcom. During his meeting, he praised what a genius move he thought it was to hire Stephen Colbert as host of The Late Show.
As Corden’s longtime collaborating partner—and now co-executive producer of The Late Late Show—Ben Winston told Newsweek, “He just started telling them what he thought the future of late night was. We thought no more of it. Five months later, we were having a barbecue in James’s garden in London when the phone rang. CBS had offered him the job.”
In the U.S., Corden is best known for his charming turn as The Baker in last winter’s hit movie-musical Into the Woods—yep, he can sing. He can also act. Like, seriously act. The titans of theater he defeated to win his 2012 Tony Award: James Earl Jones, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frank Langella, and John Lithgow.
In the U.K., however, Corden is already an A-list megastar. He’s about as well-rounded a performer as there comes, having mastered the art of the romantic comedy (Gavin & Stacey, which he co-created), drama (The History Boys, in which he starred in the original cast), and emceeing (having helmed the BRIT Awards on three occasions).
A bit strangely, it’s Corden’s very Britishness that has made some critics and industry insiders nervous about his Late Late Show, with handwringing over whether Americans will be baffled by his British accent or humor. (As if British talents haven’t been embraced stateside before.)
“It never really crossed my mind,” he says. “I mean, I’m taking over from a Glaswegian [Ferguson].” His theory: Good comedy is an accent we can all understand. “There’s a funny thing. When you’re at home in the U.K. working on a film or a TV series, people will always say, ‘I wonder if this will work in America.’ But when people are working in America on something, they’re never ever thinking, ‘I wonder if this will work in the U.K.?’ It just does or it doesn’t.”
Throughout his press tour for The Late Late Show, when he hasn’t been mooning fashion photographers, Corden’s been very keen to manage expectations for his hosting stint. Self-deprecation goes a long way in ingratiating yourself to the American public, so his oft-repeated refrain that the show is “a catastrophe waiting to happen” has been nothing but charming. But the warning is more than a joke. It reflects a remarkable amount of wisdom about how show business, and particularly late-night, works.
“I wasn’t born yesterday,” he says. “I know how difficult these shows are to get right. And it’s only with time that you can get them right.” That’s why he’s balked at the media’s insistence that he define exactly what he wants the show to be, let alone what sort of plans he has for it currently.
“It’s kind of crazy that there would be any expectation or pressure on your first show, because it’s normally always your worst one,” he says.” When Jimmy Fallon did his first 12:30 show in late night, nobody watching that said, ‘This is going to be the guy who is going to take over The Tonight Show, and when he does he’ll pick it up by the scruff of its neck and make it unbelievably relevant to an audience you may have started to think wasn’t interested anymore.’ And he’s done that. But you never would’ve thought that when he did his first interview with Robert De Niro at 12:30.”
Corden stresses the necessity of time and an opportunity to try things that might fail often throughout our conversation. But the unfair reality of television in 2015 is that you often don’t get that time. Things are judged and reactions are made instantly. Shows are dubbed either brilliant or a disaster within the first five minutes, and those verdicts are then publicized for all to see on Twitter.
“You can make a choice whether to listen to it or not,” he says. “You can make a choice to read it or not. I hope I’ll be strong enough not to listen to those things. Because with them, you’re either the greatest thing in the world or you’re shit, and the truth is that none of those things are true.”
To that regard, Corden is already well on the way to forming his own special relationship with critics, on Twitter or otherwise, and their penchant for knee-jerk reactions and excessive negativity. “There’s a Twitter handle for people’s terrible service on a plane. As far as I can see, and I haven’t checked recently but I’m pretty sure I’m right, there isn’t a Twitter handle for people whose service on a plane has been amazing.”
“The weirdest thing is that you don’t know who any of these people are,” he continues. “For all we know they could be the worst people on the planet. You could get to the point where you’re like, ‘Oh, I see that this person didn’t like it.’ But if you meet that person you might be over the moon that they don’t like it.”
We should want our relationship with Corden and his show to develop over time, too. When you think about it, at this juncture, Corden is a stranger that we’re about to invite into our bed. His show will air at 12:30 a.m., which means that those of us who will be watching live will be falling asleep with him. It requires time to cozy up and be comfortable with that, even if we’re just talking about a person we’re watching on TV.
“The very nature of late-night shows is that they rely on and are born on familiarity,” he says. “It’s someone that you’re checking in with every night. So you never ever have that instantly.”
He’s well aware that he’s arriving to late-night at a time where most of the hosts are going to be very new, which gives him a safety net in that regard. And he thinks he’ll do well in a late-night climate where, as he says, “There is a warmth that I think people want from their shows now that maybe wasn’t the case 15 or 20 years ago, because the world is a very different place today than it was 15 or 20 years ago.”
And he knows that vacancies in these late-night chairs—and in the viewers’ beds—don’t come around often, which is precisely why, even though he’s having fun with the show and baring his ass while promoting it, he’s also working his ass off, too, to ensure that it is great.
“I wouldn’t have moved my wife and my 4-year-old son and my 13-week-old daughter halfway across the world if we weren’t going to be serious about making something that is going to be entertaining,” he says. “All I want to do is entertain people before—or more likely while—they fall asleep. I feel very lucky that I’ve been given such a great opportunity and I don’t intend to waste a second of it, however long it lasts.”