James Corden must demonstrate that he’s got what it takes to please viewers when he takes over CBS’ The Late Late Show, Craig Ferguson’s former home, on Monday just after 12:30 a.m.
He’s proved himself elsewhere. Corden sang, danced and tumbled his way to a 2012 Tony Award for the exuberant farce One Man, Two Guvnors; co-starred in the movie adaptation of Into the Woods; and scored TV hits in his native England including Gavin & Stacey and The Wrong Mans.
A U.S. talk show is an unlikely next step for a shortish, chubby-cheeked Brit, who has the look of an amiable game-show host rather than a polished late-night TV ringmaster in the mold of the two Jimmys (NBC’s Fallon, ABC’s Kimmel) or Stephen Colbert, David Letterman’s replacement this fall on CBS’ Late Show.
Despite Corden’s estimable reputation on Broadway and in Britain, he’s largely unknown to viewers on this side of the pond.
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“No matter how shocked you or anyone else might be that I’m doing the show, I’m as shocked if not more,” he said. “I never thought that this would be something that would come my way.”
Performing was his childhood dream and a family tradition, Corden said. His great-grandfather was a musician and so was his grandfather, who toured with Shirley Bassey and other prominent singers. Corden’s father, now a Christian book salesman, was a musician in Britain’s Royal Air Force.
“There was never a minute where I ever, ever wanted to do anything else,” Corden said.
As for specifics, Corden and his producers said the show is and will be a work in progress, even as it airs. They are eager to import an element that’s part of some British talk shows: bringing all the guests out together, rather than one by one as is common here. The intended result is spontaneity, Corden said, “seeing people interact in a way that is a bit more interesting.”
The show’s location is a reflection of the talk-show traffic jam in New York — including the transplanted Tonight Show — which has made guest bookings more competitive. In Los Angeles, Late Late Show has Kimmel and Conan O’Brien as its chief rivals in the talent hunt.
Tom Hanks and Mila Kunis are the opening-night guests, followed by Kerry Washington and Chris Pine on Tuesday and Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell Wednesday. Reggie Watts, known for his music and comedy, was handpicked by Corden as bandleader.
The show is starting out with an abbreviated launch, making way on Thursday and Friday for CBS Sports’ coverage of NCAA basketball. That’s OK with Corden and his crew, who figure they’ve got a settling-in period ahead. Among their challenges is the void that exists between Letterman’s departure and Colbert’s entrance, which will be filled by reruns of CBS dramas. There’s also NBC’s ratings advantage, with No. 1 Tonight providing a strong lead-in to Corden’s direct competitor, Late Night With Seth Meyers.
All he can do is work hard, said Corden, who moved from London with his wife and their two young children. He makes no bones about feeling the pressure on behalf of them and his colleagues who uprooted their families as well. But, in classic British style, he mined a self-deprecating laugh with worst-case imagined news headlines: “Corden deported, work visa denied. Corden kills 20-year-old TV franchise.”
Even he couldn’t resist a chuckle.