It’s understandable to want to dislike James Corden as a late-night host. He’s a virtual unknown in America yet won a coveted television role that most people — especially pop-culture writers and commenters on the Internet — thought should have gone to a woman and/or a person of color. The late-night world is overwhelmingly white and male, with just a few exceptions, such as the superb Larry Wilmore (Grace Helbig, Chelsea Handler, and Samantha Bee also have shows coming up). So Corden has to prove that he’s worthy of the spot — and he has to set himself apart from the other white, male hosts on CBS… and NBC, and TBS. It’s premature to judge any late-night show entirely by its first episode, but based on last night’s premiere, it’s fair to assume that Corden is set on carving out a unique and memorable space for himself with The Late Late Show.
Shaking up the late-night format can seem impossible because it’s such a strict, formulaic television genre: monologue, guest interviews, and a musical or standup comedy performance. Those are the basics. Hosts can certainly add a bit of their own personalities to the mix — Jimmy Fallon’s inventive, viral sketches (plus his overwhelmingly optimistic persona), Conan O’Brien’s signature weirdness and hilarious commitment to sneaking intentionally dumb jokes into his monologue, and Wilmore’s decision to have a panel rather than one guest at a time are all good examples. But it’s still hard to make a late-night talk show seem wholly original.
Corden is dedicated to making things different, however, and that was already apparent in the first episode. There was no joke-filled monologue yet — instead, Corden proved to be an affable, humble, and gentle host who seemed just as confused as we are that he got the role. It’s a smart approach; as a relative newcomer trying to win over a skeptical audience, self-awareness will get Corden much further than typical late-night snarkiness. Hopefully, we’ll see his monologue develop throughout the week, but his quiet, personal introduction (telling us where he’s from, about his family, etc.) worked well for the pilot episode. There was even a cute, pre-taped sketch to “explain” how Corden landed the role: a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-inspired golden ticket contest. It was funny, with a surprising cameo from Meryl Streep (and a not-so-surprising cameo by Jay Leno), joking that everyone from Chris Rock to Joel McHale to Lena Dunham was seeking out the golden ticket. (“This is misogyny,” Dunham huffs when her candy wrapper is empty.)
The rest of show ran smoothly, for the most part, with Corden implementing enough changes to distinguish his format apart from the rest. There was no fake mic on his desk, for one, and he didn’t even sit behind the desk during the interview segments. Instead, the guests (Tom Hanks and Mila Kunis, two great choices for a first episode — especially Hanks, who is such a beloved actor he can essentially vouch for anyone) walked out through the crowd sat on a couch to Corden’s left. (This switch from the usual back/side guest entrance is surprisingly jarring if you’re an obsessive viewer of late-night programs.) The guests remained onstage for the entire interview portion of the program, rather than splitting up their segments into separate interviews, which gave these conversations a more comfortable, casual, friends-chatting-with-friends feel. Corden was a bit rocky with the interviews, though, perhaps because he was so visibly nervous.
But any rough bits were saved by a brilliant and inspired segment: a Tom Hanks career retrospective in which Corden and Hanks reenacted memorable scenes from pivotal movies in Hanks’ career. It was full of manic, frenetic energy as they quickly changed in and out of costumes, switching from movie to movie (sometimes seamlessly, sometimes hilariously not). Any hesitation new viewers may have had toward Corden throughout the show likely disappeared by the time he and Hanks were singing “That Thing You Do!” It may have gone on a bit too long, but it remained funny and charming — much like Corden himself.
With the first episode out of the way, Corden just needs to hone his interview skills, and The Late Late Show needs to figure out how to do more with multi-talented band leader Reggie Watts. Of course, only time will tell if Corden becomes a great and notable Late Late Show host. But his first hour was promising enough that I’m comfortable predicting he’ll quickly find a devoted, if cult, audience.