“The Late Late Show With James Corden” started, last night, a bit anticlimactically. For his first moments on-air with his “Late Late Show” audience, Corden launched into a string of thank-yous: parents, wife, baby, network, bandleader, audience, America, USA, USA, etc., etc. It wasn’t exactly funny, but it was awfully nice of him.
That is, ultimately, what I took away from the pilot episode: “The Late Late Show With James Corden” is a space for niceness, an oasis of good humor. Late-night television has the ability to get away with “adult” language and not-safe-for-primetime humor, but Corden’s “The Late Late Show” seems to suggest: just because we can, that doesn’t mean we should. The hourlong show was a model genuine niceness, right from Corden stepping away from his desk to sit with his guests at the table to guest Mila Kunis bringing a gift for Corden’s wife—a housewarming gift for the hostess, perhaps.
For talk-show nerds, “The Late Late Show With James Corden” plays with the form in ways that largely reveal how stodgy the form is. Guests don’t come in from backstage—they walk through the audience to their seats! They don’t come in one by one—they both appeared at the same time! Not only does Corden come out from behind his desk, but he steps over to his left, not his right—and as Vulture’s Joe Adalian pointed out on Twitter, he doesn’t even have a prop microphone on his desk, that relic of a bygone era. “The Late Late Show” is very conscious of these miniscule adjustments—the formula is being changed, it suggests to the audience.
Naturally, the formula is not being changed one iota; as lovely as Corden is, “The Late Late Show” seems to be CBS’ response to “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” which plays off of Fallon’s inherent, goofy niceness to create quickly YouTube-able morning-after video content. Where Fallon skews goofy, Corden skews a little wittier—a bit less common-denominator, and a bit more offbeat—but the resulting cocktail of general niceness is still the same. Corden and bandleader Reggie Watts make a fantastic team, but they bear eerie resemblance to Fallon and his bandleader Questlove. Corden has his singular charms (and more on those in a minute), but it’s quite clear that as the late-night lineup is getting its biggest shakeup since Conan O’Brien came and left, CBS is making sure that at least in one of their shows, they’re going for the same niche that Fallon has locked down. Specifically, the schtick of the nice guy. “Well, I guess we can’t put this off any longer,” Corden says to Watts, about 10 minutes into the broadcast. It seems like a good indicator of the show’s character—a bit modest, a bit apprehensive, and just a bit late to the game.
What is refreshing—what does feel like a game-changer—is that Corden’s guests aren’t promoting anything. Sure, Kunis talked a bit about her jewelry, but there wasn’t the interminable set of leading questions around a film premiere or a book release that make up so much of the late-night industrial complex. Instead, the total randomness of the stars made for some of the show’s alchemical appeal—Kunis and fellow guest Tom Hanks were eager to shoot the shit, because they had almost nothing else to talk about.
And if Kunis was a model houseguest, what with bringing a gift and all, Hanks was a model celebrity guest—performing a retrospective of a great many of his films, with Corden as co-star and/or prop, as the situation required. It was a segment of sheer hilarity that reminded me why an actor like Tom Hanks might want to go onto a late-night show, even with nothing to promote: That kind of ridiculous gauntlet of strung-together moments looks like a ton of fun to produce, especially for an actor as charming as Hanks. (Nearly 20 years later, his delivery of “Don’t cry, Shopgirl” is still pretty devastating.)
The other big bit of the night was a pre-recorded video purporting to explain how Corden got the “Late Late Show” gig; in a sly jab at CBS’ casting process, the show framed it as a Willy Wonka-style lottery. The segment burns through celebrity cameos with alarming haste: Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Lena Dunham, Jay Leno, Allison Janney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joel McHale, and even Meryl Streep all make an appearance, and that’s maybe half of everyone who shows up. So, so often, these pre-recorded videos or rehearsed segments look and feel excruciatingly awkward or boring. It bodes very well for Corden, and for CBS, that he made these excursions into the absurd look like a lot of fun, both to be in and to watch.