In the debut episode of The Late Late Show With James Corden, the avuncular English comedian showed a pre-taped bit that presented the coveted 12:30 a.m. slot on CBS as a golden ticket in a candy bar. A cute montage of celebrities from Chris Rock to Lena Dunham unwrapping their ticketless chocolate bars ensued; finally, we saw the late-night veteran Chelsea Handler accidentally dropping hers on the ground for it to be retrieved by Corden through dumb luck. In a skit montage, Corden was seen being trained for his new gig by Jay Leno, who joked to the camera, “In three months, this show will be mine.” It was an easy gag, but it held some weight as a parting shot: The game-for-anything Corden, so visibly blessed to even be on TV, is part of a new, cheerful generation of late night that's waving a happy farewell to the acidic stars of old.
It’s hard to judge any show by its first week, or even its first month—similarly, it’s hard to expect someone entering a daily timeslot on CBS to re-invent the hoariest form of television, no matter what they might be promising. Yes, Corden has come to Hollywood with a few big ideas that may well end up taking root. But at first glance it’s easiest to place him alongside Jimmy Fallon, the figurehead of the new late-night movement. What sets them apart from the comedians of yore? Relentless positivity.
Corden greets his audience every night with delighted surprise, as if he can’t believe they showed up; he seems shocked that he has the job at all, which is sensible enough considering his relatively low profile in the States. After a few years working mainly as a stage actor (he originated the role of one of the students in The History Boys), his breakout show in the U.K. was Gavin and Stacey, a bittersweet romantic sitcom he co-created in which he played the protagonist’s obnoxious best friend. Corden's performance in the comic play One Man, Two Guvnors won him a Tony Award, and he played the Baker in Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods last year, but CBS’s chair Les Moonves was clearly hiring him based on potential rather than star power.
Corden is the soft opening for CBS’s new comedy lineup, replacing fellow Brit Craig Ferguson (a Scotsman), who had a loyal cult following for nine years in the Late Late timeslot but was never seriously considered to replace David Letterman when he announced his retirement. That job is going to Stephen Colbert in September, and along with Jon Stewart’s impending retirement from The Daily Show, it marks 2015 as the year the late-night landscape ushered in a new generation, although still an overwhelmingly white and male one. But despite the unchanging demographics, this new crowd stands out.
Fallon’s giddy personality had been hard to contain on Saturday Night Live, where he'd constantly break character by laughing during sketches. On NBC’s The Tonight Show, where he replaced Leno last year, his boundless enthusiasm carries every bit and celebrity interview along, no matter how flimsy the material. Chris Hardwick has similarly excelled on Comedy Central’s late-night game show @Midnight, shrieking “Points!” every time a comedian scores an easy punchline. Corden seems to be aiming in a similar direction. His monologue eschews the set-up/joke delivery formula most late-night hosts rely on; rather than blast through a bunch of topics, Corden picks on one story from the news and riffs for a while before jumping to a pre-taped bit or a musical number, where he plays off his theatrical roots.
As any smart late-night host would, Corden has brought in heavyweights for his first week on the job, including Tom Hanks, the patron saint of nice-guy Hollywood stars. Hanks and Corden referenced every film of Hanks’ career in a live, seven-minute stretch of seamless sketches, including many costume changes—it was cute, built for YouTube, and above all else, very friendly. Who doesn’t enjoy watching Tom Hanks being a good sport? Mariah Carey, Will Ferrell, and Kevin Hart also appeared in the first week, each taking parts in bits that seemed designed to showcase their chumminess with Corden. It’s not that he’s looking to ingratiate himself with celebrities, but rather to instill the same kind of friendly, ingratiating vibe that Fallon has managed so well, alongside British hosts like Graham Norton, whom Corden has cited as an influence.
This isn't to say that Leno or Letterman frequently excoriated their guests, but there was a level of snark to their approach that seems to have dissipated from contemporary late-night comedy. Leno was never ruthlessly mean, but his bits often delighted in the dimness of the “average American,” and Letterman’s anti-establishment streak never left his delivery, no matter how ingrained in the CBS infrastructure he might have become. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel is probably the closest inheritor of this tone, along with Leno’s one-time heir Conan O’Brien (now on TBS), although Kimmel's dark humor tends more toward the absurd than the acerbic.
Corden, so far, is having none of that. Despite hiring the inimitable Reggie Watts as his bandleader, there’s nothing else about his Late Late Show that seems remotely surreal. Watts is a musician and comedian who excels at setting a strange vibe, which he did brilliantly for years on IFC’s spoof talk show Comedy Bang Bang. While he might get to explore that a little more in the coming weeks, so far his job has mostly been playing the friendly hype man to Corden, who comes out to shower his audience with praise just for being there. His charm is undeniable and it’s hard not to feel engaged, but whether good vibes from the host will be enough to guarantee success is anyone's guess.