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.