James Corden spent a lot of time introducing himself on his debut hosting the revamped Late Late Show Monday night. "Believe me: However shocked you are [that I'm hosting this show], you will never be as shocked as I am," he sweetly told viewers as he substituted in a brief autobiographical summary where a monologue would traditionally go. As a closing segment, he sang a wrap-up song that included him reminding us of his name. There was a long, mostly funny prerecorded sketch explaining how, exactly, he wound up as the host of a late-night show — by winning a Willy Wonka–style golden ticket from a chocolate bar dropped by Chelsea Handler. And between all these introductions and moments of quasi-humility, Corden did a perfectly solid job. Last night's premiere went about as well as a premiere can go.
Corden was plenty affable, comparing parenting tips with guests Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks and throwing himself into a segment where he and Hanks re-created many Hanks movies.
That's a fun little segment! That's a segment Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel would be happy to call their own, and whoever came up with it should be very happy this morning as they watch it zip around the internet. The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sketch was plenty successful, with Les Moonves overseeing the Oompa Loompas, and cameos from Jay Leno, Lena Dunham, Billy Crystal, Chris Rock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shia LaBeouf, Allison Janney, and Meryl Streep, among others. It was also very CBS: Plenty of production quality and big names; funny enough, but not actually that funny.
But that's how late night is. It's … fine. Some segments really pop, some interviews are just raw comic brilliance, some moments or gags wind up as shining stars in our pop-culture night sky. But mostly it's a slog. It's a lot of show, week in and week out, a lot of enthusiasm about people's "projects," a lot of telling everyone they look great, and amiably asking about celebrities' romances. It's not all stupid pet tricks. (Would that it were!)
Late-night TV in general has been in an awkward transition phase in the last few years. Remember "Team Coco"? Kimmel changed time slots, Leno's out, Fallon moved up, Letterman's retiring, Colbert's moving in, Stewart's leaving, Ferguson left, YouTube stars are heading to E! while Handler moves to Netflix, Pete Holmes got the axe, and Arsenio Hall returned and then left again. That's a lot of churning for something that feels like an institution. What does this landscape look like ten years from now?
For their part, Corden and his team made a few minor tweaks to the typical late-night network setup: The guests came out together rather than one by one, which happens on shows in the U.K. but not so much here. It worked fine, but "it worked with Tom Hanks!" doesn't really feel like a statistically significant sampling. The guests walked out down an aisle through the audience, where they were greeted with awkward high-fives. This was by far the worst part of the show, though I say this as someone with an extraordinarily low tolerance for forced enthusiasm and a distaste for celebrities pretending to enjoy giving us Muggles fist-bumps. Corden hyped a product-placed bar (though it didn't get much play) and incorrectly claimed theirs was the only late-night show with an in-house bar (Watch What Happens Live is 80 percent in-house bar, sir). Most blasphemously, Corden didn't sit behind his desk. He instead rolled his Eames management chair from behind the desk and positioned it next to the couch — itself jarringly placed stage left, rather than the more common stage right. Band leader Reggie Watts, a real pillar of the odd-comedy world, was underused.
Corden was as solid as can be last night, but I can't tell — and I doubt anyone can — if that makes him part of late night's new era, or part of late night's last gasps. Of course it's too soon to tell. So while this chapter in late-night history is writing itself, I'd settle for a little more Reggie Watts, more movie montages, and a once-a-year appearance of Tom Hanks waggling his arms like Woody from Toy Story.