emergency discussion

Did James Corden Change Late Night for Better or Worse?

Photo: Terence Patrick/CBS via Getty Images

After eight years on the air at CBS, The Late Late Show With James Corden comes to an end tonight, a moment that will be commemorated with a prime-time “Carpool Karaoke” special and the final episode of The Late Late Show featuring guests Will Ferrell and Harry Styles.

When Corden launched what would eventually become America’s foremost source for watching famous people sing karaoke in a passenger seat, the late-night talk show was at an inflection point. Only a year prior, Jimmy Fallon had taken over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno, who, we are legally obligated to remind you, stole it from Conan O’Brien. At the same time, Seth Meyers launched his own show in Fallon’s former 12:30 a.m. spot. A few months after Corden’s tenure began in 2015, Jon Stewart left The Daily Show, where he was replaced by Trevor Noah. It was a time when a new guard was taking over in this format, and also a time when a bunch of white guys left, only to be replaced by (mostly) more white guys.

Eight years later, as Corden heads off the air and back to England and the late-night talk show as a genre seems closer to potential extinction than it ever has, it feels like we may be at another inflection point. Which is why it seemed appropriate to have an emergency discussion between Bethy Squires, author of Vulture’s “This Week in Late Night” column, and TV critic Jen Chaney about Corden’s likability and legacy, and where late night goes from here.

Bethy Squires: We come to bury James Corden, not to praise him. Well, I’m here to praise him a little. I’m sad to see this show go. Not just this time slot of late night, but The Late Late Show With James Corden. For the “This Week in Late Night” column, I had to watch every late-night show, and the way he riffed with his staff during the lockdown era was a genuine highlight. But I’m curious what you thought about Corden, especially pre-pandemic, which I caught a lot less of.

Jen Chaney: I remember when he first launched the show in 2015 and, in his second week on the air, hosted an entire program from some random guy named Tommy’s house, with guests that included Jeff Goldblum and Beck. (Beck noted that it was very hot in Tommy’s house while Tommy fawned all over him. Beck later performed in Tommy’s dining room.)

The space was clearly too tight for a proper late-night show, but there was something fun and DIY about that episode that gave me early David Letterman vibes combined with a heavy dose of Graham Norton. In that episode and his in-studio ones, Corden committed to putting all of his guests together on the sofa, one of the things that has always made Norton’s U.K. show such a fun hang and that generally worked on Corden, too. I liked how Corden was experimenting with the form and improvising a bit. But as the show went on, it became known more for its bits — its “Carpool Karaoke” segments and “Crosswalk the Musical” performances — than for its improvisational qualities. The biggest knock against Corden, actually, is that his show didn’t feel improvised at all, but instead like a series of highly choreographed set pieces designed to make the celeb guests seem relatable and to showcase Corden’s talents as the U.K.’s No. 1 Thirstiest Theater Kid.

The thing is, that’s sort of what he promised CBS executives he would do. In an interview earlier this week with CBS Sunday Morning, Corden recalled the feedback he gave to CBS when they asked him what they should do with the time slot that once belonged to Craig Ferguson. “I said I think you’ve got an opportunity to have an hour there that embraces the internet,” he said. “Make a show that launches at 12:37 but people consume and watch all day, because that’s how that audience are consuming their content now.” His song-and-dance fests and sketches often did go viral, so you can make a strong argument that he succeeded at his mission. But he, along with Jimmy Fallon, also pushed late night into a direction where carefully orchestrated “spontaneity” replaced actual spontaneity. And I miss the real thing, or what at least felt more like the real thing. I miss that one time Beck played “Country Down” in a dining room.

BS: That’s the most frustrating thing about watching Corden as a comedy fan: seeing the genuine moments of spontaneity crowded out by the splashy, prerecorded stuff. But that’s definitely how he’s most well known by the world at large.

I want to go back to his time in the U.K. panel-show trenches. As a Big Fat Quiz fan, that’s how I first knew him. Corden was often paired up with Jack Whitehall (who has been a frequent guest on The Late Late Show), and the two would be the brats of the episode. The Big Fat Quiz of the Year is a pub-quiz-style show that comes out on Christmas every year on Channel 4. Teams of celebs compete to see who knows the most about the past year, but really they’re competing to see who can make the most jokes about host Jimmy Carr’s style, tax evasion, and hair plugs. One of the better bits the show ever had was when Whitehall and Corden (1) showed up in tuxes to demonstrate that they weren’t here to fuck around, and (2) ordered in pizza.

This stunt highlights both Corden’s greatest strength and biggest flaw rolled into one. He’s not afraid to play the heel when the comedy requires it. The way he and Whitehall pester the other panelists is very high school: annoying yet funny at the same time. But the commitment to preplanned bits is also there. And by the time Corden got The Late Late Show, some U.K. comedy nerds were like, “Good, he’s your problem now.”

Let’s talk more about how he and Fallon YouTube-ified late night. There’s the obvious point that the two both utilize these recurring segments (“Carpool Karaoke,” “Go On, Git,” etc.) to be consumed as stand-alone content, completely divorced from the concept of “late night.” But Corden also pretapes a lot of things that seemingly don’t need to be pretaped. If he has a big guest, they’ll be on the couch one night and then show up in a sketch/song/”Crosswalk Musical” later in the week. He doesn’t even try to make the viewer believe all these things are happening the same night.

How do you feel about the un-temporality of late night today? On the one hand, ain’t no way I’m going to stay up late to watch a show on network broadcast. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel like we’re losing something ineffable by decoupling late night from actually being late at night.

JC: There is something about the fact that these shows were meant to be watched just before bed — what people had to do in the days before streaming, the internet, and DVRs — that helped define their sensibilities. The monologues and the interviews between host and guests were really the main event, and were meant to be chatty and fun, to provide some good laughs before the drowsiness kicked in.

Even when guests had been prepped ahead of time, there was still that sense of spontaneity in a lot of late-night conversations, and the sense that surprising things could happen that weren’t under the control of the host or the publicists micromanaging their clients. Just one example of many: Cher telling Letterman he was an asshole on national television in 1986. Generally in those days, things didn’t feel quite as overtly scripted. Certainly Letterman, Leno, and Conan did sketches; Conan had a particular gift, in his 12:30 heyday, for weirding out with masturbating bears and pimp bots, which, again, suited the audience of (mostly) younger people up late and in the mood for something punchy.

Corden was correct to recognize that by the mid-2000s, people were no longer consuming “late night” late at night anymore. He also was smart to think about how his show might work in the YouTube era. But the focus on games and silly sketches, on The Late Late Show and elsewhere, has wound up pushing late night further from its original principles. Instead of creating a relaxing, organically evolving experience where anything could seemingly happen, Corden (and Fallon) started forcing “the anything” to happen. Corden especially earned a reputation as a try-hard (among other things). Like, watch this and try not to cringe. It can’t be done. That reputation has been tough for him to shake, mainly because it’s accurate, although not necessarily always a bad thing.

BS: There’s something a friend’s ex-boyfriend said that has stuck with me much longer than their relationship, and that is “You can’t force the jam.” I think it was in the context of making fun of Phish or something, but it definitely applies here. Fallon and Corden are guilty of trying to force the jam, in a way that “Day Drinking With Seth” never does. Colbert’s audience often forces the jam upon him, with all the chanting and the booing.

Corden is a try-hard, but the American allergy to people making an effort is not one of our cuter attributes. I can sort of sympathize, as a person whose job security often depends on an interview going well. Would the loosey-goosey, discursive late-night conversations happen with Charli D’Amelio? Celebs are too media-trained nowadays. I wonder if being a try-hard is the only way to pierce the PR veil. I can’t get you to call me an asshole or dance on my desk, but I can get you to eat bull testicles. It’s fitting that one of Corden’s signature guests is Kim Kardashian, who has made her fortune on a very overproduced version of “reality.”

Speaking of frequent Corden guests, I think it’s my responsibility now to force you to talk about Harry Styles.

JC: That’s right, I only talk about Harry Styles when forced. And by “forced,” I mean someone comes up to me and says, “Hi.”

He’s a great example of a celebrity who really popped on The Late Late Show, and a testament to how much the charm of Corden’s segments could turn up or down based on which famous person was in them. Styles’s bits worked well in part because he was so generally low-key, and that created a nice contrast with Corden. Their 2019 “Concert Crosswalk” segment is a lot of fun in part because Harry seems so dismissive of the whole concept. Their more recent making of a video for “Daylight” for $300 was also fun because it harked back to that seat-of-the-pants style that was on display in that aforementioned episode at Tommy’s house.

Whenever Corden paired up with Tom Cruise to do some daredevil stunt, like jumping out of a plane, that also was fascinating, because Cruise is maybe the only person on earth who is “doing the most” more flagrantly than Corden.

But, Bethy, you’ve been watching The Late Late Show for the past couple of years much more regularly than I have. Has the forcing of the jam abated at all?

BS: Gonna have to first sidebar about the “Daylight” music-video shoot. I think the Making the Video energy hooks me as a millennial, but also the impish-little-shit energy coming off Corden. I think what makes Corden’s trying here palatable is that he knows it’s annoying. He knows he’s being extra, and he’s excited to annoy Styles and even the girls who live in that apartment. Lean into your brand, my guy!

But to answer your question, there was a time when the jam was coming unforced, and it was when the show couldn’t have a real audience. Maybe it’s the theater kid in Corden, but he always overplays to a studio audience. But when audiences were verboten during COVID in 2021, Corden was the chillest hang of all the late-night shows. The whole staff, including the senior VP of late-night television, West Coast, Nick Bernstein, were forced to participate in monologues. It was like The Soup, with the crew laughing behind the camera.

Corden wisely opened up the monologue space, turning it into dialogue between him and head writer Ian Karmel, Reggie Watts and his band, the camera guys, the writers, everybody. Show after show, the crew’s personas were built up, as well as Corden’s specific vibe with each. Cameraman Pete is a Parrot Head; most of the band is into weird sex stuff; Nick Bernstein is into horse racing. There was also a change in how the monologues were edited, making it looser and preserving more of the pre-joke patter. If the years pre-COVID were about turning late night into YouTube, lockdown-era Late Late Show turned late night into podcasts. It’s been frustrating seeing the show devolve back into scripted jokes now that things have opened back up.

A good example of what the show was like in its podcast era was the week that Bernstein was given a chair that was weirdly high. Then, for the next few nights, the chair would get higher and higher. Silly! Pointless! Mild bullying! This was The Late Late Show (and its CBS exec) at its height.

Jen, what does it mean for you that we’re losing this time slot of late night? CBS is bringing back @midnight in The Late Late Show’s spot, even though Twitter is a walking corpse. Does this news, combined with all the new shows that got canceled like Desus & Mero, Ziwe, and A Little Late With Lilly Singh, mean late night’s days are numbered?

JC: First of all, I wish I had watched Corden more in the quarantine era. In fact, I was hopeful that the stripped-down nature of what late night was forced to become during COVID might usher in more chaos energy to the form. But like you said, everything slid right back to the normal.

As far as late night’s days being numbered, I don’t think it’s immediately going away. While Colbert’s contract with CBS expires next year, both of the Jimmys — Fallon and Kimmel — have a few years left on theirs. But I do think fewer people engage with late-night talk shows than they did when Corden arrived on the scene. When people want to hear from celebrities, they generally follow them on Instagram or TikTok, and when they want some fun host-celeb banter, they go to shows like Hot Ones or Chicken Shop Date.

Personally, I still value late-night talk shows. Like you, moments generated on those shows are things I often return to when I’m looking for a pick-me-up from a YouTube clip. But I would like to see different voices leading the way — put Ziwe on in Corden’s old slot, cowards! — and more fearlessness in terms of subverting the genre and trying new things. I’m not saying I want The Tonight Show to turn into The Eric Andre Show. But I’m also not not saying that.

As someone who studied his show, how do you think The Late Late Show will be remembered? And how should it be remembered?

BS: I think Corden’s legacy will be “Carpool Karaoke” with Paul McCartney. Late-night careers often get condensed to one or two bits that come to represent the host’s whole tenure: Carson with the tomahawk, Letterman with Drew Barrymore, Conan’s remote segments. I think Corden will be remembered for “Carpool Karaoke” beating Nanette and Homecoming for an Emmy, and I think people will unfortunately think of it like when Crash beat Brokeback Mountain. 

But I hope people will remember The Late Late Show for the things it did to expand the boundaries of late night. First, for Corden’s immediate predecessor Craig Ferguson bringing some gonzo energy to monologues and really exploring the space. Then, for Corden’s willingness to take the show out of the studio. Sure, that impulse did block traffic with Corden dressed as a mouse. But it also gave one random guy a very personal Beck concert. Trying hard has its place.

Did James Corden Change Late Night for Better or Worse?