Before Meghan Markle and Prince Harry talked to Oprah and shocked the world, there was a different royal TV special. Harry took part in a goofy but fascinating segment for The Late Late Show with James Corden. The late-night host picked up Harry and took him on an open-top double-decker bus for a tour of L.A. The segment was funny, included an unexpected toilet break for the prince, and managed to exist as both a lark and a serious interview.
It’s now exactly six years since Corden took over the CBS show, and his team – many coming from England, like Corden – have managed to change the late-night format, largely by keeping the conventions to a minimum. What Corden has done is make the show about performance, not the machinery of monologue, chat, more chat with another guest and a music bit.
Corden is not the king of late-night and never will be. He’s the king of nice. The least political of the late-night hosts, he still manages to insert a general air of liberal tolerance and respect. It’s not that Corden’s show is indispensable; it’s just unusual and sometimes undeservedly ignored in media coverage.
The show’s tonal shift last year during the early pandemic period and first lockdown was unique. When Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon and others scrambled to do shows from home with minimal technology, their guiding urge was to stay relevant and on top of the news. Donald Trump was still president and there were jokes and spasms of outrage to communicate.
Corden’s show moved to his garage and instead of a desperate attempt to stay all showbiz, he went for thoughtful chats with the type of people you don’t see often enough on late-night TV. Sitting at a desk, with jars of candy around him (a nice touch), Corden used a laptop to talk to such people as author and philosopher Alain de Botton and historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. These were intimate and serious-minded discussions about trust in government and trust in science. It was more than a breath of fresh air, it was a brilliant stroke.
Those segments might find half a million viewers on YouTube, whereas Corden’s Carpool Karaoke stunts can reach 30 million people on the platform. But what the serious chats delivered was therapy. In an interview last year, Corden said one of his motivations for shifting the tone was his realization that many of the staff on the show were young and isolated.
He told IndieWire: “I was conscious that a lot of our team is in their early- to mid-20s and living on their own, and needed interaction. In many ways, it brought us closer as a team. For the writers, a lot of the show was about scale – running out into the road between red lights, re-enacting someone’s movie career in eight minutes, big bits we were not able to do. It made us think.”
The idea of “thinking” in relation to a show that is music-obsessed and stunt-driven is a bit remarkable. But then it’s always been a weird show. Corden has never seemed entirely comfortable doing those celebrity interviews with guests.
A few years ago, I attended a taping, which is done in the bowels of the distinctly unglamorous Studio City in L.A. Even with an enthusiastic studio audience, the interviews can seem stale, and I understood why Corden might long to escape Studio City and do Carpool Karaoke in London with Adele or fake-drive around L.A. with Justin Bieber, singing songs.
Right now, The Late Late Show with James Corden continues to occupy an odd space in late-night. Corden is doing a tad more serious commentary in his monologues. Recently, he devoted a two-minute speech to the issue of anti-Asian hate. On other shows that two minutes would be extended to much mire. But Corden kept it succinct.
He still devotes great swaths of the hour to music and keeps it eclectic. One night in January, I was astonished to see the show feature the wonderful but still-obscure, all-female Irish band Pillow Queens. Corden described their album as “smashing” and “brilliant.” According to the band members, Corden booked them himself, not the show’s music supervisor.
After six years, the show hasn’t changed the late-night landscape drastically, but it has illuminated a way forward from the template that constructs so much late-night TV to convention and conformity. What Corden does is a hybrid talk/variety show that has both heart and fire. It’s unique and if you were much taken with Oprah’s sit-down with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, look up Harry on Corden’s show. It’s just as revealing but hilarious.
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