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James Corden does bits of comic business with the audience, but they feel forced, while his carpool karaoke routine is massively famous. (Monty Brinton/AP)
James Corden does bits of comic business with the audience, but they feel forced, while his carpool karaoke routine is massively famous. (Monty Brinton/AP)

John Doyle: Inside the surreal world of James Corden’s late-night talk show Add to ...

A burly English bloke with a booming voice is shouting at us. “Remember!” he bellows. “What happens out there is amusing. Inside here, it’s [swear word] hilarious!”

And that’s not all. He wants to see us stand up and applaud. Applaud loudly, not some polite nonsense. “I want to see hands over your heads clapping!” he shouts. A bunch of people do as ordered. It’s amazing, really. A large, bellowing Englishman can easily get his way.

I’m inside the surreal world of late-night TV, in Los Angeles at CBS’s Television City studios. It reminds me of W1A, the satire about working inside the BBC. On that show, meeting rooms are named after famous BBC personalities. Here, the “artists’ entrance” to the studios is the Carol Burnett Entrance. It’s where I entered with a bunch of TV critics.

The burly English bloke is employed by The Late Late Show With James Corden to get the audience pumped. He does go on and on, this bloke. The studio is cold and he’s trying to literally warm us up. There are complicated instructions about where to look when Corden arrives, and where to look when the guests appear. A person could get whiplash.

It’s germane to visit Corden’s show right now. There’s buzz – and it’s only rumour-buzz – that while CBS is happy that Stephen Colbert has improved on David Letterman’s numbers in the 11:35 p.m. slot, he’s not having the big impact that was expected. Anecdotal evidence from critics across the United States suggests Colbert is polarizing – some viewers don’t like the political edge to his humour and interviews. Corden is the one getting the lavish attention and praise. Eventually, some say, Corden will be in the earlier time slot.

The U.S. network late-night format is very fixed – a host at a desk, an opening monologue, one guest on a couch followed by another, and a band in the corner. Corden, a 37-year-old with a great singing voice and jolly personality, has only tampered lightly with the format since he started hosting the 12:35 a.m. show early in 2015. The guests sit together on the couch and Corden sits next to them. There is also a bar in the corner, with some audience members sitting on stools there.

This puts The Late Late Show closer to the English chat-show style, and a lot of Brits are on Corden’s staff. You hear the accents everywhere.

Does it make a difference? Marginally. Sometimes, the guests clearly feel awkward with being squeezed onto one couch. Corden himself is not at his best on this night. His guests are actors Morgan Freeman, Zooey Deschanel and Tim Roth. Freeman is a dab hand with his smooth, voice-of-God persona. Deschanel is an expert at late-night appearances – you can tell she keeps an eye on the cameras and adjusts her position, and her skirt, to accommodate the camera’s perspective. Roth is game, but not fully engaged.

Corden does bits of comic business with the audience, but they feel forced. It takes extra time to tape this episode because one encounter with an audience member has to be cut and a retake is done with someone else. Also, Corden falls back on rote remarks as he chats with his guests. Instead of quips, he says, “How exciting!” or “We look forward to that!” when somebody is plugging an upcoming project.

But Corden has a secret weapon. Not so secret now, actually. His carpool karaoke routines are massively popular. In them, he drives around with a singer or a band, and they sing. That’s it. But he’s quick-witted in these routines and sings with fabulous gusto. Most of the singers seem to find it fun, too.

And here’s a thing that’s truly surreal. The Late Late Show with James Corden might get 1.5 million viewers on a good night, but a carpool karaoke piece with Justin Bieber got 48 million views on YouTube. The routine with One Direction got 20 million. Ten months of carpool karaoke brought a total 410 million views on YouTube, according to CBS.

On this night, if Corden was a bit agitated with his guests, he was brimming with pleasure when he introduced a teaser for a carpool karaoke with Adele. He did it in London over the holidays. So later, when the audience has left, the TV critics are shown the entire Adele segment (it aired last Wednesday), and some of us realize that Corden has quietly moved and sat behind us, to watch us watching the Adele segment.

It’s fabulous. Corden has a wonderful rapport with the singer, and the long version of the segment is both hilarious and touching. The hits on YouTube are probably into the tens of millions already.

Corden tells us in a scrum that he’s very proud of the Adele carpool karaoke piece. He likes us, the critics, and we like him. He’s genial and he hosted the Television Critics Association Awards for us last summer, with aplomb.

Yet, it seems from this one visit that carpool karaoke is the essence of the show. The grabber. Around it, everything is very ordinary. Who knows where Corden’s show goes – that burly Englishman, the warmup bloke, could be bellowing at the audience for the 12:35 a.m. show for a long time to come.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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