With his first “Late, Late Show,” James Corden made a clear statement of intent — that he will be a member of the Jimmy Fallon school of modesty, sincerity, fandom, and song and dance. Oh yes, and viral videos; the highlight of his first hour Monday night was a self-standing late-night host-training clip that featured Katie Couric, Chris Rock, Lena Dunham, CBS president and CEO Les Moonves, and former NBC pinup host Jay Leno.
Corden, like any late-night host in the modern age, is ready to find a place in the culture, even if it’s through next-day YouTube and CBS.com clips and not through live viewing.
The 36-year-old Brit, who made his own joke about resembling Andy Richter so we don’t have to, tweaked the late-night formula a bit. He didn’t open with a monologue, entering the hosting club instead with lots of teary gratitude and “massive” thank yous — to predecessor Craig Ferguson, to his quirky bandleader Reggie Watts, to his parents, who were in the audience. He didn’t sit behind the desk, as is tradition, but instead sat beside it in an office chair on rollers. And he brought out both of his guests — Tom Hanks and Mila Kunis — at the same time.
And yet it all felt safe and predictable, a warm goodnight salvo without any of the tartness or twistedness of Ferguson or of the show’s lead-in host, David Letterman.
One of Corden’s gifts is that he made himself instantly familiar. While many Americans haven’t followed his career, they might easily have felt as though they were spending the hour with an old friend, as he let his high-pitched cackle soar repeatedly. He was engaging and charming, and he managed to make the chitchat with Hanks and Kunis (who forced a bit of jewelry product placement) easy to watch. Nothing particularly interesting came out of the dual interview — nothing ever does on these network talk shows — but it never sunk into desperation or awkwardness.
Wait, there was breaking news. Kunis and Ashton Kutcher — stop the (tabloid) presses — are married. Also — stop more presses — Kunis loves being a mom.
Corden featured two discrete pieces, the first of which was nicely done. It was a star-studded chronicle of how Moonves put a golden ticket in a candy bar, and the person who found it would be the new “Late, Late Show” host. One witty twist had Chelsea Handler — whom many wanted to take over the show — dropping the ticket, which was picked up by Corden. Another had Corden yawning during interviewing practice as Shia LaBeouf poured his heart out. Bringing in Leno as Corden’s “Whiplash”-like mentor was a kick, as well as a kick at NBC.
The second bit had Corden and Hanks reenacting moments from all of Hanks’s movies. It went on too long and never quite took off, despite all the frenetic costume changing. However it did show some of Corden’s flexibility as a performer, as he donned wigs and played different roles opposite Hanks. Like Fallon, Corden is willing to play alongside a major star without overshadowing or underplaying. He was game, and it was catchy.
Watch Corden explain how he got the show:
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.