What The Late Late Show with James Corden is and what it will be probably are not exactly the same thing. Television shows, especially ones with the opportunity to tweak things with such frequency as a late night talk show, change a bit here or there. That being said, it is already abundantly clear that this latest iteration of The Late, Late Show will be vastly different than the show Craig Ferguson was doing. The personalities of Corden and Ferguson, and their approaches to being a late night host, seem almost diametrically opposed. To put it in the clearest way possible, which is to say to frame it as an analogy to 80s movies: Ferguson is a gremlin, and Corden is a mogwai.
Ferguson was a wry, rabble-rousing gentleman who seemed mostly interested in amusing himself, and if others were also amused so much the better. His barebones show mostly was him messing around with his gay robot skeleton sidekick while a pantomime horse pretended to snort cocaine. It was wonderful, but it was also admittedly idiosyncratic. The modern late night talk show, following the lead of the meteoric rise of Jimmy Fallon, is the talk show equivalent of a jovial chap bellowing to a crowd, “Is everybody having fun!?” Corden works in this vein.
Corden doesn’t mind sweating for your laughs, and he doesn’t mind showing you that he’s sweating. The big guns, nay, the huge guns, were brought out for his first week of shows. Obviously, this likely won’t continue once this stops being a new show and starts being another late night show. However, getting the likes of Jay Leno, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mariah Carey and Meryl Streep to appear in taped bits is still a coup. It definitely announced Corden’s tenure as the host of the least prominent network late night talk show, non-Carson Daly edition, with a bang.
Ferguson didn’t just avoid doing remote bits almost entirely—for years he stopped doing sketches. When he did them, he had a contempt for the fourth wall that would make Bertold Brecht blush. Corden’s already done three comedy sketches, one of which was a game show, which reeks of Fallon influence. This entire show seems like Corden’s take on what Fallon has been doing. That makes sense. Both guys aren’t really standups. They are actors with ebullient personalities. Corden is endlessly amused by what’s happening. He’s having fun, and the hope is the fun will be infectious.
For a guy who isn’t a standup, his monologues have been pretty solid so far, although his first night was just some sincere chit chat about how excited he is for this opportunity. His sketch featuring a bunch of big names, pretending to tell the tale of how he got the job, was self-deprecating and very well-done. It was an auspicious start to his run.
That’s not to say Corden’s show has been perfect. He really seems intent on being a cheeky guy in interviews and in some of the bits the show has done. At times, he’s basically a more self-aware and tactful David Brent. The show has taken the step of having both the interview guests come out at the same time to talk to Corden as he wheels his chair out from behind his desk to have a more “intimate” conversation. However, unlike Ferguson, who would have actual conversations with his guests, Corden is just doing bits and setting up his guests. Which is fine, and there has been some funny stuff during the interview segments, even if they are also clearly rough patches that need to be smoothed out. Plus, Ferguson never got guys like Tom Hanks or Will Ferrell to be guests, and his interview style and personality may have been a part of that. He was never going to do a seven minute retrospective of Hanks entire career where they do a million costume changes, you know?
The guests seem to be having fun, and so far they have been fairly loose. On the other hand, they were able to stack the deck to a degree for their first few episodes. It’s not going to be Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart every night, you know? Also, the fact the guests have to go through an audience of high five seeking folks to get to the couch feels awkward at times. It’s reminiscent of the episode of The Larry Sanders Show where the executives try and talk Larry into high fiving his audience before the show, and he finds it to be so horrifically beneath him and such a cheap ploy. Then he does it, of course, because it’s a sitcom, but now the plot is beginning to be lost.
The point is, this is part of the whole “We’re having a fun party!” vibe The Late, Late Show has now. There’s a bar on the set. There’s a backstage photo booth for the celebrity guests. There’s a band now, led by Reggie Watts, who is awesome but has had limited stuff to do so far. Aside from leading the band, of course, and they are already making their mark as a late night band in terms of quality. Corden is already a solid host, and he’ll likely get better at it. There is something a bit disheartening about how much every late night show seems to be going in the same direction now. They were already a bunch of white dudes, and now they are a bunch of peppy, happy white dudes, or at least they will be when David Letterman joins his brother in cantankerousness Ferguson on the sidelines, replaced with the warm spirit of Stephen Colbert.
That being said, if you love games and goofy bits and celebrities gamely performing soap opera scenes where they indiscriminately break vases, James Corden is the guy for you. He had a good first week, and people who like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and want a show with a similar vibe will probably be happy if they flip channels to catch The Late Late Show. The sincere “Let’s put on a show vibe!” is so in right now, but when you can be funny while you do it, quibbling is not necessary.
Chris Morgan is an Internet gadabout who writes on a variety of topics and in a variety of mediums. If he had to select one thing to promote, however, it would be his ’90s blog/podcast, Existential Parachute Pants. (You can also follow him on Twitter.)