In a lushly appointed suite at West Hollywood's London Hotel, James Corden and Conan O'Brien have finished a photo shoot, both clad in blue suits, as the lanky O'Brien towers over everyone in the room and Corden wonders why there are so many coffee-table books strewn about. O'Brien, currently hosting "Conan" on TBS, began his career as a talk show host on NBC in 1993. Corden, the new host of CBS' "The Late Late Show," has just 40 shows under his belt compared with O'Brien's roughly 2,500. The Envelope sat down with the two hosts to talk about comedy and being the face people see late at night, and seeing the gig from two very different perspectives: the veteran and the newcomer.
FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this article misspelled Jack Paar's name as Parr.
When a different set of guests comes through every day, is it a pleasure or another day at the office?
O'Brien: You always have to be on guard for "I'm falling asleep at the wheel: I have to stop the car, step outside, hit myself with a rock, wake up and get back in and try to reinvent it for myself." I think there are 11 variables any given night: There's the audience, the comedy … and you never know what you're going to get. Some nights, you pull and all 11 come out in your favor, and it's intoxicating. And that happens rarely, but when it happens, like an addict, you're back to try and get it again.
Corden: We're so in our infancy, but the other night we had Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Elizabeth Banks. And because we bring our guests out together, it was just a conversation with three people who I have nothing but the utmost respect for … you have to from time to time say, "God, what a privilege; what an absolute privilege to sit and talk to these people."
Like the living ex-presidents or Super Bowl MVP's, you two are in one of the smallest clubs of all time, late-night network talk show hosts.
Corden: Jimmy Kimmel sent me a very, very nice card on the first night of the new show, which said, "Welcome to the very large United States of America and the very small fraternity of late-night talk show hosts," and I did realize, "Yeah, there aren't that many people who've done this."
Is late-night one of those things where nostalgia for the past can often cloud the realities of it?
Corden: There's a very interesting letter to the newspaper someone showed me, and it was seven years after Johnny Carson had taken over "The Tonight Show," and the letter read, "When is Jack Paar coming back to 'The Tonight Show'? He used to do proper interviews, and all Johnny Carson does is skits and bits."
O'Brien: We are coming into people's rooms late at night, and we are improvising a lot, and people see who we are. Lorne Michaels had a great saying: "When you're on television every night, eventually, what's in you comes out." It's probably one of the most intimate kinds of TV, so when there's a change, people can feel violated. If you look at Carson replacing Paar or me replacing Letterman, it always feels wrong for a while. So when James stops doing his show 30 years from now …
Corden: [Laughing] I don't know about that!
O'Brien: It's not your choice. You're locked in. I don't know if you read the contract. … People are going to say about the new guy, Quiz Dibley, from Australia, "Who the hell do you think you are? Why aren't you doing it the way James Corden did it?"
Is the fact that there's always a next show the best possible cure for writer's block?
O'Brien: I've always said the worst thing about these shows is you do it every day. And the best thing about these shows is you do it every day. You can turn that yin-yang symbol to infinity and always come back to that equation. You have no control: You just do it every day, passionately, and you go through the highs and the lows. And over time, you've built a mosaic. You didn't set out to make a pattern, you just went in every day and tried. Go in with the feeling you have nothing to lose. I actually have made a lot of bad decisions, financially, so I have a lot to lose. But people like to watch someone have fun.
Corden: That's what it is. That's all it is: Fun, and effort.