"I'm sorry — this is my wife," said James Corden, stepping out of a conversation to pick up his phone. "Hey, babe. I'm in another interview."
It was the day before the first test show of CBS' "The Late Late Show With James Corden," the successor to "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," which shows its face to the wider world Monday night, or, to be precise, at 12:30 Tuesday morning. The walls of Corden's new office at CBS' Television City studios were still bare. A small refrigerator held many bottles of cold-brew coffee.
"We're going to try a couple of bits we like, chat with some people," he said of the next day's initial test run. "I'm trying not to think about it till tomorrow, really — I don't see how it can be good preparation if I'm preparing for it a lot today, because that's not what my job's going to be."
Though he says, "I could count the people who even know my face in the thousands," Corden, 36, is not the least-known property to be given a late-night chair. (That might be Conan O'Brien, who had barely appeared in front of a camera when NBC gave him "Late Night" in 1993.) He created and costarred in two British television comedies available to American audiences: the regular-folks romance "Gavin & Stacey," which aired here on BBC America, and the regular-guys spy farce "The Wrong Mans," whose second season went up on Hulu in January. He has guest-starred on "Doctor Who" and plays the Baker in Rob Marshall's film of "Into the Woods," still in theaters even as his TV show is about to bow.
There is an appealing softness to Corden, not just physically — "the tubby kid" David Letterman called him on an interim "Late Late Show" episode guest-hosted by Regis Philbin — but in his voice and manner; even at his maddest, there is something indelibly sweet about him. In this age of instantly tweetable snark, warmth and kindness seem to be the operative terms at the new "Late Late Show."
Although he is a stranger to most American viewers, America is not entirely strange to him; he has lived here twice before while doing plays in New York, winning a Tony Award for his manic turn in 2012 for Richard Bean's "One Man, Two Guvnors." After performances, full of adrenaline, he would bicycle home and "just sit and watch the late-night talk shows" until he could sleep.
Now he is about to have one of his own. Corden had been in talks with CBS about a possible comedy when Letterman and then Ferguson announced their departures and the talk, and then the offer, turned to late night. His longtime producer, director and friend Ben Winston was brought on to executive produce alongside Rob Crabbe, from Jimmy Fallon's "Late Night" and "The Tonight Show."
That Corden is another white male host in the small, slowly changing world of network late-night — and a Briton replacing a Briton — has been duly noted and criticized. NBC's Seth Meyers will be his direct competition; not counting Internet-circulating clips, they will share something around 3 million viewers. But his aura is his own.
The son of Salvation Army Christian parents, he grew up without trauma 30 miles northeast of London; he recovered from a brief interlude of self-described "brattish" behavior after the huge success of "Gavin & Stacey" (and a couple of roundly battered flops in its wake). Now he's a family man, with a 3-year-old son and an infant daughter, for whom his new gig represents a chance for regularly scheduled stability.
"I can see what our life could be," he said, "and it looks great. And all that stands between my vision and it being a reality is this show and whether it's deemed worthy."
For bandleader, Corden wanted and got musician-comedian-performance artist Reggie Watts, whose work he knew from Internet clips and who has also been Scott Aukerman's sidekick on IFC's "Comedy Bang! Bang!" since 2012. "I thought, that's weird," Watts remembered, "because I'm on a show where I play a fake bandleader. But he said that he liked what he saw and he loved the randomness, and he wanted that as part of the show."
"It gives us essentially an amazing guest every night," Winston said of Watts' presence, adding, "I see a lot of similarities with James in his warmth and kindness."
Among other talk-show hosts, daytime's Ellen DeGeneres is the one he mentions as a model: "I don't think anybody has changed television in the way that she has — just the nature of that show, the warmth of that show, her personal life and the acceptance of the audience."
Peter Lassally, who was not only Ferguson's executive producer but Letterman's and Johnny Carson's, has become friendly with Corden and expects good things. "I find him most likable. He's a charming man and has a joyousness about him. He just strikes me as someone I would want to watch every night."
"I'm talking with pretty much no authority," Corden said, "but I feel the spectrum of late night might have changed because the world's changed. It's a very, very different place to what it was 15 or 20 years ago [when] spikiness and edginess were very, very funny. And still are — but I don't know that it's what people want. I feel like there's more bad news now, and maybe our job is to say, 'That exists, but it's still OK. You're here. I'm here.'"
Corden wants the show to be "alive and vibrating and feel organic," to be "warm and fun." He wants to "reach an audience of people who maybe have become apathetic toward television," to "make a show that people go, 'Oh, man, I just don't know what it'll be tonight' — good and bad, because we're going to miss as much as we hit, or maybe more. But that to me will be the greatest thing that anyone could say about it.
"That's why Reggie was such an important thing for my vision of the show — there is no greater performer to help harness that than someone who every time he steps onstage you don't even quite know what he's going to say, and the greatest thing is most of the time nor does he."
Said Winston, "James is a singer, he's a brilliant actor, for a big man he can dance a bit too, and I feel like we will be able to play on a lot of those talents as well as the core of great conversation. James is interested and interesting — he won't just be trying to catch a cue over his shoulder or look down for the next question. Wherever the conversation leads is where he's going to go."
'I love performing'
Finishing his latest interview, Corden led the way out of his office, across a rooftop patio, through dressing rooms in the process of being remodeled ("We just want to make it pleasant — people have to want to come back"), and down to a soundstage where his set was in the last stages of assembly.
On a raised platform to the right were the host's desk and a long couch suitable for multiple guests. To the right of that was a bar, with bar stools ("I don't know what we're going to use that for," Corden said, "but it'll give us a nice flavor, I think"). To the left stood a stage for the band and between the stage and the desk a performance space and entryway, curtained at the rear with lights. Besides the usual audience bleachers were several rows of seats bolted to the studio floor to bring the crowd in close.
"I love acting, and I love narrative writing," Corden said of the things he might be giving up for a while. "But in equal measure I love performing. And I really enjoy a day that has a point. It's why I like doing plays so much — that feeling when you're traveling in to the theater along with everybody connected to that play — whether it be ushers, lighting technician, costume dresser, stagehand, actor — you come and you do this thing and then it's gone and then you do it again the next day.
"You can't think about next week or next month or next year, because then you'll become unstuck and this will unravel. The secret not just to work but to being a good person is just to focus on being the best you can right now. If you're trying your best every moment, then you'll only be a success."