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James Corden and the new niceness of late night

James Corden's debut on 'The Late, Late Show' was an endearing, energetic, star-studded hour of television

When I’m worried about something and I can’t sleep, I count those nice guys instead of sheep, and I fall aaaasssleeeepp counting those niiiiiiice guys.

James Corden made his debut as the new host of CBS' “The Late, Late Show” on Monday night and it was an undeniably endearing, energetic and star-studded hour of television. Tom Hanks sang and danced his way through a retrospective of his film career (four words: “Joe Versus the Volcano”). A pre-taped segment featured the likes of Eddie Redmayne, Chris Rock, Lena Dunham, and Joel McHale longing for the gig as well as Jay Leno putting Corden through TV host boot camp.

Meryl Streep showed up just long enough to probably win an Emmy and there was even a moment of what passes for breaking news in certain circles: Under Corden’s relentless coaxing, Mila Kunis revealed she and Ashton Kutcher have indeed married! Or maybe she didn’t! But it was adorable!

Because Corden’s adorable. Honestly, he is. At 36, the British actor is a genuine award-winning star of stage (Tony award for “One Man, Two Guvnors,”), screen (the Oscar-nominated “Into the Woods”) and television (BAFTA for the BBC’s “Gavin and Stacy”). Yet he could not have seemed more guy-next door accessible if he arrived with a tray of homemade cake pops.

Corden has a kindly face, a lively manner and the laugh of a child. During the first few minutes of Monday's “The Late, Late Show,” he politely introduced himself as a married man with a son who turned 4 just the day before and a 16-week old daughter. Then he introduced us to his parents, who were just as adorable as he, and choked up a bit as he thanked them for “everything.”

And when the show was over, Corden sang a little song about wanting to be a comfort in those times “when the only light in the lonely night is the glow from your TV.”

Just a lovely, lovely guy.

Which raises the question: What the heck is going on with late-night television? When did everyone get so darn nice? First Jimmy Fallon, all earnest admiration, game-nights and guitar, took over “The Tonight Show," managing to make Jay Leno look stern by comparison. Now here’s this delightfully amiable Englishman taking over for the highly irreverent and often irregular Craig Ferguson.

As if hoping for a little Ricky Gervaisian edginess, Corden did establish the first late-night on-set bar (proudly sponsored by Bud Lite, which cannot be going down well with the British audience) but it was strictly for show, at least on Monday; the only drinking was done from the logoed coffee mugs.

Not that we want Corden lurching about or slurring his way in and out of occasional croons a la Dean Martin (well, maybe we do, because Deano was the bomb, but that’s just not going to happen.)

Still, there’s something a bit alarming in this slide into solicitous congeniality and child-like wonder in the after-hours, a blurring of night with day. Even Corden’s set seemed more afternoon than post-midnight. Having waved away the safety of a desk, Corden situated himself to the left of his guests, in this case Kunis and Hanks, who come out together to congregate on a chat-friendly couch. Comparisons can, and have, been made to fellow Brit Graham Norton, but there’s also a suspiciously Oprah-like feel as well, an equality that invites a pillow-talk intimacy that is not the traditional late-night way.

Traditionally, there’s more of an edge to after-hours talk shows, be it Leno’s monologue or David Letterman’s prickly persona. Johnny Carson, who remains the industry standard, has been described in many ways though “nice” rarely make the top 10 adjectives. He was always gracious but there was a mystique to his performance, a distance that could border on aloofness. When he genuinely broke down it was an event, because "The Tonight Show" was very much his; the guests were guests, not cohabitants.

Now, the trend seems to be away from the observe and comment ownership of the stand-up comedian towards a host who is both multitalented — Fallon, Corden and Jimmy Kimmel are accomplished musicians — and more accessible.

Still a star in his own right, yes, but also an Everyman (literally; since the departure of Chelsea Handler from E!, late-night belongs exclusively to men) who can join in the skits yet still exude rapturous enthusiasm for the accomplishments of his guests.

A star who is happy to seem star struck, night after night.

One assumes that Stephen Colbert, who takes over for Letterman in September, is planning to brace a bit more than soothe. Though without his consciously asinine conservative persona it might be difficult — by all accounts Colbert too is a genuinely lovely guy.

Honestly, where will it end?

This alarming rise of nice is not Corden’s doing, of course, though it may be why he’s here. Indeed, many minutes of his first show were devoted to what seemed to be perfectly sincere astonishment at his getting “The Late, Late Show” gig. First he did literally that — express astonishment — and then, in another pre-taped segment, he offered a sweetly funny explanation clearly designed to answer any critics of his qualifications (and stare down Fallon's equally star-studded opener).

Apparently Corden got the job the old-fashioned way. According to the skit, CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves put a golden ticket in a Wonka Bar. Cue scenes of Simon Cowell, Joe Hale, George Lopez, Katie Couric, Billy Crystal, Redmayne, Rock and Dunham tearing through chocolate bars until Corden picks up one dropped by — who else? — Handler and finds himself the winner.

At CBS, Leno and others, including Allison Janney, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Shia Labeouf put him through talk show boot camp (a "Whiplash" reference was the night's funniest moment, while a waterboarding scene did test the limits of nice).

Where at first he fails, he eventually succeeds, and arrives at his opening night as confident as the little blue engine: He can do this job.

If the angst seems a bit disingenuous from a man who has already won a Tony and a BAFTA and held his own onscreen with Streep, well, it’s almost impossible not to wish him well and hope he’s right.

Because he just seems so nice.

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