Unlike his fellow late-night hosts who have spun topical humor into ratings jumps during the Trump administration, James Corden and his “Late Late Show” isn’t known for political material.
Celebrated instead for his show’s star-courting musical segments and spinoffs (“Carpool Karaoke” and “Drop the Mic”), Corden is a genial and reliably inoffensive choice for the Grammys, which turned to Corden last year to take over for LL Cool J, directing traffic between awards and performances.
Last year, for the first awards show in the Trump era, Corden stuck to his usual script with self-deprecating one-liners and energetic musical segments. This year, he received what counts as a comedy seal of approval in 2018 — an angry tweet from a political figure.
As of press time, President Trump hadn’t weighed in on Corden’s most successful bit — a play on the Grammys’ spoken-word category with celebrities, including Hillary Clinton, reading select passages from Michael Wolff’s inside-the-White House bestseller “Fire and Fury.” But Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley did respond moments after the bit, writing, “Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.”
Though everyone, especially in the social media era, is a critic, the pre-recorded segment was Corden’s most inspired moment. He called upon music luminaries such as John Legend, Cher and Snoop Dogg to read passages from the book. “I can’t believe this,” rap nominee Cardi B said after reading a few lines. “This is how he lives his life?”
But the surprise cameo from Clinton earned a big response at Madison Square Garden, leading Corden to acknowledge it as maybe “the biggest cheer of the night.” It may have played a role a short time later when Corden raised his voice to introduce “the 44th president” before correcting himself just as the crowd began to cheer and instead brought out on Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, James,” Portnow replied before his annual Grammy night remarks.
Oddly, bits more in tune with Corden’s usual wheelhouse fared far worse. An onstage attempt to riff with Jay-Z about showing him around New York didn’t get much laughter. A presentation of consolation-prize puppies to the comedy album nominees after Dave Chappelle’s Grammy win felt too hasty to build any momentum. And the less said about Corden’s pre-taped enlistment of Sting and Shaggy for an overlong “Subway Car Karaoke” segment that relied on tired New Yorker cliches the better.
Even so, Corden found more hits this time around than last year. Hosting the Grammys often has just meant staying out of the way between the awards and live performances, and the few places where those meet. Though the results there aren’t always agreed upon, it’s a hopeful sign for the show’s humor that the host isn’t determined to please everybody either.