Analysis | Farewell to James Corden, the late-night host who riled up the internet

Journalist Bill Carter literally wrote the book on late-night TV (technically, multiple books), so maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising when he got a call from James Corden around late 2014, when the British comedian had just been named the host of CBS’s “The Late Late Show.”

Corden said something along the lines of, “I know nothing about American late-night TV, and the only thing I know about it is what I’ve read in your books, so I’m desperate to talk,” recalled Carter, a former New York Times reporter who chronicled the “wars” between late-night shows through the years.

It wasn’t unheard of to give a late-night talk show to someone who is unfamiliar to audiences and has no late-night talk show experience, but Carter said that Corden seemed especially nervous. (He was recruited by former CBS chairman Les Moonves, who was impressed when he saw Corden in his Tony Award-winning role in the Broadway play “One Man, Two Guvnors.”) Carter said he told Corden the most critical thing for a new show was to bring something to the table that no one had ever seen before: “No one knows what will work, but that’s just the way it always is.”

For eight years, through many publicly documented ups and downs, Corden made it work — and on Thursday night, signed off for good during an emotional final episode, featuring farewell messages from high-profile fans such as President Biden. As Corden thanked his crew and choked up as he said his goodbyes, he added that it was “unfathomable” that CBS took a chance on him in the first place, and that he hoped that his show served as “just a little bit of light and levity” for viewers.

James Corden, in final ‘Late Late Show,’ urges Americans to overcome divisions

Whether you found Corden (and his constant song-and-dance routine — the man cannot sit still) unbelievably charming or incredibly irritating was a Rorschach test that consistently challenged our culture since he debuted on “The Late Late Show” in March 2015. But there’s no denying that Corden and his producers nailed an essential ingredient to being a late-night host: Know how to go viral on the internet. Corden had an innate understanding that the public would be incredibly excited to see celebrities in ridiculous situations. Most critically, he grasped internet virality at a time when the success of late-night shows was determined by whether they were popular on social media.

British talk show host James Corden asked his audience to resist polarization on April 28 during his final episode as host of “The Late Late Show.” (Video: CBS)

“It became essential that late-night hosts had bits that would play online,” Carter said. Around that time, Jimmy Fallon had games; Jimmy Kimmel had Mean Tweets; Conan O’Brien had remote travel segments; Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah would eventually have spicy political takes.

Corden, for his part, introduced himself to viewers with various superstars mildly debasing themselves, whether it was Tom Hanks running through all his famous acting roles (a recurring bit known as “Role Call”; the final one this week featured Natalie Portman) or Mariah Carey singing her biggest hits in the passenger seat of Corden’s car (the online juggernaut known as “Carpool Karaoke” that will define Corden’s legacy; the final one this week featured Adele).

From 2016: Is there anything worse than taking a karaoke ride with James Corden?

“A lot of people discover the show through YouTube,” said Nick Bernstein, CBS’s senior vice president of late-night programming, West Coast, and who was frequently featured on-air. He said that Corden being unfamiliar with late-night was a benefit, as being “a stranger in a strange land” generally works for comedy, and his producers weren’t afraid to try weird things.

CBS realized early on that the show had a large international footprint, Bernstein said, partially because when the show’s videos went online around 2 a.m. Eastern, it was the beginning of the day for other countries, where people were starting their days by scrolling the internet and want to click on celebrity shenanigans. So by the time most Americans wake up, a video of, say, Corden and David Beckham modeling in their underwear might have already gone viral and continues to pick up steam.

“When you can see famous people in all sorts of environments, whether it’s their own Instagram feeds or any number of shows, I think the distinction is, ‘Well, what are they going to do when they come here? Are they going to tell the same stories, or are they going to jump out of a plane?’” Bernstein said, referencing the real example of Corden going skydiving with Tom Cruise, who joined Corden one last time this week where they crashed a production of “The Lion King” to sing together. “So I think that’s how the fan base grew and grew.”

Corden’s relationship with the internet, however, has been a blessing and a curse. While he may have flourished on YouTube — his channel has 28 million subscribers, not far behind Fallon and far outpacing other competitors — it’s a different story on Twitter, where he is routinely mocked for his self-centric theater-kid energy as he always finds an excuse to sing and interjects himself in celebrity interactions. Or engages in “Drop the Mic” rap battles with stars such as Ashton Kutcher and Diddy. Or dances and thrusts in traffic for his “Crosswalk” segment starring Camila Cabello and the stars of “Cinderella.” (And don’t get anyone started on his role in “Cats.”)

There were also online whispers for years about Corden’s rude behavior behind the scenes, which stood in stark contrast to his upbeat TV persona. Things reached a tipping point last fall when Balthazar restaurant owner Keith McNally posted on Instagram that Corden was banned after he was “the most abusive customer” in the bistro’s history. Corden offered a long explanation on his show, saying he regretted making a “sarcastic, rude comment” to a waiter. This resulted in days of social media chatter as well as others — Spice Girl Mel B, a makeup artist — chiming in with claims that they had also witnessed him be not so nice.

“I think in general, I would say the vast majority of people who work on the show have worked here from the first year on,” Bernstein said, when asked about the negativity about Corden spiking in recent months. “We are all still here because of how much we care about him and each other and the show; how he treats us, how close and familial this place is. … And so it hurts any time someone says anything other than that. And it just doesn’t ring true.”

Similar to Ellen DeGeneres, who was also the subject of persistent rumors about an unpleasant reputation as she exited her talk show, A-listers don’t really seem to care. Corden’s guests on Thursday were Harry Styles, who showed off the “Late Late” tattoo he once had inked on the show, and Will Ferrell, who thanked Corden for all his original comedy and insisted on one more game of “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” where you have to share a secret or eat something gross. (Ferrell revealed his favorite late-night host is Meyers, but eagerly sampled a dish called “bug trifle” anyway.)

The rest of the late-night hosts (Colbert, Kimmel, Meyers and Fallon, plus cameos from Letterman and Noah) were good sports and gathered for a pretaped segment where they reminded Corden that he’s part of their exclusive club forever, and he can’t go breaking their sacred pact by spilling details like how they fake-laugh at unfunny jokes from celebrity guests. They made fun of him for constantly singing and dancing, and then divided his assets among themselves, though it turned out they all only wanted “Carpool Karaoke.” (“I do have other bits!” Corden protested, but the other hosts were doubtful.)

Later, in the waning moments of the episode, Corden told the audience they were going to be “absolutely shocked” at how they were going to end the show. And of course, to the shock of absolutely no one, he sat down at the piano, and bid farewell for good with one last song.

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