LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Corden is the perfect host.
He offers a visitor to his modest office at CBS Television City a pillow for an uncomfortable chair. He raids a mini-fridge for drinks, suggesting bottled coffee (“Only three calories!”). He’s attentive and appealing in conversation.
That’s for an audience of one. Now Corden must demonstrate that he’s got what it takes to please viewers when he takes over CBS’ “The Late Late Show,” Craig Ferguson’s former home, on Monday just after 12:30 a.m. EDT.
He’s proved himself elsewhere. Corden sang, danced and tumbled his way to a 2012 Tony Award for the exuberant farce “One Man, Two Guvnors”; co-starred in the movie adaptation of “Into the Woods”; and scored TV hits in his native England including “Gavin & Stacey” and “The Wrong Mans.”
But a U.S. talk show is an unlikely next step for a shortish, chubby-cheeked Brit who has the look of an amiable game-show host rather than a polished late-night TV ringmaster in the mold of the two Jimmy’s (NBC’s Fallon, ABC’s Kimmel) or Stephen Colbert, David Letterman’s replacement this fall on CBS’ “Late Show.”
Despite Corden’s estimable reputation on Broadway and in Britain, he’s largely unknown to viewers on this side of the pond.
“No matter how shocked you or anyone else might be that I’m doing the show, I’m as shocked if not more,” he said. “I never thought that this would be something that would come my way.”
It was Corden’s New York stage performance that prompted CBS Entertainment Chairman Nina Tassler to consider him as a possible successor to Ferguson, who exited in December.
“You knew that you were in the presence of someone a little crazy and someone incredibly talented,” Tassler told reporters earlier this year. “He’s a combination of Jack Black and Fred Astaire. He’s pretty magic.”
Performing was his childhood dream and a family tradition, Corden said. His great-grandfather was a musician and so was his grandfather, who toured with Shirley Bassey and other prominent singers. Corden’s father, now a Christian book salesman, was a musician in Britain’s Royal Air Force.
“There was never a minute where I ever, ever wanted to do anything else,” Corden said.
For “Late Show,” he brought in a trusted friend and colleague from back home, producer-director Ben Winston, to serve as executive producer along with Rob Crabbe, who worked with Fallon on his late-night shows. The inventive Reggie Watts, known for his music and comedy, was handpicked by Corden as bandleader.
The show they’re building aims to feature Corden’s talents and provide a comfortable spotlight for his guests, the producers said — a message they’ve delivered to celebrity publicists who may be wary that Corden shares countryman Ricky Gervais’ mercilessly sharp tongue.
“His comedy is never nasty and cynical. It’s always generous and warm,” Winston said.
As for specifics, Corden and his producers said the show is and will be a work in progress, even as it airs. They are eager to import an element that’s part of some British talk shows: bringing all the guests out together, rather than one by one as is common here.
The intended result is spontaneity, Corden said, “seeing people interact in a way that is a bit more interesting.”
The show’s location is a reflection of the talk-show traffic jam in New York — including the transplanted “Tonight Show” — which has made guest bookings more competitive. In Los Angeles, “Late Late Show” has Kimmel and Conan O’Brien as its chief rivals in the talent hunt.
“We could be like third banana here, while in New York we’d be like ninth banana,” Crabbe said.
Tom Hanks, an undisputed A-lister, and Mila Kunis are the opening-night guests, followed by Kerry Washington and Chris Pine on Tuesday and Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell on Wednesday. Modest Mouse and Leon Bridges are the announced musical performers.
The show is starting out with an abbreviated launch, making way on Thursday and Friday for CBS Sports’ coverage of NCAA basketball.
That’s OK with Corden and his crew, who figure they’ve got a settling-in period ahead of them and several chances to introduce the show to potential viewers. The first is the debut, the second is during the hoopla over Letterman’s retirement and the third when Colbert starts.
Among the challenges is the void that exists between Letterman’s departure and Colbert’s entrance, which will be filled by reruns of CBS dramas. There’s also NBC’s ratings advantage, with No. 1 “Tonight” providing a strong lead-in to Corden’s direct competitor, “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
All he can do is work hard, Corden said, who moved from London to Los Angeles with his wife and their two young children. He makes no bones about feeling the pressure on behalf of them and his colleagues who uprooted their families as well.
But, in classic British style, he mined a self-deprecating laugh with worst-case imagined news headlines.
“Corden deported, work visa denied. Corden kills 20-year-old TV franchise,” he said.
Even he couldn’t resist a chuckle.
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