Television's late-night landscape has become something of a crowded “anything goes” arena, with the likes of National Geographic and Netflix throwing their hats into the ring, and many shifts currently in progress. That’s why CBS is hoping its curious choice of little-known James Corden succeeding Craig Ferguson as host of The Late Late Show—a tenure that begins March 23—will work in the network’s favor.
“I think he’s going to be a pretty exciting new dynamic,” CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves said at an industry conference this month. “There’s an example of us taking a chance.”
“We are sort of starting from scratch,” said executive producer Rob Crabbe, who believes that will give the new team more freedom. Corden is a relative unknown in the U.S.—for those that haven’t seen him as The Baker in Into the Woods—and he boasts a skill set starkly different from other hosts in the daypart.
Corden has solid cred as a performer. Aside from his role in Into the Woods, he won a best actor Tony Award in 2012 for his role in the comic play One Man, Two Guvnors. “He’s not a stand-up comedian,” Crabbe said. “He’s not a set-up, punch line joke teller.”
Late Late Show’s showrunner Ben Winston, a longtime friend and collaborator of Corden’s, says after they got the show, they wanted to bring aboard a veteran with an American late-night background. “I’ve done talk shows within the U.K.,” said Winston. “They are a very different beast.” Winston’s fellow executive producer Crabbe comes over after working on a variety of NBC late-night shows including Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and Late Night, as well as Last Call With Carson Daly.
“I come at it from ‘why does it need to be done like that?’” continued Winston. “Rob comes at it from [having] tried and tasted success in doing it.”
During a well-received stop at TCA winter press tour, Corden said: “The truth is, there is no blueprint for our show. We could prep for this show for a year. It’s only in the doing of it that will tell us what it is.”
Throwing Out the Rule Book
Taking a flexible approach makes sense given the shifting sands of late night. Popular broadcast entries Fallon, and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, continue to evolve from traditional jokes to more Web-worthy moments. But the coming exit of Jon Stewart later this year from The Daily Show, along with Stephen Colbert’s move from Comedy Central to David Letterman’s replacement on CBS, will be a test of the format’s (and Comedy Central’s) place as a trusted, if arch, news source.
Corden’s crew plans to carve its own niche. His predecessor Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show was known as a major detour from the late-night competition and Crabbe and Winston suggest Corden will veer further off course.
“James’ show will feel slightly more unpredictable,” said Winston. “He will have more strings to his bow as a performer.” The two promise that Corden will take different approaches with the audience and guests. “I don’t think James is ever going to be the guy that is going to do really wicked political comedy,” Winston added. “I don’t think that’s his thing.”
Instead, unpredictability will be. During one of the test shows, Winston said Corden noticed something up in the audience, left his spot on stage and went into the crowd. “It’s the stuff that you can’t necessarily prepare for.”
Late Late Show also debuts in unique fashion for CBS, which will roll out Colbert’s version of Late Show this fall. Colbert’s debut will serve as a second launch of sorts for Corden. And Crabbe expects the five months from when they premiere and Colbert takes Letterman’s seat will allow them to take some chances.
“Obviously we want to attract the broadest audience we can, but we can try to do different things,” he said. “We’re going to eat it some nights and get to come back and try it again the next night.”
One way that Corden can experience early success is to be very active on digital and social platforms, which is paramount in today’s fragmented, time-shifted world. Much of Fallon’s success since taking over The Tonight Show has been attributed to him being a major player in that space.
“Digital is as important to James as broadcast is,” said Crabbe. In the weeks leading up to the show’s premiere, Corden has been very active on Twitter, sharing behind-the-scenes pictures and debuting the show’s logo on his account. Crabbe notes that Corden’s bandleader Reggie Watts is also a presence on social media. And every little bit helps, whatever the hour.
“We’d be fools if we didn’t realize a lot of our audience finds our show at 12:30 p.m. [the next day],” said Crabbe.
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