This isn’t how it was supposed to be. It’s a warm Spring day in Los Angeles, and James Corden is touring me around the rooftop space at CBS Television City that The Late Late Show calls home. In a half hour, the show’s writing staff will file into Corden’s office for their daily meeting, but right now, Corden is content to stop and smell the roses, pointing out the little details in the design of his show’s set that make him smile. The 3D model houses on the LA skyline behind his desk. The stack of beaten up records. The mini billboard they use for posters of guests’ latest projects.
We climb the steps behind the audience bleachers and he shows me the photo-booth wall, which is spilling out to take up every inch of available space. “Why don’t you have a picture?” he asks. Even as he waits for it to print, he doesn’t seem at all distracted. He finds a spot for me on the wall, right under Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Ashton Kutcher’s profile shot will stare at me forevermore, as Kristen Stewart, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston live nearby. “I think you’re the first non-celebrity guest we’ve had up here.”
We meander to a neighboring soundstage, where a Western saloon set is being built, in exacting detail. “It’s a sketch we’re doing in a couple of days with Ryan Reynolds and Josh Brolin,” Corden says. “It was inconceivable three years ago that two actors like that would be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll come down for two hours and shoot a sketch.’”
This isn’t how it was supposed to be. I flash back to meeting Corden at Deadline’s Contenders event in April. “I want to come on one of those dark-night-of-the-soul, Apocalypse Now days,” I joked. “When it’s all going wrong.”
“Some days are busier than others,” he told me, nonchalantly.
There’s a show tonight, and another two before the week is out. The workload on a late night show seems like it must be impossibly intense. I imagine production assistants tearing their hair out. Writers mainlining coffee. Perhaps some kind of direct line to the emergency services. Maybe there are days like that. But it seems unlikely right now.
I wonder if things will get busier once the day properly starts. Perhaps this is the calm before the storm that will be whipped up when the daily meeting lets out and everyone has their marching orders. But nothing much changes as I spend the rest of the day with the Late Late Show team. Corden isn’t really a ‘marching orders’ kind of host. It slowly starts to dawn on me that this kind of calm isn’t incidental. It’s essential. The Hearts of Darkness version of this show does not make it to air.
“At a certain point you start to realize, there’s no recognizable end point,” Corden says. “There’s always another show tomorrow.”
So for Corden and his team, figuring out a language becomes important. It took a while to find, he says, but when segments like ‘Carpool Karaoke’ and ‘Crosswalk the Musical’ started becoming viral hits, he knew the show was going in the right direction. It’s no accident that on the awards wall in the greenroom, YouTube’s Golden Play Button award takes pride of place. That kind of success is essential for late night comedy in 2018, and The Late Late Show was amongst the first to recognize its importance.
“You can’t stand still on a show like this,” Corden insists. “You’ve always got to be thinking, ‘What can we do next? What’s the next idea? Where can we take it?’”
On tonight’s show, he’ll air a pre-recorded segment in which he leads the ensemble cast of Avengers: Infinity War on a ‘Star Star Tour’ of Los Angeles, snapping photos of a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf like tourists stopping off at Brad Pitt’s house. Corden, leading the tour, tells them: “That is where, when you shout out of a room, ‘Can someone get me a coffee?’ someone will run down to a shop very similar to this and they will physically go in and wait in line and bring you back the coffee.’”
They shot the segment on a previous weekend, after endless negotiations and preparations, EP Rob Crabbe tells me, which involved, for a start, sourcing a tour bus and covering it with sketch-specific branding. At today’s meeting, it doesn’t even come up. Instead, the meeting centers around continued refinements to a half dozen sketches that will be shot in the coming days and weeks. There’s a bit with Benedict Cumberbatch, who came up as an actor in Britain around the time Corden was breaking through in The History Boys at the National Theatre. The gag is that they spent their early careers trying to sabotage one another. “Benedict was always a little bit jealous of me,” Corden deadpans.
Then there’s a fake gameshow, ‘Animals Riding Other Animals’, “Which is so stupid,” Corden laughs. Corden steers into the audience to ask people to guess, from segments of pictures, which unseen animal is riding the animal in the picture. In case that needed explanation. It’s inconceivable that anyone will guess the answers, but when he shoots this particular segment a few days after my visit, a primary school teacher Corden taps at random blindly nails it. Corden insists he wasn’t a plant. “That’s never happened before! We were actually going to do three but we had to stop after two. We maybe should never do it again,” he laughs.
At 3 o’clock, after a break for lunch, the team gathers in the studio for a rehearsal. Already, people are lining up down Beverly Blvd. for a spot in the audience. “Before the show launched, we had budgeted that, at points, we’d have to pay an audience to show up,” Corden says. “But we’ve never had to dip into those funds. It’s only when guests come in and go, ‘This is the youngest audience I’ve ever seen at a late night show,’ that I realize how engaged our audience is.”
The rehearsal is over in a flash. Corden delivers a version of his monologue, repurposed right at the end to pay tribute to one of the writing staff who is moving on. The Avengers segment is still in the edit, so it doesn’t get played. And Claire Foy and Method Man, tonight’s guests, have yet to arrive. There’d be little sense in rehearsing their interviews anyway.
As show time approaches, the greenroom fills up. A stand-up comic, Michael Palascak, has landed five minutes on the show tonight, and he’s a bundle of energy as Foy and Method Man arrive with their entourages. Eventually, I find a seat in the audience bleachers as people arrive. Even before the show starts, the energy is palpable.
“We always tried to make our show a 360-degree experience,” Corden says. “On a lot of shows like this, the audience is a kind of black hole, but we wanted to be in amongst the people. That’s why our guests enter through the audience, and it’s why we have seats in front of the cameras. We’re all in this together.”
They’re with him as soon as his monologue starts. Donald Trump has given an interview to Fox & Friends this morning. Corden points out how many times Trump manages to use the word ‘business’ when talking about Michael Cohen, and the embarrassment with which he admits he didn’t get Melania a present for her birthday.
Corden was nervous about being a Brit, coming to America to talk about its politics. “The country has gone through a seismic change, so you do think, ‘What do we do in this? What’s our show’s voice?’” he admits. “People are looking for voices that they trust, because they don’t trust news, and they don’t trust Twitter, and they don’t trust Facebook. I don’t think we could ever be naïve enough to think that we have earned the right to be a voice in that conversation, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have one.”
The audience loves his observations. So much so that it’s hard to hear him over their cheering, which is fully encouraged by a floor manager who offers up t-shirts for the most vocal members of the crowd. “There are times where you can feel like the job might be an office job in a way,” Corden says. “But then every day you go down in front of that audience and think, this is what this is. It’s about being here, doing this, trying to make people laugh and smile.”
This is how it is supposed to be.