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Why aren't more people talking about James Corden's farewell to 'The Late Late Show'?

James Corden behind the desk at <em>The Late Late Show.</em>
Terence Patrick
/
CBS
James Corden behind the desk at The Late Late Show.

As James Corden winds down his eight-year tenure as host of The Late Late Show with a primetime special and final episode tonight (Thursday), the question arises:

Why aren't more people talking about this?

Certainly, it's a big deal on CBS, which is currently marking the occasion with a 20+ hour live countdown of special moments from the show on TikTok; bits in CBS primetime tonight featuring Corden announcing the start of shows like Young Sheldon and Ghosts; a 10:00 p.m. primetime special built around his popular Carpool Karaoke segment/series and a final episode of the show at 12:37 a.m. featuring Harry Styles and Will Ferrell as his last guests.

And yet, for critics like me, this feels less like a momentous departure and more like a footnote. Unlike David Letterman or Conan O'Brien, Corden leaves late night as an entertainer who may not be that beloved by fans of late night TV and who didn't really change the game much – despite creating some of the most popular segments-turned-TV shows in recent TV history.

"It's been a crazy eight years," Corden tells Adele in his final Carpool Karaoke, which was released Monday and has already racked up more than 11 million views. "In one sense, it feels like it's gone like that [snaps fingers]. In another sense, I feel like I don't really remember what life [was like before.]"

"I know that if I crash [the car], you'll keep it in the f-----g edit," Adele cracked, steering through Los Angeles traffic while they sang her hit Rolling in the Deep.

Still, fans might argue CBS has given him a farewell befitting a star who, ultimately, seemed to grow too big for late night TV — adept at stage work, film acting and TV producing, in addition to his work as a host. He's got a Tony award, several Emmys and a string of Internet-breaking Carpool Karaoke episodes singing along the likes of Adele, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey and Lizzo.

Roots as a TV producer and stage actor

Ambivalence about Corden may be connected to his early beginnings in British TV. He emerged as a star thanks to the 2007 show he co-created and co-starred in called Gavin & Stacey. It became a massive hit (U.S. executives often saw it as a British version of Friends, attempting twice to make versions for American TV), launching his career as a performer, producer and host — or, as they say on the other side of the pond, a presenter.

In 2012, he won a Tony award for the stage play, One Man, Two Guvnors, and co-starred in Disney's film adaptation of the musical Into the Woods. Still, when he was tapped in 2015 to host CBS' The Late Late Show, many Americans likely didn't know who this energetic, glad-handing British guy actually was.

In fact, he used a joke in his first monologue that he also repeated to me at a press conference before the show debuted: "Believe me, however shocked you are that I am doing this job, you will never be as shocked as I am."

James Corden puts up his own billboard in Los Angeles before debuting on <em>The Late Late Show</em> in 2015.
Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images
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Getty Images
James Corden puts up his own billboard in Los Angeles before debuting on The Late Late Show in 2015.

He wasn't a stand-up comic or performer like so many other late night hosts, so his forte wasn't improvising jokes with guests or launching into seat-of-the-pants live performances. Instead, Corden's roots in TV production seemed to inspire segments that were more complicated, planned and edited – which could lack spontaneity and were a marked contrast from the genre-breaking impulses of his predecessor, Scottish comic Craig Ferguson.

From the earliest episodes, his Late Late Show featured elements we'd seen on chat shows for decades: a live band overseen by a free spirited bandleader who dresses outrageously (in this case, ex-Comedy Bang! Bang! musician Reggie Watts), guests introduced as they exit their dressing rooms, celebrity guests hanging out on the couch together to trade banter, and more.

Corden was, however, adept at creating bits which would catch fire online, including Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts (celebrities either answer a controversial question or eat something horrible); Drop the Mic (Corden trading insults with celebrity guests in a scripted rap battle made to look less so); Riff-Off (celebrity guests do vocal battle with Corden) and, of course, Carpool Karaoke.

"The thing I was most worried about was, how do we get guests on the show?" Corden told Adele, recalling how Mariah Carey agreed to do an early Carpool Karaoke, only to insist, when they showed up to film, that she wasn't going to sing. "We couldn't book anyone."

Lizzo joins James Corden for Carpool Karaoke in 2022.
Terence Patrick / CBS
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CBS
Lizzo joins James Corden for Carpool Karaoke in 2022.

But eventually, Carpool Karaoke – based on a bit Corden did for British TV with George Michael — become a phenomenon, sparking two different series on Spike TV and Apple Music. Corden's 2016 Carpool Karaoke with Adele has racked up 261 million views since its debut.

Leaving with less notice?

Still, with all those achievements, Corden never seemed to join the roster of late night TV titans who truly changed the game. Even Trevor Noah, whose surprise departure from The Daily Show sparked weeks of coverage across the pop culture landscape, seems to have drawn more notice — though they both started in their respective jobs the same year.

One aspect of Corden's show that may have counted against him: He's not particularly political. So, as more outspoken hosts like Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers drew attention for broadsides against Trumpism and Trump himself, Corden often seemed on the sidelines.

Of course, rumors about Corden acting in a crass manner off-screen don't help, culminating in a mini scandal of sorts last year, when the owner of a swanky New York restaurant, Balthazar, briefly banned the host amid allegations of "abusive" and "extremely nasty" behavior. Corden wound up delivering a lengthy apology on The Late Late Show to try and straighten it out.

And there's the controversy over Corden using jokes written by other comedians – also leading him to apologize for telling a joke about Twitter during one of his monologues which was exactly the same as a joke Ricky Gervais told during one of his stand-up specials.

As a critic, I've never loved Corden's habit of fawning over celebrity guests. All late night hosts have to do such things on some level, but his style of celebrity worship can feel especially grating – a kissing up which communicates he and celebrity are in a special club which excludes the rest of us. Not a great look for a TV personality trying to build ratings.

And talented as Corden is, I always felt CBS missed a serious opportunity by not hiring a woman or person of color (or both) to take over The Late Late Show in 2015. Unfortunately, the folks running CBS back then weren't as responsive to the idea of bringing a fresh kind of host to TV, so they brought in a third white guy named James to lead a program that didn't challenge the norms of the late night genre so much as celebrate them.

It is telling that CBS reportedly isn't even considering replacing Corden with another host, instead deciding to reboot an old Comedy Central game show called @midnight to air after Stephen Colbert's Late Show.

In the end, Corden may have decided that the grind of late night TV and living in America wasn't worth it, anymore. (He said during an interview with Howard Stern — who cited reports Corden turned down $50 million to stay on The Late Late Show — that he wanted to raise his young children in Britain.)

Like his debut in the space, I expect Corden's late night TV farewell to be professional, entertaining and not quite as impactful as you might expect.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.