Eager To Please: Let’s Talk About James Corden
Confession time: I find watching The Late Late Show with James Corden utterly exhausting. I struggle to make it through more than a minute or so of any given clip, even less so when James Corden himself is dominant as host, interviewer or all-round clown. I have a similar problem watching anything Jimmy Fallon is attached to, but my issues there are more rooted in my general distaste for Fallon and his hosting style, from which Corden borrows heavily. Generally, I rather like Corden, but when he’s in talk show host mode, performing primarily for an American audience, something shifts and I just can’t bear it. As the other Brit in late night, the terminally delightful theatre kid who wouldn’t know cynicism if it tap danced in front of him, Corden is endlessly excited about everything but never cloyingly so in the manner of the oddly insincere Fallon. He’s a better interviewer than Fallon but he’s also highly eager to please, like a golden retriever or chorus line member. He’s always on.
That’s not a bad thing, and I entirely understand his appeal for those who have found immense joy in his show and Carpool Karaoke segments. Unlike Fallon, he knows how to be sincere about serious events without seeming like he’s reading cue cards at knifepoint, and he’s easily more talented than Fallon. Indeed, he may be one of the most (not so) quietly impressive men in his field. He’s crafted a fascinating persona for himself on the other side of the pond.
It’s just not the James Corden we have over here.
In the UK, Corden has been a recognisable face for over 15 years. He’s a BAFTA winning actor, writer and presenter who rose to prominence by appearing in one of the most acclaimed plays of the 21st century before performing double duty on one of the decade’s best comedies. Then everyone got sick of him and he started from scratch, all while maintaining the image of being just one of the blokes, a guy who can crack gags about football and drinking then pratfall through the pub without spilling a drop of his pint. Elements of that are retained in his fresh faced American facade, but cleaned up and without the rough edges of the working class.
James Corden in America is a good boy: James Corden in the UK is a lad.
In the early days of his career, Corden was primarily defined as the nice fat guy. Fatness is often coded as jolly and harmless, particularly in a comedic context, but it’s also primarily positioned as something worthy of mockery. Everyone laughs at the fat guy; the fatness is the joke. Corden mostly avoided that in the early days. He was a main character in the sitcom Fat Friends, about a group of slimming club attendees and their daily struggles. Corden played Jamie, a high schooler bullied for his weight who found solace in a group mostly comprised of women. Today, we’re still struggling to see stories of overweight people that aren’t solely dictated by topics of weight loss or eating (hi there, This Is Us), so watching Fat Friends now is a mixed experience. Kay Mellor’s writing is warm and approachable, and Corden is very good in his role, but it still can’t help but indulge a little in ‘ha ha fat’ moments.
While starring on Fat Friends, Corden worked steadily, including a role in Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing, but it wouldn’t be until the show’s end that Corden made two huge steps forward in his career. First came The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s drama about a group of teenagers thrown into an unconventional struggle of education as part of their fight to get into Oxbridge. The play was wildly popular and a critical smash, receiving multiple extensions to its initially limited run at the National Theatre before winning both the Laurence Olivier Award and Tony for Best Play. Timms, Corden’s character, is described as being ‘a joker, overweight’, which is about the sum of it. Nevertheless, Corden was warmly received along with his award-winning ensemble, and it took his career to the next level. Following the film adaptation, Corden paired up with his former Fat Friends co-star Ruth Jones and created Gavin and Stacey. The rom-com is the story of the eponymous couple, played by Mathew Horne and Joanna Page, whose whirlwind romance blossoms into a meeting of their very odd families and friends. Gavin is an Essex boy, along with his best friend, played by Corden, and Stacey is from Barry in Wales, as is her closest pal Nessa (Ruth Jones). The simple set-up, imbued with a highly specific England Versus Wales culture clash, became the biggest breakout show on BBC 3, acclaimed for its appealing warmth and earnestly goofy look at families coming together.
Corden essentially plays himself, or at least he plays ‘James Corden’, the life and soul of the party who you could find in any pub across England whenever a football match is being screened. Smithy is every guy you’ve encountered in a greasy spoon cafe, reading the Daily Mirror and munching on a bacon roll before launching into a tirade about everything the English football team are doing wrong and how he could fix their troubles. It’s no wonder that, following the series’ end, Smithy became the break-out character, appearing in sketches for Sport Relief, including one where he is shown to be the coach behind British sporting legends like David Beckham and Tom Daley. Corden’s physicality was used frequently as Smithy - a contrast from the buffer types he surrounded himself with, but always in on the joke, inviting you to laugh with him, not at him.
He’s a working class guy with all the jovial gruffness that trope implies, but Smithy’s also an unabashedly emotional type. At Gavin and Stacey’s wedding, he can barely hold himself together, and even when he’s utterly unable to express his true feelings for Nessa, with whom he has a child later in the series, it’s obvious that he’s smitten with her. So much of this brand of blokeish comedy is ruled over by the assumption that men who talk about their feelings are ‘pussies’, but Corden’s got too many emotions in need of release to let that happen. He may always be on but it’s a refreshing contrast from the never-ending closed doors of modern on-screen masculinity.
Following Gavin and Stacey, Corden paired up with Horne for a sketch comedy show, Horne and Corden, and a movie, Lesbian Vampire Killers. For a couple of years, it felt like Corden was impossible to escape from, and it didn’t help that this increased stream of new output wasn’t very good. Horne and Corden was an ill-fit for both stars, and everything about Lesbian Vampire Killers was a misjudged mess that only avoids offensiveness by merit of being too incompetent and unfunny to even reach that level. Some projects were better suited to Corden, like the sports themed comedy panel show A League of Their Own, which saw him in full Smithy banter mode as the host, but British audiences had no time to miss Corden, and the act was getting exhausting. Corden was loud, forever chipper, the centre of attention, and it was too much. He was too much.
Fortunately, for whatever faults he may have, self-awareness is a quality Corden has always been in ample possession of, and he knew to shift gears with his career. He went back to his roots and took on a stage role practically tailor-made for him. Adapted from the Italian comedy, Servant of Two Masters, One Man, Two Guvnors is an old-school farce about an unemployed musician who finds employment with two men, one a gangster and the other a posh jackass, and tries to stop the pair from meeting. It’s party Fawlty Towers, part seaside revue, the kind of comedy that dominated TV in the era of Morecambe and Wise or the Two Ronnies. There’s slapstick, music, stupid puns and a lot of yelling. Reunited with the director of The History Boys, Nichols Hynter, Corden got the reviews of his career and was redeemed in the eyes of the ever harsh British public. The play was also a massive hit that transferred to Broadway, where Corden won the hearts of New Yorkers and won the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. His competition that year included James Earl Jones, Frank Langella, John Lithgow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Willy Loman. Four major award-winning Hollywood players, one of them the best actor of his generation, and they were beaten to the punch by the star of Lesbian Vampire Killers.
It was after seeing Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors that CBS President Les Moonves became enraptured by Corden and set up a meeting with him to talk about taking over from Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show. Under the tenure of the Scottish comedian, the show was a delightfully anarchic hour of TV, one where CBS didn’t seem that concerned with making it mainstream. Now, with him stepping down, the network could craft that show into a real money maker. To help him make the transition, Corden brought on board his friend and producer partner Ben Winston. The pair by this point were seasoned TV professionals, but it’s a whole new world in American TV, more so with the near deified late night circuit. In America, unless you were a British comedy geek or Broadway baby, Corden was a nobody to you. That combination gave him an edge over the competition - all of the experience, none of the baggage.
The Late Late Show is a better display for Corden’s all-round appeal than any of his British ventures. Here, talk show culture is a different beast from American fare: We don’t have nightly shows, mostly because every attempt to do so falls flat, and the competition is less intense. Since Alan Carr’s show was cancelled, the race is a two horse game between Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross. The focus is all on the talk. No frills, no games (for the most part), just pure personality, which both Norton and Ross have in droves. Norton in particular has this inimitable gift of instantly relaxing guests in his presence, a process made easier by having everyone sit on the same couch at once instead of being rolled out one after the other. The biggest stars on the planet go onto The Graham Norton Show (alcohol optional) and suddenly feel comfortable with telling the kind of stories that once upon a time would have resulted in a slap from their publicists. It’s practiced, of course. The spontaneity of talk show banter has always been a carefully prepared shtick, but Norton and Ross make it seem so natural, and their respective shows at their best are akin to a gossipy night in with several bottles of pinot grigio. The viral moments of their shows don’t tend to be party games or sing-alongs: They’re scandalous stories or swear-fuelled chaos or scenes of laughter so strong that it can never ring false.
Corden, to his credit, seemed to know that such a foundation wouldn’t work on American soil, but he still borrowed from the best: The Norton set-up of everyone on the couch together is there, as is Carr’s open bar. Fallon feels like the most obvious inspiration for Corden, but it’s run as a much tighter ship. The games are more cleanly organised, the format free of rough edges. Guests on the show can rest assured that Corden will make them look good. Where hosts of the past like David Letterman gloried in an awkward interview, placing a lampshade on the ludicrous nature of the entire process, Corden (and Fallon) guarantee a safe space of choreographed fun. What star with a project to plug and an image to uphold wouldn’t want to be involved with this jovial routine that’s guaranteed to go viral? The act is a bit more kiss-ass in US from Corden than it is in the UK. Watch him happily rib his co-workers and guests on A League of Their Own in a way he’d never dare with The Late Late Show. There, he seems to truly love hanging out with other celebs, more like an excitable fan than someone of their level, so of course he won’t probe too deep with the questions. James Corden would never dare to ask anything awkward, but he’s also savvy enough to know that hair ruffling would take it too far.
That’s a key area where Corden beats Fallon easily. Where Fallon’s brief forays into politics veer between awkward and embarrassing, the sincerity fits Corden better, and his responses to events of major trauma, such as the terrorist attacks on London and Manchester, reflect that warmth he’s spent years garnering. His commentary on American events carry a different weight. As an immigrant, albeit a rich white male one, there’s a more noticeable force to his words: An outsider looking in, but one who doesn’t stand out too much. Fun is his forte, but he’s happy to combine that with an agenda, like his toe-tapping musical response to Donald Trump’s decision to ban trans people from the military. These issues aren’t the driving force of his work, but Corden’s self-aware enough to know there’s no such thing as an apolitical comedian.
Corden has always played a type. Mostly he’s always played himself, or a more rehearsed variation of that. Even with a Tony on his shelf, he’s seldom considered an actor, and he’s very aware of that. In an interview with British GQ, he was candid about the role class played in his career:
“I’ve come to the conclusion that it is about class. Look at my career… I mean, that’s quite a lot of good stuff! Douglas Booth has got a great career, he’s a brilliant actor, but he’s never going to encounter the sort of shit like I’ve had. Nor will Tom Hiddleston. Nor Eddie Redmayne. Nor Benedict Cumberbatch. I fear acting is becoming an elitist sport and I worry about where that lands us culturally. I really do.”
Maybe that’s why James Corden can’t be a lad in America. Perhaps that’s why he’s gone all Hollywood. Nowadays, there’s no room for that kind of Englishman, much less one who’s ‘fat’ (Corden has lost around 70lb by his own admission). He can be chubby and jolly but he won’t do Shakespeare. He can do The Emoji Movie and Into The Woods but he’s not the model of Anglophilia the entertainment industry craves. He has to please everyone because, unless he writes it himself or Mike Leigh calls again, the doors won’t open for those opportunities of prestige. That’s probably why I just can’t gel with the Full Hollywood version of Corden: Polished, practiced, mile-a-minute, everything to everyone. Whatever the case, I’m sure he’s just happy that people like him again. Better that than the alternative.
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