The ‘talk show king’ returns to the UK and urges commissioners to back young talent and know their audience
Many British entertainers have crossed the pond in search of fame and fortune in the uniquely competitive US TV market, but few have been as successful as James Corden and returned to the UK looking so at ease with themselves.
In conversation with Boyd Hilton, Entertainment Director, Heat, he told the RTS in the Convention’s final session, his first interview since coming home to England after eight years hosting The Late Late Show for CBS: “The other day, we were back at the very place we left when we went to America and my wife, Jools, said: ‘It’s so weird that we’re back.’ I said: ‘I don’t know that it’s weird that we’re back, it feels weird that we ever went.’”
He continued: “It feels such a strange thing to have done for eight years. It feels like you were picked up in a plane and… I’d never done anything like it before… I’d never interviewed anyone before… I was convinced the show would be pulled after six months.”
Self-deprecating and seemingly unaffected by becoming the toast of LA, Corden’s amiable and approachable persona was much in evidence as he gave an insider’s account of what it was like to be part of the Hollywood star-schmoozing machinery and shared his views on how creativity should be nurtured in TV.
As for his own remarkable comedic chops, these were on show as he recalled what it felt like to take to the skies in a fighter jet piloted by no lesser figure than Tom Cruise, all memorably filmed for The Late Late Show.
‘I don’t know that it is weird that we’re back, but it feels weird that we ever went’
“A few days before [the flight], I had a genuine worry. I ended up going, like: ‘He’s an actor, he’s not a pilot.’ [laughter] Like, respectfully, it’s just the two of us in an aeroplane. If something happens, then we die.”
“And worse than my own death is my children growing up and people going: ‘Their dad killed Tom Cruise.’” Corden said that he tried to back out of the stunt but the star called him and said: “James, your life is more valuable than mine. You are never in danger… I would never do this if I was not flying every day. I am completely match fit. You don’t have to worry.”
Corden said: “My God, what a thing to have done. If I look back on the show –which I don’t know even now if I can, because it was only at the end of April – it is an overwhelming feeling of ‘I genuinely don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such memories.’ It was very difficult to leave, but I felt compelled to come home.”
A staple of CBS’s schedule since 1995, The Late Late Show was reinvented by Corden and his executive producer, Ben Winston, for the age of social media. Yet talk shows are nothing unless they give their audiences a steady supply of stars. Hilton wanted to know how the actor, who, 23 years ago was nominated for an RTS Newcomer award for his role in Kay Mellor’s ITV drama Fat Friends, had persuaded so many A-listers to join him at Television City.
Corden said a lot of it was about making his guests feel appreciated and “creating a safe environment that was celebratory”. Details such as renovating the dressing rooms to make them comfortable for the star and their entourage – including make-up artists and publicists – made a “huge difference if you’re asking guests for more time, which, inevitably, we always were”.
‘It is important that shows are commissioned by people who love them’
Corden said he experienced some stage fright at the thought of inheriting The Late Late Show mantle: “It was pretty terrifying, especially at the start. My daughter, Carey, was 12 weeks old. It was all very overwhelming. We couldn’t book any guests on the show. Publicists were saying: ‘We’ll wait and see what the show is like.’”
He continued: “No one knows us here [but] I think I’ve learned enough, either from being in plays or writing Gavin & Stacey or the 30 or so episodes of A League of Their Own that I’ve hosted.... Hang on, we can really build something interesting here.” The objective was to make a series that could embrace the internet. “Yes, the show’s on at 12:30am,” he explained, “but there’s an audience here that are still watching content, they’re just not consuming it in a linear-broadcast fashion.
“Maybe we make a show that launches at 12:37 on CBS but is available to watch all day and all night wherever you are. [During] your commute into work, your lunch break, whenever. It’s about creating your hour (which, after ad breaks, comes down to about 42-43 minutes) – how do we slice this up to be consumed in the day?
“We quickly realised that if you call a segment something – Carpool Karaoke or Drop the Mic – it will travel much quicker [on social media].”
Part of that strategy involved building a digital team for the five-nights-a-week show and considering which night to air certain shows, because, Corden said, fewer people watched on a Friday than the middle of the week.
Would he do something again in the talk show space? “Maybe. I don’t even see it as my choice… I’d be open to anything. I just enjoy trying things and going to work… I’m not in an overwhelming rush… I would hate not to be there right now for our family…”
Britain remains gripped by a seemingly endless economic crisis and train and doctors’ strikes, but Corden was thrilled to return to what he considers to still be a green and pleasant land. “I wish you could see this island from a distance,” said the co-writer and star of Gavin & Stacey, one of the most successful TV comedies of the past 20 years.
'Ruth and I would love to make something together again'
“It’s unbelievable, it’s amazing, the architecture, the people and the creativity and the things that we make. The size of the country versus its output is extraordinary.
“I just felt compelled to come home to try and see if there might be one more thing that I could do, safe in the knowledge that there might not be.”
Corden emphasised: “I’m very purposefully trying to not do anything for a minute,” adding that he was “thinking a lot about half-hour comedies”.
The secret to a successful half-hour comedy was a “found family in predominantly three locations”.
“I think The Bear (the highly rated FX series) is closer to Taxi than any of us could imagine,” he opined. “And arguably, The Bear is at its weakest when they leave those three locations. When you think about Friends or The Office or Porridge or Open All Hours or Dad’s Army, these people are found family in predominantly three locations. Gavin and Stacey’s two families become one family and their friends become a family.”
What’s going on his brain at the moment, probed Hilton? “Boxes… and new schools… [The Late Late Show] was a lot of TV… 1,100 episodes is arguably 800 too many.”
He implied that he was not interested in being involved in shows that were sequels or prequels. Reading from his mobile, and to audience applause, Corden quoted Walt Disney telling his shareholders in 1966: “We will always look for new ideas and new stories.”
“If I was running a network or a channel, I’d bet on youth every day of the week,” he said. “If you bet on youth and it doesn’t work… there’s honour in that. If you bet on youth and it works, you look like a genius. Deep down, we all know no one is.”
Pointing to the The Office producer, Ash Atalla, sitting in the front row, Corden said: “I think about Ricky [Gervais] and Stephen [Merchant] writing, directing, and producing The Office. An extraordinary thing to give to two guys who’d done a radio show on XFM.
“Ruth [Jones] and I writing Gavin & Stacey…The BBC’s absolute wave of support behind us. We didn’t really get notes. The BBC used to go: ‘It’s your show. You know it better than we do. These are some suggestions.’
‘1,100 shows in eight years is arguably 800 too many’
“In this period now, where notes start to become almost instructions, that’s really dangerous for creative people. If you back someone to make a show you should back them absolutely and unequivocally, safe in the knowledge that it might not work, and you might lose your job.”
Was he inspired by The Bear? “I believe that FX, which is run by John Landgraf, is the most extraordinary network. I think the average employee time span at FX is something like eight years.
“The biggest lesson you can take from FX is that they fundamentally know who their audience are. They’re not seeking a newer and broader one…
“John once said to me: ‘The thing I say most in my office is, “This is fantastic, it’s not for us.”’ I don’t know if you see that, particularly across a lot of the streamers, where sometimes it feels like a race for a press release without a thought of: ‘Well, actually when this is finished, is this right for our audience?’
“The more you can know exactly who your audience are, you’re going to stand a much better chance of having hit shows.
“ITV is a great example of that. ITV absolutely knows who its audience are. They understand who they are, the advertisers know who they are. That’s why they have great success with I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! – 20 years on TV!”
It is important that shows are commissioned by people who love them and not because they are only relying on data. “HBO commissioned The Sopranos because someone loved it… By today’s metrics, the volume of shows that would have been pulled after six episodes… extraordinary shows that never had the time, never had the backing of true creatives. I’d ask commissioners: ‘Do you like it?’”
Gavin & Stacey had started out as a largely unhyped show on BBC Three and ended up pulling in millions on BBC One. The critically acclaimed 2019 Christmas special achieved an average audience of 11.6 million.
Please resolve that cliff-hanger, urged Hilton; the show ended quite brilliantly as Nessa [Ruth Jones] is seen proposing to Corden’s character, Smithy, getting down on one knee. “I genuinely don’t know if we’ll ever do another one,” replied the star. “I think Ruth and I would love to make something together again. I don’t know if that will be Gavin & Stacey. We feel so proud of that last special. Maybe there’s something truly perfect about it ending there. Can we truly fulfil people’s ambitions for it? I don’t know.”
In Session Sixteen, James Corden OBE, writer, host and producer, was in conversation with Boyd Hilton, Entertainment Director, Heat. The producer was Phil Harris. Report by Steve Clarke.