He's Still Here
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Matt Damon is running toward the rooftop railing of an L.A. building, and people are afraid he’s gonna die. James Corden is not one of them. ✦ Damon is reprising Jason Bourne, walking fast and looking over the right shoulder of his scuffed brown leather jacket. He then runs into a plump Brit who’s dressed exactly the same. Damon smiles. It’s Corden, the host of CBS’ The Late Late Show, and the proud son of Hazlemere, Buckinghamshire, in England’s unfashionable Home Counties. It’s an hour before the taping of Corden’s show, and he and Damon are filming an action scene of sorts. The premise is that Corden accosts Damon outside a Cinnabon and regales him with tales of how many times he gets mistaken for Damon. (Corden probably has 80 pounds on him.) Damon promises to put him in the next Bourne flick to shut him up. The twist is, Damon casts him as his stunt double.
Damon has only two hours to film the three-scene skit before he has to fly to New York. Unfortunately, some mishigas is slowing things down. There is a last shot to get on the CBS helipad where Damon and then Corden pretend they’re jumping off the roof into a dumpster, with Damon convincing Corden that adding air bags will make the stunt seem fake. (Corden misses the dumpster and dislocates his penis.) A problem arises when the CBS suits want to pause the taping because they think Damon should wear a safety harness as he approaches the roof’s edge. The clock is ticking. Corden loses it for a moment.
“He’s not actually going over the side,” says Corden, his voice rising and his cheeks going red. “Jesus, it’s not in the script. He was never going over. This is fucking mad.”
Sheila Rogers, Corden’s booking director and a longtime Late Show With David Letterman veteran, throws her arm around Corden’s shoulder and walks him a few steps into a tent, where the host regains his equilibrium. Minutes later, he wanders over to me and chuckles in a mordant British way.
“How bad would I feel if Matt actually did go over the wall?” he asks. “How’d I talk my way out of it?” He turns to a crewmember who’s cracking up. Corden looks at her with comic seriousness. “I’d blame you–and you know what? People would buy it. Don’t think I wouldn’t.”
Set pieces like this are what keeps food on the table for Corden’s show, which trails Late Night With Seth Meyers and Nightline in real-time viewers. But this is a different epoch. His “Carpool Karaoke,” in which Corden and a celebrity drive around in an SUV belting out the star’s hits, has featured everyone from Adele to Michelle Obama to Stevie Wonder. If you add all of them together, it’s nearing a billion views on YouTube.
“Karaoke” is the sexy one, but everything is monetized at The Late Late Show. There’s a million ways to get a million hits on YouTube, and it seems like the show has tried each one. There’s Corden reading the news written only in emojis. There’s Corden dressed like a schoolgirl for a takeoff on Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” Some are regular stunts, like the one where Corden takes a random job for a day. A recent bit had him spending a few hours at a local LensCrafters, with somewhat hilarious results. The trick was, LensCrafters paid for the spot. (The company’s promoted tweet heralding the piece haunted my dreams and Twitter feed for a week.) “You know it’s fun, it’s funny, but it’s not going to break the Internet,” says Corden about the spot.
But more important, The Late Late Show, once solely the provenance of insomniacs, college students and speed freaks, is now available to normal people. “We make the show at 12:37 at night,” Corden tells me. “We’re only in competition with people choosing to fall asleep or not. But on the Internet, it’s a completely level playing field.”
Corden has taken advantage of the concept more than his late-night rivals, with 165 segments that have earned more than a million YouTube hits. Still, there is a late-night pecking order: The Damon bit wouldn’t air until the following Monday, after Damon had stopped in to see Jimmy Fallon at The Tonight Show.
“I don’t care about that stuff,” says Corden as he sits in an air-conditioned tent. He is being touched up with a black eye after one of his stunt mishaps. Corden pauses to tell the makeup artist to make the bruise more pronounced. “This is a comedy black eye,” he instructs. “Make it big.” He turns back toward me. “It has nothing to do with timing or who’s first. If it’s funny, people will watch it.”
Damon and Corden finally get the rooftop shot without anyone dying. As everyone hustles back to the studio for a quick shower and a change into suits, Damon lets Corden in on a little secret: The last time he cried was when Corden did “Carpool Karaoke” with Stevie Wonder, and Wonder called Corden’s wife and sang “I Just Called to Say James Loves You.”
We jump into a golf cart and gun it around the CBS lot, where a long line of people wait to get in.
“Not good,” says Corden. “They’re going to start letting people in and I’m covered in shit.” I suggest that they might be contestants for The Price Is Right, filmed on the same lot. Corden snorts and tells me to look again. He’s right; the crowd is too nubile and fresh-cheeked for Drew Carey.
This being a talk show, Damon repeats the crying anecdote about an hour later with the cameras running. Corden gets teary. “The thing is, I didn’t tell my wife, and she was in the restroom,” he says. She almost didn’t take the call.
The studio audience goes bananas. A few minutes later, Damon shoots off the couch to cheers and makes his way out a backdoor. But Corden still has work to do. There is a skit with bandleader Reggie Watts costarring an alpaca and a dog dressed like a lion. The sketch soundly proves the show business adage “Never work with kids or animals.”
Corden then does a few do-overs on his monologue (he kept calling Cory Booker “Cory Brooker”) but is soon running through the crowd high-fiving fans in a far more upbeat mood than at a show I saw a few days earlier. Corden had bemoaned, “That came off as too much of a talk show,” a harsh criticism in the Corden realm. Now he slaps hands until he runs into me with expectant eyes.
The Matt Damon skit is now approaching 2 million YouTube views.
In a sea of high-achievers, James Corden is the most accomplished and versatile man–and they are all still men–in the daily network late-night sweep stakes. He has won a Tony Award. He just hosted the Tonys. He has co-written a beloved British sitcom. He has starred in critically acclaimed indie films. He put Broadway and an HBO pilot on hold to host The Late Late Show, which in its first full year garnered four Emmy nominations, which is four more than The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Corden’s supposed big brother. Just as crucial to the CBS bean-counters, he’s turned The Late Late Show into a profitable enterprise available to anyone ages eight to 80 who knows how to click on a link.
Not coincidentally, the day I first meet Corden, he can’t stop looking at his phone. It’s the day after his “Carpool Karaoke” segment with Obama aired. Every time he looks at the numbers of views, they have exponentially increased. “Look, 2 million. It was a million on my drive in this morning,” he says.
We are at a cafe near his CBS office, drinking tea and a deathly-greenish concoction that contains all of the vegetables that the carb-dodging Corden needs for the day. Waiting to pay, we run into a friend of mine who is worried about the wayward habits of a member of One Direction (friends of Corden’s who have collaborated with his executive producer, Ben Winston). “Don’t worry,” says Corden. “They’re good boys. He’ll be fine.”
He looks at the numbers again. Another few hundred thousand views in 45 minutes. It is hard not to contrast the utter joy of Mrs. Obama singing with Corden to the dystopian events happening concurrently at the Republican National Convention. Corden’s show isn’t overtly political, but like the rest of humanity, he’d been sucked in; first his homeland going Brexit (which he saw as a disaster), and now Trump Summer. “The positivity of the Obamas as a family is undeniable,” Corden says. He got a tour of the White House, during which he told one of his staff, “Can you imagine Donald Trump just walking these corridors? When something happens? Just a tornado.”
We walk the few short blocks back to the studio. Corden puts on sunglasses to accompany a short-sleeved Gucci shirt with a snake on the collar and checked sneakers. Across the street is a giant portrait of Corden on the side of a CBS building. He squints at it through the blinding morning sun. “A year ago,” he says, “that was already there and I’d still be stopped at the front gate if I forgot my ID.”
A few days later, we are driving in Corden’s Range Rover through delightful Los Angeles Friday traffic. He’s happy to call L.A. home, where he now lives with his wife and two kids, but there are some things he misses. “It’s the architecture,” Corden says. He points out a series of non-highlights in a strip mall on Beverly Boulevard. “Here they have the Hollywood sign, and they don’t even light it up at night. That’s insane. Is it the neighbors? It’s like not lighting up Big Ben.”
Corden’s show is only 17 months old, but he’s been trying to crack the Hollywood game for years.
“I would have meetings where people would tell me how much they would like to work with me and then nothing happened,” he says. “The first times I came to Los Angeles, I would just drive around dying from encouragement.”
It was a wake-up call for Corden, who won a 2012 Tony for One Man, Two Guvnors and had been one of the top stars in England for a decade.
“The thing is, most people here don’t know I’ve put in my 10,000 hours,” he tells me, citing the Malcolm Gladwell idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at any task. The irony is, back in England Corden was battling overexposure with hit shows, constant tabloid coverage and a memoir published when he was 33. He’d grown up an hour outside London, the only son of a Royal Air Force musician father and a social-worker mother, sandwiched between two sisters. A big part of his life was the Salvation Army church that the Cordens belonged to, not always happily.
“It was a fucking disgrace,” he says. “What is a Christian? There were a lot of people walking through the door of that church and preaching something that in no way was how they were living their lives, or behaving, or acting.”
Corden remembers his first desire to perform came at age four, when he attended his sister Ruth’s christening and was placed on a chair so he could see and began mugging for the parishioners. He bathed in the laughter. A few years later, he ditched school and called in to a television program about bullying and made up a cock-and-bull story about how he was so fearful of being picked on that he stayed home from school. It fooled everyone–except an aunt who was listening and narc’ed on him to his parents. He was crap at school, specializing in drama and home economics. “It was just fucking pointless to me–I don’t need to know how glaciers separate,” Corden says.
He ignored his studies and instead filled the time trying to get a boy band off the ground–it didn’t happen–and temporarily losing his first driver’s license because he drove his scooter too fast. His more productive days were spent with his dad driving him to auditions around London, though none of them panned out. Finally, after years of rejections, he started scoring some parts based on the two factions of his heavyset body type.
One of his early breaks was playing a violent, depressed, overweight bully in beloved British director Mike Leigh’s bleak All or Nothing in 2002. He then played the opposing side in the BBC drama Fat Friends, as a teen mercilessly ridiculed and beaten up for being obese.
Throughout his career, Corden has made fun of his weight, whether having his then-comedy-partner Mathew Horne run his hands up and down his jiggling body in a skit for a BBC comedy or, more recently, in a Late Late Show bit where as a realtor for a day he unabashedly showers in a multimillion-dollar Hollywood mansion. His Broadway breakthrough was playing Timms in The History Boys, whose clownish character is partially motivated by being overweight.
At first, understandably, Corden spoke in clichés about the challenges of being a large man in the entertainment world, saying his parents loved him and he never felt uneasy with himself. But on our second day, he goes into more detail. We had bonded after admitting we’d both been guilty of snatching food off abandoned room-service trays following drunken forays. “Half a burger,” Corden admits with a big laugh. “That’s the first time in my life I realized people order food and don’t eat every bite.”
Some of the moments when Corden seems most unguarded revolve around diet and food. He insists I guzzle my vegetable juice at our coffee-shop meeting the way a frat brother might implore you to down some Jäger. When I say that I love fruit over vegetables, he laughs: “Of course you do, because fruit has all the sugar, mate.” At lunch, he mockingly shakes his head at me for getting rice with my sushi, whispering that sushi rice, alas, is also full of sugar.
We stop at a lunch spot for a chat and then he waves it off like the plague. “Shit, hang on. Is this us? I think it’s not, do you? There, I feel we’ll have to eat pizza.”
Later, he turns a little more introspective about being the jolly fat boy in the cruel teen years. “If you’re big at school, you’ve really got two choices,” he tells me, his voice dropping almost to a whisper. “You’re going to be a target. If you go to school and you’re me, you go, ‘Right, I’m just going to make myself a bigger target. My confidence, it will terrify them.’ That’s how I felt in school. Inside, you’re terrified. But if you’re a bit funny, if you’re quicker than them, they won’t circle back on you again.”
Still, Corden rolls his blue eyes when discussing the way Hollywood sees larger people.
“I could never understand when I watch romantic comedies,” he says, “the notion that for some reason unattractive or heavy people don’t fall in love. If they do, it’s in some odd, kooky, roundabout way–and it’s not. It’s exactly the same. I met my wife; she barely owned a television and worked for Save the Children. We sat down one night and we fell in love and that was it.”
But his dimensions accelerated his rocket to British fame. While appearing in The History Boys, Corden would tell stories backstage, and Alan Bennett, the play’s author and one of Britain’s most respected playwrights, told him he should write them down. “When Alan Bennett tells you to start writing, you listen,” says Corden. So Corden and Ruth Jones, another actor from Fat Friends, began writing the BBC comedy Gavin and Stacey, with Corden and Jones playing supporting roles as heavyset best mates. It was a comedy that celebrated the everyday pleasures of British life–hanging drunk with your mates at the chip shop, a wedding remarkable for its ordinariness, Corden’s character singing along to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” on the car radio. The show started on the little-watched BBC 3 and concluded three years later with 10 million viewers–the equivalent of 50 million here–for its finale, on New Year’s Day 2010.
Corden was hailed as the next great British comedian, but England’s penchant for cutting down the tall poppies caught up with him. For every success–a comedy sketch of Corden critiquing members of the English national soccer team while hilariously fawning over David Beckham–there was a crashing failure: One critic described the colorfully titled Lesbian Vampire Killers as “profoundly awful.”
Corden’s initial image as a nontraditional fresh face in the U.K. turned to criticisms that he was too “laddish,” a Brit term roughly analogous to becoming too much of a dude. He was photographed around London having the time of his life, which, in fairness, only seems like a crime to the British press. Corden was painted as ungrateful when Gavin and Stacey won two BAFTAs (British Emmys), and he mentioned in his speech the fairly logical point that the sitcom won for best show while not even being nominated for best comedy. While hosting an awards show, he was called out by Sir Patrick Stewart for “looking around as though you wish you were anywhere but here.”
Winston, one of The Late Late Show’s executive producers, has been Corden’s best friend for nearly two decades, since they met on a television show where Winston was working as a gofer. He insists that Corden wasn’t on a path to ruin; it was just an easy arc for the British press. “I didn’t think James was heading for a break down, or I’d step in like I’ve done with other people,” Winston tells me. “I think that just became a convenient shorthand for the media to talk about James.”
I ask Corden about the controversies. He’s blunt: He says some of the projects were simply not good enough, and he had some growing pains with fame. “I think I’ve very much had times where I haven’t been the best version of myself. You have to put the time in,” implying he didn’t always put the time in.
Despite his Tony and the talk show, Corden still seems a little insecure about his talents. When I mention I’m a big fan of British director Michael Winterbottom, who has employed Corden’s comic heroes Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon to great effect, he begins by profusely praising their work. Then he adds, “I don’t think I’m cool enough for a Michael Winterbottom film.”
Perhaps being pigeonholed as a British bro in his native land is what made the itch to succeed in America so strong, even if it seemed like a tantalizing bauble just out of reach. While doing a Broadway show, he was invited to a taping of Saturday Night Live and sat in show maestro Lorne Michaels’ office for 20 minutes chatting about comedy. Michaels then invited him to the show’s after party, where they talked some more.
“I left that night and thought, ‘I think he’s going to ask me to audition for Saturday Night Live,’” Corden says. “But I never heard from him again.”
Despite the setbacks, Corden had a good creative life going in 2014 when CBS first beckoned. He was in talks to do another Broadway show and was hard at work on an HBO pilot. (It might resurface, so he won’t mention what it was about.) He’d had critical success with another BBC sitcom, The Wrong Mans, and scored a major role in the film version of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. Always close to his family, he was married with a kid and another one on the way.
The first time the CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, contacted Corden, the actor was uncertain he wanted to be a late night gabfest host. “The fact that the first offer was really low helped,” says Corden. But a few months later, he was filming The Wrong Mans in South Africa while his family was thousands of miles away in England. “I just thought, ‘This is going to get harder and harder,’” says Corden. “I thought if I could do something creative and interesting on the show, it was an opportunity that wouldn’t come my way again.”
When Moonves came in with a better offer, Corden took it. “Outside of my being white and male, choosing me was a bold choice,” he says with a wry smile.
Corden and Winston knew from Day One the show had to be appreciably different from other late-night options to make up for Corden’s semianonymity. On the show’s first night, they debuted with Corden and Tom Hanks doing a seven-minute re-enactment of all the best lines from Hanks’ movies. It was a hit, but Corden knew they needed a signature recurring piece like Letterman’s Top Ten lists, Jimmy Kimmel’s celeb readings of angry tweets and Fallon’s slow-jamming the news.
Corden had the idea for “Carpool Karaoke” for years, since he did a charity fundraising bit where he cheered up a grumpy George Michael by singing “I’m Your Man,” with Michael smiling and then joining in. Early in the show’s run, Mariah Carey’s rep was at the Late Late Show office with another client, and Corden convinced her that Carey should do the first karaoke bit. It was an instant hit, with more than 26 million views. Everyone from Wonder to Justin Bieber followed, including Elton John, who appeared on the show immediately after the Super Bowl broadcast. All of the segments are marked by Corden’s enthusiastic hamminess. In the segment with Adele, Corden hit a high note on “Hello.” Adele’s eyebrows arched, then she brought it. The segments are simple productions–a camera is posted on the dash; there’s a tucked-away microphone and a single trail car. It’s up to Corden to put everyone at ease.
“You’re getting in a car,” says Corden, talking about how it goes. “The doors close. It’s the two of you. You’re going to put the music on. We’re going to sing our hearts out. What I say to everybody is, this is a safe place. The more you go for it in the songs, like you’re playing Madison Square Garden, the better it is. I have to meet them halfway with that. If I am at all timid in those moments, then they’re going to be like, ‘Wait. Hang on. What am I doing?’”
The reason it all works so well is that there’s a natural huggability to Corden. Unlike the Lettermans and Conans of yore, Corden isn’t some kind of dark lunatic. He’s just a chunky guy on your television asking you to love him. “Carpool Karaoke” is a major plank in Corden and Winston’s commitment to a different kind of talk show, one that relieves the audience from the 24/7 news cycle of terror and mayhem rather than playing off its idiocies. “When Letterman was on, when Leno was on, you were watching very, very different news to the news you’re watching today,” Corden says. “I feel like what you might want and require now is a bit of light at the end of your day.”
Lightness has proved a good business move as well. “Carpool Karaoke” has led to a prime-time special, and Apple Music recently bought a version of the franchise. It’s what Corden is known for, which is great, to a certain point. One time, while we walk back to his car after talking, he jokes, “Thank you for asking questions about other things besides karaoke.”
But that’s the rub. Despite colossal fame in England and his talent as a writer, James Corden is best known as the guy singing along with celebrities in an SUV. But he knows it’s all a series of trade-offs; hang around him and you get the sense he misses acting. He admits to not being sure how long he’ll do The Late Late Show. One afternoon on set, I overhear him talking with guest Keegan-Michael Key about Key’s independent film Don’t Think Twice. “I have people on who do sitcoms and I’m, ‘OK, I’ve done that,’” Corden tells Key of his time as a character actor. “But I see a movie like yours, and I miss it.”
It does have its commercial benefits. On a scorching July night in L.A., Grammy winner Meghan Trainor is onstage at the Greek Theatre playing before a typical crowd of screaming tweens and their mums. Glow sticks are being banged and Instagram accounts are being updated. About halfway through the show, the opening chords of Trainor’s recent hit “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” ring out, and a pudgy man in a black shirt appears from the shadows to sing the part originally sung by John Legend.
And here’s the thing: The 13-year-olds go nuts. They recognize Corden en masse and stand on their seats and screech for the one-time target of bullies. It’s hard to imagine a 38-year-old Conan O’Brien or Letterman having that kind of popularity among adolescent girls. Corden belts out the bubblegum words: “So I’m gonna love you/Like I’m gonna lose you/I’m gonna hold you/Like I’m saying goodbye.”
Corden sells it unapologetically. He’s an ardent supporter of pop culture and will defend the likes of Coldplay until his final breath. “There’s two kinds of performers,” he says right after the sound check for the Trainor appearance. “Aliens like Daniel Day-Lewis, and humans. Somehow, we think the aliens are better because they’re more mysterious. Neither is better. I’m definitely in the human camp.”
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