We are living in a new golden age of late-night TV. But, ironically, one of its brightest stars is a name that up until last spring, almost no one in the U.S. had heard of.
Today, however, James Corden is becoming a full-fledged TV star, a viral video sensation and even has a role in the upcoming animated family comedy Trolls.
Raised in a devoutly Christian home, Corden grew up attending church in the U.K. But following a period of partying, loneliness and heartbreak seven years ago, his life changed after an evening of prayer with his parents, and a new perspective helped create one of TV’s most infectious personalities.
The Carpool King
When CBS announced that James Corden would be taking over as host of The Late Late Show for Craig Ferguson, it seemed like a surprising choice. Not only was Corden basically unknown to US audiences, but his skill set was dramatically different. At the time, he told Variety, “It’s madness, really. When I got the job, I’d never even been on an American talk show,” he said. “It’s a bold choice. A really bold choice.”
Unlike the roster of Daily Show alums who’ve slowly taken over post-11 p.m. time slots (Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, Stephen Colbert), Corden isn’t overly political. And though he’s naturally funny, unlike many of his other late-night rivals, his background is in acting and theater, not stand-up comedy.
But more than his somewhat unconventional background, there’s something else that’s different about Corden—he carries himself like he’s one of us viewers, not a polished TV personality.
Yes, Jimmy Fallon, arguably his biggest “rival,” is optimistic and light-hearted, but Corden’s brand of comedy is more vulnerable. It’s like you’re watching a funny friend, not just a talented performer.
Take his breakout segment “Carpool Karaoke;” the entire premise is to capture a side of “celebrities” that isn’t saturated in the lights of a Hollywood soundstage or in the context of some variety-show style game.
Whereas Fallon’s tailored for YouTube “Lip-sync Battle” segments showcased how over-the-top celebrities can be in highly choreographed, fake-singing performances, Corden’s carpool segment is intimate and unpolished. It literally features Corden driving around, talking with a guest as they sing songs together in a car.
Sure, it’s still goofy and fun, but is predicated on showing how normal celebrities are, not how well they can ham it up. Its goal is to humanize them, not promote them.
And it’s made him one of American TV’s brightest stars.
The Turning Point
Years before he took the hosting gig at CBS, Corden experienced a moment that served as a turning point in his life.
He told Heat magazine that earlier in his career, he got caught up his newfound celebrity, sleeping with strangers, partying and ending nights “in beds I’d never slept in before, with girls I’d never met before.” He said, “The longer it went on, the emptier my soul felt.”
In an interview with BBC Radio 4 back in 2012, he recounted the moment when his fast-paced lifestyle, drinking and several failed relationships left him depressed, empty and alone. His star was rising in the U.K., but his own behavior at TV awards shows embarrassed him. Ashamed, he sat alone in his London apartment.
The person I had become wasn’t the person I wanted to be, he explained the moment to the Daily Mail. “I had drifted so far from family and friends that I didn’t really know how to pick up the phone and talk to them any more. I was lost and needed to find myself.’
It was at that moment that his parents—a couple who Corden has called “the ideal Christians”—showed up unannounced.
“‘They sat on the tiny two-seater sofa and I sat on the floor,” he said. “I was just talking to the floor really. I felt embarrassment that they were seeing me like this, so embarrassed about so many things – about the way I’d behaved or acted at points over that seven or eight-month period.”
“My dad just stood up and walked across to where I was, and he just put his arms round me and said, ‘You’ve just got to get through this, son.’ I started to cry. Just as you do when your dad hugs you and you are 30. My mum came over and joined us and we sat there. My dad said, ‘I’m going to say a prayer for you. It will be all right, but you can’t carry on like this and only you can decide what happens now.’”
He wrote, “Every tear that left my eyes made me feel a little lighter. Dad said a prayer as he kissed my forehead, and Mum came over and joined the hug. I’ve no idea how long we stayed there, but it felt like a lifetime. When they left later on, Dad turned to me and said: ‘You’ve so much to be thankful for, James. I know it’s been a tricky year, but you can’t carry on like this.'”
It was a life-changing moment.
Today, he’s a husband and father, with a successful career, but he also carries himself differently than the young actor who was once known for his wild lifestyle.
His comedy is vulnerable and honest, gracious and fun. Instead of acting like he has a chip on his shoulder, he seems genuinely grateful to be doing what he’s doing.
Most of all, he doing things differently.
A Different Brand of Comedy
Corden’s down-to-earth approach to late-night comedy is refreshing not because Fallon, Colbert, Conan, Kimmel, Meyers or any of the rest aren’t good at what they do—it’s because sometimes, they’re too good at it. They’re polished and well rehearsed. They are, after all, performers. But Corden’s approach to even conventional segments is fresh; he likes to bring several guests out at once and let conversations form naturally, even if it’s a little awkward some times.
That’s because he is more of a conversationalist than an interviewer. He’s funny, but he makes other people funnier. He’s sharp, but his humor isn’t barbed.
It’s not that he’s necessarily funnier than any of the other big names that occupy similar time slots—it’s that he’s decidedly different. Corden isn’t angry or cynical. He doesn’t up-stage his guests. He isn’t afraid to make fun of himself.
It’s his honesty and self-deprecation that seem to bring out the same attributes in his guests.
Maybe it’s because of his upbringing or even his brush with the dark side of fame so early in his career. Maybe it’s his British sensibility in a TV-world dominated by American comedians. Maybe it’s his continue sense of astonishment (or, as he told Variety, “madness”) that he was chosen for the gig in the first place. Maybe it’s a combination of many of those factors.
But James Corden’s on-screen persona is giving new life not just to a time slot, but the late-night TV genre itself.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.