So David Letterman’s new lead-out? He learned everything he knows about hosting a talkshow from (drumroll, please) … Jay Leno? That was part of the amusing taped piece that kicked off CBS’ “Late Late Show With James Corden,” a slightly uneven premiere with moments of inspired lunacy and some clear areas for the newbie host to work on. Relatively unknown to a U.S. audience and a baby-faced 36, Corden oozed sincerity during his opening – he even teared up introducing his parents – and certainly looks eager to please. That said, he appeared more comfortable during planned bits than interacting with guests.
CBS deserves credit for taking a flyer on a promising if unorthodox choice for a timeslot that provides the latitude for doing just that. (The network even cashed in with an on-set Bud Light sponsorship, although someone should have perhaps consulted Jimmy Kimmel about the potential pitfalls of an in-studio bar.)
Not surprisingly, the front-loaded taped piece – a luxury in the early going, when producers have enjoyed the time to prepare – teemed with star cameos. That included not just Leno, but Corden’s “Into the Woods” co-star Meryl Streep, Arnold Schwarzenegger and of course CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, who passed out a Willie Wonka-style golden ticket that Corden snagged (from Chelsea Handler) to earn the improbable job.
So far, so good. But the handling of the initial guests, Tom Hanks and Mila Kunis, left a good deal to be desired, starting with the awkward gauntlet they had to run through the audience to reach the stage. And while having the two performers come out together is an interesting idea and something of a throwback, even night one suggested it’s going to be a hit-miss affair given how programmed most actors are to plug their particular project, tell a couple of anecdotes and get off the couch.
As it was, there was a lot of talk with Kunis about parenthood, while Corden cackled a little too loudly at his own jokes. Fortunately, that gave way to the night’s cleverest sequence, with Corden and Hanks frantically rifling through a medley of scenes from Hanks’ lengthy film career, all set against a green screen. More than anything, it felt like a touch of old-fashioned variety, in a good way.
Unlike Letterman (and to a degree Craig Ferguson, who was content to simply be goofy much of the time), Corden comes across as natural and likable, including the self-effacing little song with which he closed the show. Over time, though, a latenight host needs a pretty formidable bag of tricks to weather those nights when the guests aren’t at the marquee level the bookers were able to deliver for this first week.
Corden is clearly multitalented and exhibited bright flashes, and CBS will surely be patient with him, especially with Letterman’s signoff and the launch of Stephen Colbert occupying its time in the months to come.
Still, having landed that golden ticket is one thing; possessing the imagination to make it last is going to require not just good fortune, but based on first impressions, some ongoing tinkering with the assembly line.