The most unlikely star in late night may now be Nick Bernstein, CBS’ senior vice president of late night programming, West Coast. Bernstein has become an almost nightly presence on “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” as the host and the show’s producers dream up new and elaborate ways to put their boss in weird and uncomfortable situations on camera.
Bernstein began popping up on the program earlier this summer after he was vaccinated and cleared to return to the show’s studio. (Without an audience until recently, “Late Late Show” had started relying more on producers and crew members for laughs). “We tape a much longer monologue that ends up getting on air. And during one of those conversations, while I was at home watching on my computer as the show was taping, they were wondering where I was,” Bernstein says.
That inspired Corden to suggest that Bernstein sit at the show’s bar when he could finally return to the studio. But when the time came, Corden and executive producers Rob Crabbe and Ben Winston had an even more elaborate idea: They placed Bernstein on camera and sat him on a ridiculously high chair. Throughout the week, the chair kept getting higher.
“I was like, this is such a silly fun show that they’re making right now, and they figured out a way to do something really original and unique to them,” Bernstein says. “So if they want me there, I’ll do whatever they like. I didn’t actually realize that during the week they were going to keep raising the chair higher and higher. I was a little bit scared about how close to the lights I was.”
The reaction was positive — and “Late Late Show” wasn’t done with Bernstein, who has become a part of the staff that now is regularly seen and converses with Corden on the show.
“I thought that was probably it, but they were having fun with me, and I just basically speak when spoken to at this point,” he says.
In recent months, Corden has had fun on the show berating Bernstein in front of California governor Gavin Newsom and straightening the exec’s hair — which he has grown out during the pandemic. Perhaps the most memorable moment was when the producers convinced Bernstein to dress up like a jockey and sit on a large, plastic horse for an episode.
Bernstein says he is starting to be spotted by “Late Late Show” fans too: “I was recognized in public once by a super fan of the show. And it was a very strange and incredibly sweet, but surreal experience.”
Even his CBS colleagues have been egging him on. Bernstein says that president-CEO George Cheeks “told me I should get an agent.” He adds: “I don’t think I’ve embarrassed anyone too much… No one’s asking me to stop so I think that’s a good sign.”
A late-night career veteran — he worked at NBC on shows including “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” — Bernstein notes that there’s a tradition of talk show hosts ragging on network suits.
“I know it’s always really fun when I’ve watched in the past, seeing people goofing on the boss and the execs and the network and anybody who’s part of the show,” Bernstein says. I truly never wanted to be an active participant, I liked being a part of the periphery. But I feel like all of us who are on the floor, we recognize that that is part of the DNA of this time period. And so you got to embrace it.”
Still, it’s rare for an exec to actually get that much in-studio face time.
“Nick’s presence on the show has been nothing short of a revelation,” Corden says. “He’s just such an amazing sport. It’s just been the most fun having him in there. And I have to say, he’s such a team player. I can’t think of many network executives who’d be into doing such things.”
The addition of Bernstein is part of the loose nature of “Late Late Show” that developed during COVID, as Corden, the show’s band (led by Reggie Watts) and staff have created a loose on-camera environment. Bernstein says the show is finding a new balance, particularly now that the audience has returned.
“The thing that’s really always fun about late night is, it’s constantly changing and it’s a pretty malleable format,” he says.
Bernstein says he’s happy to continue his run on camera as long as Corden and crew want him. But he doesn’t harbor bigger on-camera dreams or any desire to follow in the footsteps of other execs who later gained on-camera fame, such as Bravo’s Andy Cohen.
“There’s never been an inkling in my head to do anything like that… As long as they want me there, I’m happy to continue doing it and if they’re ever like that’s a wrap. I got it,” he says. “I like being an exec. I like the control room just fine.”