A while ago in this space, I argued that Stephen Colbert was the second coming of Jay Leno in late night. In sharing that story with readers of my newsletter I felt obliged to add, “This is not a hot take.” I’d been bothered for a while about the way Colbert had abandoned his more sophisticated brand of comedy for predictable applause lines, and I had grown comfortable with the thought of comparing him to a backstabbing sellout.
This is a story about another late-night host, James Corden, and it is a hot take. I haven’t been thinking about it very long. In fact, it’s been months since I paid any mind to Corden or The Late Late Show on CBS. But that’s sort of the point. For various reasons the 12:35 a.m. late-night hour on CBS simply isn’t the draw it was when Corden was hired in 2015. So, simple question: why should it continue after Corden’s deal expires a year from now?
Seven years ago, CBS parted ways with Craig Ferguson and hired Corden as the fourth host of its 12:35 a.m. franchise, The Late Late Show. Both men were born and raised in the UK, but unlike Ferguson — who was familiar to viewers from his time on the Drew Carey Show — Corden was only known to that small slice of the audience that watched him on Gavin & Stacey when it was on BBC America. However, he was a rising talent and BAFTA winner, and after all, Ferguson had endeared himself to an American audience despite a nearly impenetrable Scottish accent.
By most measures CBS’s gamble paid off. Corden’s star has continued to rise in the U.S., including movie and stage roles and hosting the Grammys for CBS. From the week of his debut, The Late Late Show under Corden has been churning out viral videos scoring tens of millions of views a month, something Ferguson never did. His “Carpool Karaoke” segment is justly famous, and he has smartly leveraged his British citizenship to create memorable moments with Sir Paul McCartney and Prince Harry, among others.
Indeed, it’s Team Corden’s skill at driving millions of views on YouTube that begs the simple question I’ve already asked. To put it another way: Why is CBS continuing to invest in a second hour of late-night TV when there are cheaper ways of creating viral videos?
For the past couple of months I’ve been doing a “state of the late” survey in this space, and I’ll wrap it up next week with my list of the most impactful people in late-night history. I can’t think of a better show to conclude this survey, because if there’s a late-night franchise that demonstrates how much TV has changed in recent years, it’s the show that airs at 12:35 a.m. weeknights on CBS.
The Late Late Show was announced in 1994 with Tom Snyder as its host. The press conference was held at the Ed Sullivan Theater, with the head of CBS, Howard Stringer, Snyder and David Letterman taking questions from a bunch of reporters in the audience. It was a big story! Thanks to its hiring of Dave, CBS had gone from near-invisible in the time period to launching a second late night franchise.
In 1995, his first season on CBS, Snyder’s Late Late Show was averaging 1.9 million viewers a night. Twenty years later, when James Corden signed on as host of The Late Late Show, he drew 1.5 million viewers his first week. And now? For the 2020-21 season, The Late Late Show with James Corden averaged a paltry 971,000 viewers a night. Its share of the 18-to-49 demographic — which Corden, being a young bloke, should be reaching — was about what Lily Singh was averaging until a few weeks ago, when NBC pulled the plug on her show and the whole 1:35 a.m. franchise.
There’s no reason to think the 12:35 a.m. shows won’t be on the chopping block next — at both NBC and CBS. During the 1991-92 season, Letterman was the host of NBC’s Late Night and was averaging nearly 3.6 million viewers a night. By 2005, under Conan O’Brien, that number had fallen to 2.45 million. In 2015 under Meyers, it was 1.5 million and that number has fallen by one-third since then. On average, 1 million viewers are watching Late Night on NBC, barely more than are tuned to Corden’s show.
YouTube, streaming, social media — there are other ways to reach young viewers these days without the bother of doing a network TV show. Seen this way, paying Corden to do the 12:35 gig another five years seems like a bad bet. “Carpool Karaoke” is as entertaining as ever, but it’s just a bit. (He’s had to walk back another bit, tastelessly titled “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts,” for making jokes about Asian food.) Corden is only so-so as an interviewer, and is reportedly not the most pleasant person to deal with. Johnny Carson wasn’t either, but today’s crop of late-night hosts are noted for their bonhomie.
Not long ago Corden suggested in an interview that he might return to England, where the grandparents of his three children live. “Our family has walked to the beat of my drum for a long time,” he said. Maybe Corden has calculated that he doesn’t need to be on at 12:35 a.m. on CBS anymore. Maybe he’s decided that CBS isn’t as interested in paying top dollar to the host of a low-rated 12:35 a.m. franchise. ViacomCBS now has a streaming channel called Paramount+, and it can launch the next great comedy-talk show there, just like Peacock did with The Amber Ruffin Show.
Corden has a streaming project coming up, too — but it’s on Amazon. And it’s shooting in London. If I were a betting man, I’d say James Corden has already decided to move on from 12:35. I know I have.
The Late Late Show With James Corden airs weeknights at 12:37am on CBS.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.