James Corden, who begins his run as host of CBS' "Late Late Show" Monday, bared his pale British bottom in the latest issue of GQ, spurring quips about the "cheeky" move. But his hopes for a rise to the top may hinge most on avoiding overexposure, at least in the short term.
Corden arrives to the ever-shifting late night scene with a big challenge: establishing himself as a star in the U.S. while staying below the radar long enough to experiment as he carves his own comic niche. The question is whether he'll be given enough time and slack to live up to his late expectations.
His debut comes during a period of upheaval for late night comedy, amid major departures (Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson and Stephen Colbert), impending departures (David Letterman and Jon Stewart) and arrivals, impending and otherwise (Larry Wilmore taking over for Colbert and Colbert taking over for Letterman). Decisions are still made around time slot, even if the hour might not matter as much these days as web friendly segments help build audience.
It’s fitting that Corden’s lead-in (at least until May 20) is the outgoing grouchy elder statesman of the genre, Letterman, who started the after-Carson weeknight TV comedy industry 33 years ago with NBC's "Late Night" and turned the 12:30 a.m. slot into a comedy laboratory.
Letterman, who previously headed a morning show that gained a cult following while confusing housewives and introduced audiences to what would become late-night staples such as "Small Town News" and "Stupid Pet Tricks," only ramped up the trial-and-error approach on "Late Night," creating an empire with stupid humans and smart pets.
Conan O'Brien, a writer for "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons," was even less well known when he succeeded Letterman in 1993, finding early fun in whimsy like "Rotten Fruit Theater." Ferguson, the most recent "Late Late Show" host, turned his monologue into a personal, almost stream-of-consciousness display built more on telling stories than on one-liners.
Even Jimmy Fallon, who arrived on "Late Night" in 2009 with the longest résumé of the post-Letterman crowd, gained enough cover from the late hour to try out the gag-inducing gag "Lick it for Ten." Seth Meyers, now a year into succeeding fellow "SNL" alum Fallon on "Late Night," has found the freedom to work in some offbeat elements like "Seth's Story" and his charmingly surreal exchanges with bandleader Fred Armisen.
Corden's bandleader, comedian and musician Reggie Watts of IFC's "Comedy Bang! Bang!," is probably better known than he is, at least on these shores. At 36, Corden is the youngest of the late night crew, and unlike fellow Brit John Oliver has little previous U.S. TV exposure (even if he pulled good reviews for the recent film version of "Into the Woods").
Stephen Sondheim’s twisted fairy tale musical might be an appropriate jumping off point for Corden, who will need the opportunity to fall flat on his butt a few times on the way to revealing whether he’s destined to become a late, late night happily-ever-after story.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.