After 17 years of Leno and Letterman, our crucial late-night television talk shows are in an unusual state of flux: in the past 14 months, Jimmy Fallon has taken over “The Tonight Show,” Seth Meyers has taken over “Late Night,” Stephen Colbert has transferred from “The Colbert Report” to “The Late Show,” Chelsea Handler has recorded the final episode of “Chelsea Lately,” John Oliver has started his own late-night show on HBO, and Jon Stewart has announced his impending retirement from “The Daily Show.” (Carson Daly’s “Last Call”—that great mystery of the universe—is still going strong.)
Perhaps the least significant transition in this realm is that which, as of last week, has brought the baby-faced English entertainer James Corden to CBS’s “The Late Late Show,” previously hosted by the eccentric Scotsman Craig Ferguson. This is the particular host change that I would like to talk about, because Corden has altered the late-night format in ways that would seem radical if only they weren’t so predictable, given the recent trajectory of late-night TV in general.
Late-night talk shows have typically been defined by two things: comedy and celebrity interviews. “The Late Late Show with James Corden” seeks to dispense with both of these longstanding features. Corden, a jolly song-and-dance man who previously appeared in 2014’s “Into the Woods,” is an actor, not a standup comedian, and the role CBS has asked to him play in this case is that of an earnest, bashful, regular guy who inexplicably has been granted a talk show and is so eager to do his best that we can’t help but wish him well.
Corden is so grateful for his good fortune that he wouldn’t dream of using his platform to mock others, so he has replaced the traditional late-night monologue—in which the host would employ “setups” and “punchlines” in order to deliver satirical jabs at various people and events occupying the current news cycle (or else do whatever weird thing Craig Ferguson used to do)—with a couple minutes of amiable, aimless chatter that, so far, has a strange tendency to veer into P.S.A. territory: for example, Corden has used the opening minutes of his show to warn his audience, affably, to cut down on excessive water consumption during drought and to avoid drunk driving.
Celebrities such as Mila Kunis and Will Ferrell have already appeared on Corden’s show, but “Late Late Show” guests no longer take the stage one at a time for solo interviews with the host—instead, they come out together, joining Corden (who has ceded the traditional protective barrier of a desk) for an almost wholly uninformative group conversation. It’s just a few friends hanging out, playing games, and acting out skits.
Only a couple of episodes in, it is fairly clear that CBS hired James Corden—the giggly, cupcake-shaped man who, if this show lasts ten years, will never say an unkind word to anyone—to be lovable, not to be funny. The product he intends to put forth is not comedy but all-purpose “fun,” with an emphasis on determinedly lighthearted antics, pointless energy, and musical interludes.
The reason he exists on your TV is simple: Jimmy Fallon, the former “SNL” cast member, who lately has reinvigorated “The Tonight Show” through sheer positivity. In the wake of Letterman’s unbreakable disdain and Leno’s joyless geniality, Fallon’s high spirits struck viewers as a breath of fresh air: here was a (relatively) youthful, exuberantly goofy TV host for the post-hater generation—a guy who was cool because he was never “too cool” for anything. Lacking Conan O’Brien’s dark side of self-doubt, Fallon loved to sing, to dance, and to play games traditionally reserved for children. From what I can tell, he remains physically incapable of interviewing any major celebrity in the “grown-up” Charlie Rose manner—at some point he must invite the movie star to join him in a singalong or a dance contest or a round of Pictionary.
The effect of this is to ease celebrities away from their particular selves and to lend them an indistinct, benign humanness, so that all of them are “just like us.” Each is removed from the context of his life and career and reduced to his “inner child,” a lovably awkward, playful creature that exists for the purpose of creating meme-worthy content for Internet-based audiences: novelty-value skits and songs whose mass “shareability” transcends all social and political boundaries. These stand in for traditional TV humor; whereas jokes carry specific perspectives and resonate among those who share them, shenanigans and highjinks are for everyone. That’s why, on this evening’s “Tonight Show,” you’ll probably see Helen Mirren playing air hockey or Mitt Romney lip-synching the theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Fallon’s most important influence, in turn, has been Ellen DeGeneres, whose daytime iteration of late-night comedy turned away from the medium’s then-dominant acerbity in favor of random dance parties and good-natured hidden-camera pranks. Ellen was the first host to recognize the power of Facebook moms’ Internet memes—specifically, to locate their power and universality within their generic cuteness and strict harmlessness, and to imagine from this a new, gentle comedy of inclusiveness: an apolitical form of TV silliness whose foundational impulse was, however, liberal.
Twelve years later, we have “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” a program so desperately inoffensive as to eliminate humor completely. The endgame is clicks, not Nielsen ratings: no one is actually awake at 1 a.m., and it’s more valuable to go viral on Facebook the following day—which is why the show revolves around innocuously curious stunts involving karaoke with Mariah Carey, and Tom Hanks reenacting his entire filmography in five minutes. It’s all just for fun, except that it’s not fun at all.