From hero to zero… and back again
He was the ever-affable rising star of UK comedy who tried to run before he could walk – and was duly taken down a peg or two by the waiting British media. Now, James Corden is the heir-apparent of the prestigious Stateside tradition of late-night talk show hosting and is firmly back on track both on and off the screen. His salvation? The enduring faith of his parents – and a surprise visit during his darkest hour that turned his life around…
In 2014, when the time came for Scotsman Craig Ferguson to step aside as the figurehead of
The Late Late Show after over a decade of hosting duties, James Corden was probably not the first name to spring to mind for the network chiefs at CBS.
Fast forward two years and Corden’s initial hosting stint has been an astounding success. Since Ferguson handed over the reins to his High Wycombe-born successor, The Late Late Show ratings have climbed steadily with a vast swathe of Corden’s celebrity friends appearing on the show, to great effect. In essence, the young pretender has, in the course of a year, gone on to challenge the master of talk-show tomfoolery, Jimmy Fallon, on his own turf.
Corden has conquered America in a way very few Brits can or have. His natural warmth and energy – as well as the continuous merry-go-round of A-listers at his beck and call – has won him huge audiences and critical approval. Corden’s fresh take on the traditional talk show format has also been boosted by the fact that those who can’t tune in at one o’clock in the morning when the show originally airs can now find the highlights on YouTube in handy bite-size clips – creating unbeatable viral promotion for the show.
Corden’s Late Late Show channel has amassed over 1 billion views since its inception, which means that despite the insomnia-inducing airtime, the show’s best bits are circulated around the world long after they hit American screens.
One segment of Corden’s show, however, has stood head and shoulders above the rest and become a global phenomenon. ‘Carpool Karaoke’ has featured everyone from Stevie Wonder to George Clooney and Adele, with the latter’s appearance in Corden’s car grabbing 42 million views in just five days – making it the most viral video originating from a late-night show since 2013.
“[Producer] Ben Winston and I always thought there was something very joyful about someone very, very famous singing their songs in an ordinary situation,” Corden explained. “We just had this idea: Los Angeles, traffic, the carpool lane — maybe this is something we could pull off.”
The idea was first conceived in 2011, when Corden appeared as Smithy – the character which really put him on the map in BBC sitcom Gavin & Stacey – on Comic Relief, singing in a car with George Michael. The sitcom, which Corden co-wrote with fellow star and friend Ruth Jones, went on to win multiple comedy awards and made its stars household names in the UK, as well as giving the world the first chance to see Corden alongside Mathew Horne in the creative partnership that would continue immediately after the final episode.
While Corden’s character proved immensely popular, his work after Gavin & Stacey was significantly less well received. The sketch show with his co-star, Horne and Corden, was almost universally panned – as was their controversially titled 2009 mock-horror film, Lesbian Vampire Killers Both projects were later dismissed by Corden as missteps, and signalled a downturn in fortunes for the rising star of UK comedy. After the success of Gavin & Stacey, the failure of his subsequent creative efforts threw Corden’s egotistical attitude into sharp relief.
Things came to a head when an arrogant comment about Gavin & Stacey not winning three awards at the 2008 BAFTAs backfired. While Corden later described the remark as “ungracious, ungrateful and brattish” in his autobiography May I Have Your Attention, Please? the damage was already done. The British media, perhaps buoyed by their recent mauling of Corden’s sketch show and film, began to cast aspersions that perhaps Corden’s success had gone to his head and the conceited comments and critical disappointment represented his flying too close to the sun before plunging like Icarus into comedic anonymity.
Poor decisions and bad behaviour
Nor were Corden’s poor decisions confined to the stage or screen. During the early days of finding fame, he was known as a lad-about-town, regularly snapped by the waiting paparazzi stumbling out of a club in the early hours of the morning with pal and former flatmate Dominic Cooper. His bleary-eyed antics seemed to strengthen the enduring idea that Corden had gone from hero to zero in a little less than a year.
The difference between the admittedly arrogant Corden of 2008 and the modern-day incarnation is akin to that of night and day. The churlish, childish and cocksure manner that stunned the BAFTA audience and set the rising star of British comedy up for a particularly nasty fall was followed by a period of being “the unhappiest I had ever been”.
“As 2008 wore on, it got so bad I was being rude to my agent, and I even started being rude to Ruth Jones,”
he wrote in his autobiography. “If I was in company and the conversation wasn’t revolving around me, I would just switch off. The person I had become wasn’t the person I had wanted to be. I had drifted so far from my close friends and family that I didn’t know how to pick up the phone and talk to them anymore.”
It would take an unannounced visit by his parents to shake the wayward funny-man out of his self-induced exile. Malcolm Corden, a former RAF serviceman turned Christian book salesman, and social worker Margaret told their son it was up to him to sort out his life. A teary group hug and a heartfelt prayer later and Corden had found the confidence to eschew brash braggadocio in favour of finding his feet once again.
Tears and prayers
“Every tear that left my eyes made me feel a little lighter,” wrote Corden of the moment he turned his life around with a little faith from his parents. “Dad said a prayer as he kissed my forehead, and Mum came over and joined the hug. I’ve no idea how long we stayed there, but it felt like a lifetime. When they left later on, Dad turned to me and said: ‘You’ve so much to be thankful for, James. I know it’s been a tricky year, but you can’t carry on like this.’”
That fortunate night where Corden’s Christian parents opened his eyes to the way he was wasting his life not only gave their son the impetus to turn his life around off-screen, but also inspired an astonishing career revival. 2011’s Comic Relief gave Corden the chance to revisit Smithy, and not only did the skits he was involved with prove the highlight of the show, but the self-effacing, affable Everyman character that Corden portrayed appears to have influenced his contemporary hosting persona.
Yet another indication of the lengths Corden has gone to shed the memory of his BAFTA mishap came in the way of his hosting the 70th Tony Awards this year. Corden opened the show with a touching tribute to the victims of the recent Orlando shooting, before going on to perform a musical medley of show tunes – including hits from Les Misérables and The Lion King –with Take That star Gary Barlow.
When compared to the time Corden and Horne were largely derided for their attempt to host the Brit Awards in 2009, or the excruciating exchange of awkward barbs with legendary thespian Patrick Stewart at the 2010 Glamour Awards, his recent overwhelming triumph at the Tony Awards is yet more proof that Corden’s as popular now as he was when he bounced onto our screens nearly a decade ago.
Corden’s first stage role after the meeting with his parents prompted a change of heart and lifestyle as part of Nicholas Hytner’s play One Man, Two Guv’nors at the National Theatre. In truth, it was a fitting place for Corden to rise from the ashes of his depression. Over a decade ago, the National was the stage on which he found himself as part of Hytner’s acclaimed adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.
Alongside the established thespian forces of Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, and the then-unknown qualities of Dominic Cooper and Russell Tovey, among others, The History Boys was gearing up for 75 shows on the South Bank. What ensued was a run of 500 nights, in Hong Kong, Sydney and beyond, before finishing with a cinematic adaptation and a spell on Broadway; in short, an unprecedented success.
Up from the ashes
Once again, Corden struck gold at the National. One Man, Two Guv’nors achieved five-star reviews, and Corden even scooped a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play in 2012. If The History Boys was Corden’s birth, then One Man was his re-birth – and he’s never looked back since.
Nowadays, Corden is practically teetotal, happily married to his wife of four years, Julia, and is a loving father to son Max, born in 2011, and daughter Carey, born in 2014. Shortly after Max’s birth, Corden told The Independent that he “couldn’t wish to be happier”.
“It’s the truth – both personally and professionally,” he explained. “That’s probably the first time I could say that. There have been times when professionally I’ve been incredibly happy but personally I’ve been more lost than ever. Likewise, before that personally I’d always been very happy but professionally I’d felt somewhat creatively unfulfilled.”
His complete reversal of fortunes aside, the weird and wonderful world of late-night transatlantic talk shows was a world away from anything Corden had attempted before. While now it appears a casting master stroke, the decision to give Corden the prestigious Late Late Show was, at the time, a gamble – as much for the host himself as network CBS.
“However shocked you are that I am doing this job, you will never be as shocked as I am,” Corden said in the very first opening monologue of his stint at the show’s helm. “It really isn’t lost on me what a privilege it is to be given a show like this, and I will really do my best not to let any of you down.”
Lager lout to American hero
While few could have predicted that the man behind larger-than-life lager lout Smithy would go on to capture the hearts of our American cousins, Corden is fast becoming as ingrained in the world of US television as Fallon, Kimmel, Conan et al. We know the world of late-night talk show hosting can be notoriously difficult – Piers Morgan’s primetime post-Larry King attempt went from relative success to the worst ratings CNN had seen in over 20 years – but the huge wave created by Carpool Karaoke is an indication that Corden may well have found his creative calling in the early hours of the morning.
It appears too that the star has his loving family to thank for his reputation’s resurrection – and the impromptu supplication of his parents way back in 2008. Could it be that there is something far grander behind Corden’s return to the top of his game, or a divinity to the manner in which he brought himself through the wilderness years to the enviable position he finds himself in now?
“I have a hunch that there must be something else out there,” he told the New Statesman in 2011. “It’s inconceivable to me that this is all for nothing. I’m looking forward to finding out – but not just yet.”
If Carson, King and Letterman epitomise the lineage of late-night royalty, then Corden is the pauper-to-prince who may well provide the modern-day equivalent – or perhaps the court jester who found, by a special combination of luck, laughter and faith, that the crown was in fact a natural fit.