New host James Corden makes an underwhelming debut on ‘The Late Late Show’

Corden (center) leads guests Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell in a pointless game.

Two and a half stars

The Late Late Show With James Corden Weeknights, 12:30 a.m., CBS.

Unlike the recent debuts of new hosts for The Tonight Show and Late Night, James Corden’s takeover of The Late Late Show from Craig Ferguson hasn’t been accompanied by a lot of fanfare. A British actor and writer probably best known in the U.S. for his role in Into the Woods, Corden is bland and eager to please, and his version of The Late Late Show embodies those same qualities. While Ferguson, also a foreigner observing American pop culture, embraced a personal connection with his guests and his audience, Corden is more of an ingratiating showman, happy to play his role as a cog in the Hollywood machine.

That, of course, is what talk shows are really about, and Jimmy Fallon has found great success on the new version of The Tonight Show by functioning as an exuberant celebrity sycophant. Corden takes some cues from Fallon by incorporating each night’s guests into some sort of pre-planned bit, but aside from the first night’s breakneck tour through the career of guest Tom Hanks, none of those bits so far has had the goofy viral potential of Fallon’s most popular segments. The show’s other elements are more traditional, and they fall short when compared to what Ferguson was doing with the show previously.

Corden isn’t a comedian, so his monologue is generally brief and focused on one or two mediocre jokes. Unlike Ferguson, Corden has a resident band, but so far he’s made poor use of bandleader Reggie Watts, an eccentric musical comedian who’s transitioned from IFC’s bizarre talk-show pastiche Comedy Bang! Bang! to the kind of substance-free chat-fest that show mocks.

Corden’s main departure from late-night formula is to bring all of his guests on at once, but he’s not a skilled enough interviewer to get two or three unrelated celebrities to make interesting or entertaining connections. At least when the guests have something in common (like Get Hard co-stars Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart), it makes some sense to have them on together, but mostly the guests just end up sitting awkwardly while someone next to them tells a story, and then Corden tries in vain to relate it to something another guest has done.

Corden is inoffensive and upbeat, so it’s hard to hate him, but it’s hard to imagine him building a dedicated following, either. Unlike Ferguson, who made his little corner of late night into something unique, Corden is just marking time until viewers fall asleep.

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