When James Corden first arrived on late-night television, it felt a bit like CBS had invited a total stranger into America’s bedrooms.
Nobody had a clue who he was, except for maybe a handful of theater buffs who’d seen him strut his stuff in a few Broadway productions. He certainly didn’t look or sound anything like the beanpole-shaped, midwestern-twanged talk show hosts—the Jack Paars, the Johnny Carsons, the David Lettermans—who’d filled the late-night airwaves for so many years before him.
I mean, he was British. What was that about?
Nine years later, though, as Corden, 44, prepares to depart The Late Late Show and return to Britain, it’s hard to imagine the time slot—or Los Angeles, where he’s made his home since former CBS head Les Moonves plucked him from relative obscurity and hired him for the hosting gig—without his infectious, knucklehead energy. Carpool Karaoke, Drop the Mic, Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts (you know, when Corden made celebrities choose between answering embarrassing questions or eating gross foods like dried caterpillars or ghost pepper hot sauce). It all made must-see TV out of an otherwise dying time slot.
Last April, when he first announced his plans to depart the show, both he and the flacks at CBS tried to make it crystal clear that he was leaving entirely of his own accord. He thanked his “extraordinarily patient” bosses at the network for their understanding while he agonized over the decision. Most of the stories written about his exit focused on CBS’s efforts to dissuade him from going. The Daily Mail quoted a CBS source who said, “We desperately tried to keep him for longer, but James only wanted to do one final year.” Deadline reported that the network had dangled two- and three-year contract extensions, but Corden declined. CBS CEO George Cheeks exclaimed, “We wish he could stay longer.”
That night last April when Corden told viewers that he was leaving the show, he sounded like a man struggling with an existential crisis, admitting it was the hardest decision he’d ever made and vowing to “go out with a bang,” which he most certainly will. His final show, on April 28, will be preceded by a three-hour prime-time special, with Tom Cruise, who most recently appeared on the show to teach Corden how to fly a fighter jet, reportedly joining Corden for a musical number at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
But beneath all this hoopla and hyperbole and well-deserved celebration, there’s one essential bit of information that nobody at CBS or on The Late Late Show is daring to say out loud (at least, not on the record). And that is, Corden’s show was wildly unprofitable and may well have been heading to the chopping block whether he stayed or not.
Well-placed sources tell me The Late Late Show was costing $60 million to $65 million a year to produce but was netting less than $45 million.
“It was simply not sustainable,” says one executive. “CBS could not afford him anymore.”
Even if Corden had wanted to stay in his seat, there was bound to be a late-night reckoning. He would have faced a multimillion-dollar pay cut or painful staff reductions or both, according to two sources who worked with him closely. No wonder he wanted to move back home to England.
Television budgets are typically well-kept secrets inside major media companies like Paramount Global, which owns CBS, so reporters have to rely on a different set of data to judge a show’s success: Nielsen ratings. There, too, a reckoning was obvious. In the pre-cable, pre-internet era, Carson could draw 10 million viewers a night. As competition mounted, Letterman averaged 3 million to 5 million. Now, all three 11:30 p.m. stars—Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel—reach 5 million, combined. That shrinkage has hurt the 12:30 a.m. shows, too. When Corden debuted, in 2015, he was averaging around 1.6 million viewers. Lately, he’s down to 700,000 to 800,000 a night and fewer than 200,000 viewers in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic that advertisers (and publicists) most covet.
Late-night shows used to be the engine that propelled pop culture. An appearance on Carson or Letterman could make or break a comic’s career. An apology on Jay Leno’s show could save a career (just ask Hugh Grant). But that influence has evaporated. Every publicist has a story about a client who guests on a late-night show and barely hears from anyone afterward. A question hovers in the air: “Was anyone watching?” Was it worth getting dressed and manicured and made up?
Another question: After Corden is gone, is there any reason for late-night TV to continue? Or has the culture, like Corden himself, moved on?
Most histories of late-night begin with The Tonight Show and Steve Allen, its first host (followed by Jack Paar, then Carson, then Leno, then Fallon). But the genre owes a huge debt to Pepsodent, which sponsored a massively popular late-night radio variety show hosted by Bob Hope. The show, which first aired in 1938, featured many now-familiar late-night staples—a stand-up host, a topical monologue, songs, guests, and gags. It was a massive hit. Hope and his crew provided something that’s perpetually in demand: companionship.
In the early years of television, stars like Allen brought the same approach to the small screen. The Tonight Show was called Tonight when it launched in 1954, in symmetry with NBC’s morning show, Today, which had launched two years earlier.
Allen’s success stirred competition from CBS and ABC, but NBC maintained decades of late-night dominance after the droll, Nebraska-born Carson (a former magician) signed on to host The Tonight Show in 1962, a perch he maintained for 30 years.
Carson’s power and stature is impossible to fathom now. He could carve careers out of a single appearance (George Carlin, Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey, Bill Maher, Eddie Murphy, Ellen DeGeneres, Roseanne Barr, Drew Carey, Jerry Seinfeld, not to mention Leno and Letterman—they all got a boost on The Tonight Show). His final show, in 1992, netted more than 50 million viewers. At this point, the Carson era has been over for even longer than it lasted, but he is still The One: Almost every person I called for this story invoked his name.
“Johnny was the king,” says Rob Burnett, a longtime executive producer of Letterman’s The Late Show. “And when he was doing his show, it was the only thing to watch at 11:30.” This was partly because the other networks tried and failed to mount successful competitors and partly because there were only a handful of networks at the time. Even in the post-Carson era, when Leno and Letterman feuded for late-night primacy, “it was sort of like you ran a restaurant with an exit off I-5,” Burnett says. “That doesn’t exist anymore. There isn’t an I-5. There are a thousand different interstates and back roads.” When I tried that analogy on a Corden staffer, they blurted out, “Yes—and people don’t even need to get in their cars anymore!”
But the atomization of television and all other media is nothing new. The more interesting and instructive story is about how late-night hosts like Corden have adjusted—and whether they can keep going in the long term.
Some previous hosts are skeptical. Craig Kilborn was the inaugural host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, between 1996 and 1998, and then the second host of The Late Late Show, following Tom Snyder, between 1999 and 2004. When I got ahold of him, he was in Joshua Tree, camping in a 1995 Volkswagen EuroVan. “Let me be tactful and somewhat gentle because I know and admire the guys currently working in late-night,” Kilborn said, “but when I left late-night, it was an easy decision and an exhilarating one. And now it’s even a stronger feeling.” He said he felt, even back then, that late-night formats had become redundant, and the increasingly strident political commentaries on shows were rankling to him. “It seems late-night is becoming more and more obsolete,” Kilborn says. “I’ve talked about it with my comedy-writer friends, and we simply don’t watch late-night anymore. Haven’t watched them for years.”
Kilborn was succeeded, in 2005, by Craig Ferguson, who evidently has a very different view. Earlier this year, he partnered with Sony to pitch a syndicated late-night series called Channel Surf. It sounds like a variation on the old E! format Talk Soup; Ferguson calls it “a TV show which contains clips of questionable moments from other TV shows, thus creating a spectacular visual turducken of stupid.” Sony hopes to launch the series this fall; it is unclear if any stations have signed up yet.
Ferguson’s tenure on The Late Late Show ended in 2014, shortly after he was passed over for Letterman’s chair in favor of Stephen Colbert. CBS gave no serious thought to canning the show or changing formats. “Back then, it still made financial sense, meaning it still made a profit,” a CBS executive says. Corden was a brilliant pick, though not without risk: As Bill Carter, the preeminent reporter on the late-night beat, wrote on the day of his hiring, “Most Americans have probably neither seen nor heard of Mr. Corden, unless they made it to Broadway two seasons ago and caught his Tony Award-winning performance in One Man, Two Guvnors or ran into some episodes of a BBC series he co-created called Gavin & Stacey.”
He was an unknown, yes, but CBS executives, particularly Moonves, loved Corden’s range: actor, comedian, singer, award-show host, writer, producer. And Corden loved the big American stage: It greatly expanded his fame and gave him a chance to rehab his brand, which was summarized by multiple British newspapers as “arrogant jerk.” He admitted, in a 2020 interview with The New Yorker, that he behaved “like a brat” at an earlier stage of his life. “It’s so intoxicating, that first flush of fame,” he said. “And I think it’s even more intoxicating if you’re not bred for it.”
Every comedian wrestles with demons, but the version of Corden on CBS was exceptionally well-adjusted. He crooned and danced and charmed his way through every episode of The Late Late Show, delivering what the network liked to call the “ultimate late-night afterparty.”
That the party didn’t start until the supremely strange hour of 12:37 a.m. and that there were fewer and fewer people coming, well, those factors were out of Corden’s control. What he could control was the content. Late-night “eats content like crazy,” says television writer Nell Scovell. “When you’re doing a show four or five nights a week, you just have to generate so much content, and that’s why writing staffs balloon.”
Corden succeeded at the content game; his Late Late Show was genuinely innovative, I felt, with viral karaoke rides being merely the most prominent example. It was capital E entertainment. But Scovell convinced me that far more innovation is needed if the late-night party is to go on, with or without Corden. “They keep giving us the same thing,” she says, “the same desk, the same Trump jokes, the same guests. It needs to evolve.”
There is one TV-star-sized asterisk to the defeatist dialogue about late-night. America’s other 12:37 a.m. host, NBC’s Seth Meyers, articulated it best in an awards-season interview with one of the trades. “One thing I should really stress is how bad I am at predicting the future based on the present,” he remarked. “I would have told you five years ago, certainly, late-night is back and better than ever.” That’s true—cable and streaming platforms were full of talk show experiments. New entrants like Desus & Mero and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee were sources of excitement and employment for hundreds of people, and after the departure of Jon Stewart, the producers of The Daily Show ably reinvented that program with Trevor Noah as host.
Noah departed in December, but The Daily Show may point a path forward for the genre as a whole. Way back when Kilborn manned the desk, the show specialized in news of the weird. “And then, Jon Stewart said, ‘Let’s try something a little different,’ ” says producer Miles Kahn, who spent nine years at the show. “He did Meet the Press, but with comedy. He found contradictions and put them on the air and made jokes about them. Jon became a juggernaut because nobody else was doing what Jon was doing. He invented a lane. I don’t know, because of how fractured we are, if that will ever happen again. Can a cultural juggernaut like that happen again?”
Probably not, and even if it’s possible to invent a new lane, the traffic these days is pretty horrendous. “The landscape got overly saturated with political-leaning late-night comedy,” says Kahn. “Not that any of it was bad. It was all good! But the market just got oversaturated.”
I heard the same sentiment from a dozen others in the business. Burnett, whose daughter works on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, says, “The hosts are extremely talented, the writing is excellent, but they all have the same problem: There are now 5,000 other things to watch.” Burnett recounted when local stations started to rerun sitcoms like Seinfeld and Frasier against Letterman and Leno. “I very distinctly remember that our ratings took a hit,” he said. And that was 20 years ago! “Now these shows are competing against The White Lotus and Ted Lasso and every single other thing that’s on television.” It’s even worse than that: The shows are competing against TikTok, Twitch, and OnlyFans.
Talking with these TV insiders, I realized the ecosystem has changed in ways so profound that most analyses of television miss them altogether. “There was a time,” Burnett says, “when the only time you could get a glimpse of celebs was on these late-night shows.” Now I’m liable to unfollow A-listers on Instagram when they post too often. Talk shows, he adds, “are built to have a somewhat passive audience. People relax, spend some time with a host they love, and fall asleep. But now people watch television much more actively. They seek out the shows that they want to seek out.”
The notion of a show being constructed with a specific time slot in mind seems woefully obsolete. “It was late at night: That used to be the whole point,” Scovell says. “But time doesn’t flow like that anymore.”
Corden never fantasized about a Carson-like multi-decade marathon in late-night. He initially planned to do the show for just five years. After that, he reupped for two more. He told an interviewer that he wondered “how healthy it is to do these shows for that long,” adding, “I’m not sure it’s healthy to have a standing ovation every day.”
Corden, by then, had three children and a dreamlike Los Angeles life, but he wanted more time to actually live. Quite simply, “the schedule held him back from the shows and movies he wanted to do,” one of his friends told me. He was also yearning to spend more time back in Britain. When he sat down with Fallon a few months ago, he said, “I’m just leaving the show primarily because we’re a long way from home, and we really want our children to know what it’s like to grow up in London, to have a solid relationship with their grandparents, and that is time that you don’t get back, really.”
His team declined my interview requests, perhaps because he wants to let the final episode speak for itself, or maybe because he doesn’t want to be asked about Balthazar anymore (turns out that second flush of fame can be pretty intoxicating, too, at least judging from last year’s mini-scandal over Corden’s behavior at the New York restaurant). Several friends and colleagues told me he is feeling confident about both the decision and his departure date, just a few days before a potential writers’ strike. The Late Late Show continues to perform well on YouTube, where each episode is sliced into five to ten bite-sized pieces. One staffer likened the show to “a collection of clips,” in much the same way the music industry prioritizes singles over albums: “We try to make sure every episode has a single to release.”
That’s what has happened to late-night writ large, particularly with the old guard who once ruled the time slot: Their shows have been broken down into component pieces, or else reconfigured into other shapes. Letterman still holds forth with guests, but on Netflix five or six times a year. Leno still scratches his famous chin, but on a Fox game show. Kilborn, who helms an interview podcast, says the only late-night-type show he still watches is Real Time with Bill Maher—but, of course, one of Maher’s many advantages is that he has to fill only one night a week, like Saturday Night Live and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Officially, broadcasters all remain committed to the late-night time slot. Indeed, when I asked CBS’s George Cheeks about it, he responded in an email that late-night “is integral to the DNA of broadcast television, and that won’t change. . . . Business headwinds create creative challenges, but late-night is a great place for leading-edge entertainment, influential voices, and, especially at 12:30, innovative creative swings.” But with time slots mattering less and less and on-demand shelf life mattering more, maybe some daily shows will resize themselves as weeklies or morph into other formats.
When Corden announced his exit, Meyers said he was curious about what CBS would do with the time slot: “The turnover happens so rarely, so it will be fascinating to see what the data point on the axis is.” Fascinating and, for Meyers, likely discouraging. I’m told CBS brass met with a number of up-and-coming comics and commentators, but the network ultimately decided, despite Cheeks’s cheerleading for the format, to retire the Late Late brand altogether. The replacement is a slick piece of corporate synergy: a new version of a mothballed Comedy Central brand called @midnight, a panel show where comedians play meme-y games like “Texts from Last Night” and “Free on Craigslist.”
As of early April, the contracts were still being negotiated, but I was told it is all but a done deal. Paramount views it as a format “that can travel,” in C-suite speak, with better odds of being an on-demand winner. And it will cost about half as much to produce as The Late Late Show.
Can anyone or anything still draw a respectable audience between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. on American television? The answer is yes, but it may make most late-night veterans queasy. Two years ago, Fox News launched Gutfeld! at 11 p.m., hosted by “libertarian” comedian Greg Gutfeld, the Puck to Fox’s aging audience.
When Gutfeld’s show debuted on April 5, 2021, Fox’s ratings in the time slot started climbing rapidly. Although Gutfeld! starts earlier than Colbert, Fallon, and Kimmel, making it a not-quite-fair fight, Fox positioned the show as a late-night slayer. And Gutfeld does, in fact, attract as many as 2.5 million viewers a night. Of course, Fox appeals to red America, while virtually every other late-night show has to battle one another for the blue audience. But that has not stopped Gutfeld from taking a victory lap: His next book is titled The King of Late Night. Through a spokesperson, Gutfeld (who, full disclosure, routinely mocks me on TV) told me his brand of comedy is giving late-night a new lease on life. “Thanks to our show,” he said, “I predict you’re going to see a correction—a healthy, necessary shift back toward comedy and away from the nauseating, pretentious virtue signaling that replaced comedy on Kimmel and Colbert.”
From my vantage point, Gutfeld’s ratings have hit a ceiling, with little if any further room to grow, but it’s a high-enough ceiling to merit recognition. And his success has come at the same time that buzzed-about liberal shows like Samantha Bee’s have come to an end. “We shot the last episode on an iPhone,” Kahn noted, because Bee was sick with COVID-19 but still wanted to host from home. Bee was one of a very small number of women in late-night. Eric Deggans, the TV critic for NPR, reacted to the cancellation by writing, “It seems the space for original content in late-night TV is slowly shrinking. And it’s happening just as women and people of color are getting real opportunities to join the party.”
When I asked Scovell about obvious candidates for the Late Late job that now no longer exists, she named two Black women: Ziwe, who hosts a variety series on Paramount’s Showtime network, and Amber Ruffin, who had an eponymous show on NBC’s Peacock streaming service. Both women “are so deserving of a chance,” she said, “and they’ve already proven they can do it.”
There is one other area of unlikely growth after dark, and it’s at The Daily Show, which is enjoying double-digit ratings increases since Noah’s departure in December. Every week, the show features a different guest host—Sarah Silverman, Al Franken, Leslie Jones, Hasan Minhaj, Chelsea Handler, the list goes on—and every week is captivating. Kal Penn, who hosted in mid-March, told Variety, “I love that all of the guest hosts so far have brought something unique to their week. No single week is anywhere near what the other weeks are like.” Penn, naturally, said he would love the job full-time, but as Comedy Central lines up guest hosts through at least May, it is beginning to look less like a tryout process and more like a new template for the show. “Back in the early days,” Bee once said, The Daily Show “felt like a startup.” The guest-host game has restored that energy. Plus, as a Paramount executive remarked to me, “it’s a potential way of keeping costs down.” The rotation means “you’re not paying someone $20 million a year.”
When I was stretching for the right word to describe the state of late-night—the word is not death, but it’s . . . what?—Bill Carter came up with it immediately. “Diminution,” he said. Not dead, but diminished. And I would add: desperate for some innovation. The format has been deconstructed because the traditional TV schedule has been turned into a mere suggestion. Every brilliant Corden bit now exists somewhere inside an endless library of videos. Adele’s Carpool Karaoke, from his second year, has 260 million views. One Direction, Justin Bieber, and Sia are all above 150 million. YouTube views and Nielsen ratings are apples and oranges, to be sure, but on YouTube, Corden won Carson-sized audiences and beyond hundreds of times during his tenure. And as one Late Late staffer pointed out to me, the clips will always be there.
Television is frustratingly fleeting, but the internet is forever. We might not always have late-night, but we’ll always have late-night on YouTube.
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