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Everything you need to know about James Corden, who's taking over for Craig Ferguson

James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors
James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors
PBS

Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show ends tonight. He'll be replaced in March by British actor and comedian James Corden. Corden has some exciting plans for his new show, including the fact that his band leader will be comedian and musician Reggie Watts.

But Corden is also getting a crack at a big film role, playing the Baker in the movie version of Into the Woods, which opens Christmas Day. He's rapidly becoming a presence in the US, but many Americans probably have no idea who he is.

If you're one of them, then now is the time to get acquainted with one of the United Kingdom's finest actors and funnymen.

Who is James Corden?

It feels really reductive to call Corden a "British Jack Black," but we guess we'll start there, because it's a good baseline for understanding his appeal. Corden often hits the "intense bigger guy who can be a little annoying" notes Black is often asked to play, but he usually tempers them with sweetness.

In last year's Hulu/BBC Two series The Wrong Mans, for instance, Corden played Phil, an irritating git who kept trying to turn the main character into his best friend, until the two of them were wrapped up in the plot of a thriller and ended up bonding over it. (Corden also co-created the series, showcasing his writing ability.)


But Corden is also a capital-A Actor. Sure, he skews toward big, broad comedy, often with a physical bent, but he's got dramatic chops. His big breakthrough was in the original London stage production of the acclaimed play The History Boys, for instance, and he's won both a Tony Award and a BAFTA for his acting. It's that deep talent that separates Corden from other actors who skew toward the funny fat guy trope.

Do you have some performances of his I could watch?

Of course!

Any attempt to understand the appeal of James Corden must necessarily begin with the deeply sweet, deeply lovable British comedy Gavin & Stacey, which he co-created and played a supporting role in. (It's for his work here that he won his BAFTA.)

Though Gavin & Stacey is a fairly traditional romantic comedy about a long-distance couple, Corden and fellow co-creator Ruth Jones cast themselves as the best friends of the two titular characters, who also meet and fall in love over the course of the series. It's one of TV's most winningly unconventional pairings, and the series can always turn to Corden and Jones when it needs a laugh or two. The show ran for three basically perfect seasons.


From there, you may as well move along to the role that won Corden his Tony, the lead in the play One Man, Two Guvnors. Corden plays a man employed by two criminals at once, who aims to keep them from meeting. As you might expect from that setup, farcical complications ensue.

The play is based on an Italian play from the 1700s, and it largely keeps all of the ridiculousness intact, while moving the action to Brighton in the 1960s. Corden is magnificently over-the-top in the way that only a stage performer can be. Fortunately, PBS recorded the whole thing, so you can watch it for yourself.


Corden can also play dramatic beats quite handily. You might notice that by checking out The Wrong Mans or even going to see Begin Again, currently playing in theaters. You could also wait for his upcoming portrayal of the Baker in the film of Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods.

But you probably don't have a lot of time after watching all of Gavin & Stacey and a stage play, so let's just watch an episode of Doctor Who. In season five's "The Lodger," Corden plays a man the Doctor moves in with. Like all Who episodes, there's a fair amount of comedy, but it also lets Corden show off some other shades in his dramatic profile.


He seems like a great actor, but why would this suggest he should host a late-night talk show?

That's the big question here. Yes, he's a great actor and even a great writer. But those are very different skillsets from "late-night talk-show host," a job that has traditionally gone to comedians, because it's a very natural outgrowth of stand-up.

But it's also easy to forget how deeply indebted this form — as well as most TV forms filmed before a live audience — is to live theater. The late-night talk-show format grew out of 1950s New York, a culture still deeply enmeshed with the world of Broadway, and it has a lot of these stage elements in its DNA.

Those are just the sort of things Corden may be able to play up, and that's probably part of why CBS hired him. After all, when the network hired Ferguson, he was best known for playing a bit part on The Drew Carey Show, and his tenure turned out to be inspired. Corden could just as easily turn out to be an amazing choice.

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