Any crisis tests your mettle. Over last summer, fall and winter, the team behind CBS’ “The Late Late Show with James Corden” were leaning into their variety show strengths, staging ambitious fast choreography for “Crosswalk” musicals (“The Sound of Music,” “Frozen II”) and following up their ninth Emmy win for the Carpool Karaoke Variety Special “When Corden Met McCartney, Live from Liverpool” with guests Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber, and Kanye West — who performed Airpool Karaoke with a 100-member choir, streaming on Apple Music.
All that big-scale production came to a skidding halt when the show shut down on March 13, 2020. “It was all a scramble,” said Ben Winston, “The Late Late Show” executive producer who moved to L.A. from England five years ago to reinvent the show with Tony-winner James Corden. As talk shows hosted by Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Bill Maher, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee turned more political in the Trump era, Corden leaned toward more variety, less talk, and chased viral breakouts on YouTube. “If it’s good, it will travel,” was the Corden mantra.
Now Corden’s team had to reinvent the show, which airs in more than 155 countries, during a global pandemic. On March 11, double-taping started off like another other day; by the afternoon there were whispers there might not be an audience for the evening show. (There wasn’t.) “We had to start putting everything in place to pick back up at another location,” Winston said. “It was a dizzying day as we were learning what the chain of other late night shows were doing.”
Instead of starting right back up with a simple mobile phone or single-camera set-up, “The Late Late Show” took two weeks to figure things out. They opted to relaunch with the ambitious one-hour primetime special “HomeFest” on March 30 on CBS while raising funds for charity. Unlike the other nightly talk shows focused on breaking news, Corden wasn’t rushing to get back on the air. “We wanted to make more of an event,” Winston said, “something that reassured people at a time at that point in lockdown. The concept was to bring people together even though they were far apart.”
The team started out by designing a camera rig that attached an iPhone to a high-res digital camera with a good microphone, which they shipped to the “HomeFest” performers. “James could FaceTime into them, but our feed wasn’t coming from FaceTime,” said executive producer Rob Crabbe. “The feed was from the high-end cameras. That’s the first time that was done.”
Corden and his team called on their prior relationships. The first to commit was pop group BTS, who performed live from their basement rehearsal space in South Korea; followed by singer Billie Eilish and John Legend in Los Angeles; Dua Lipa in London; opera tenor Andrea Bocelli in Tuscany; and magician David Blaine and Ben Platt in New York. Corden was sweating over how to end the show. “Then I found myself thinking of that song ‘You Will Be Found’ from ‘Dear Evan Hansen,'” Corden said. “I thought it would be wonderful to get Ben and the cast from the Broadway and touring show to do that.”
“We were learning as we did it,” said Crabbe, “because it was all new to us. We’re a studio-based show, with a studio crew and director, having to do a remote show. We had to keep everybody safe. We couldn’t have anyone on site. Figuring out the approach was a challenge, with different time zones for people around the world. It was a busy couple of weeks.”
After the lockdown the entire staff met every day on Zoom, even when they had no show to make. (Corden paid his furloughed staff out of his pocket.) The producers organized a guest speaker series with CBS News president Susan Zirinsky, philosopher Alain de Botton, and Showtime president David Nevins. “I was conscious that a lot of our team is in their early to mid 20s,” Corden said, “and living on their own, and need interaction. In many ways it brought us closer as a team. For the writers, a lot of the show was about scale, running out into the road between red lights, re-enacting someone’s movie career in 8 minutes, big bits we were not able to do. It made us think.”
Figuring out how to do “HomeFest” taught the Corden team how to do the show when they returned as the last late night talk show back on air. “‘HomeFest’ was a pilot for how to make the show in that garage,” Winston said.
Realizing this could go on for months, they moved fast to set up Corden’s studio in his Brentwood garage, hanging curtains to block off the contents of the garage and muffling his noisy freezer with blankets. They sent in a small team who entered the space one at a time, helped by Corden, his wife and three kids while maintaining distance, to paint and decorate the set and mount lights and four locked unmanned cameras: a wide shot, a closeup straight down the lens, an over the shoulder as Corden looks at his laptop, and Corden looking at another screen showing Reggie Watts and the band, who play live from their homes, with sound on separate channels.
“It took a long time,” Corden said. “We thought about how this will look and feel, and it took some shifting things around. We figured it out late. Moving a laptop was all it came down to, on a Zoom call. ‘Hang on a minute!’ You figure it out by being in there, feeling it as you go.”
The show created a Zoom control room for the production team, who can look at all four cameras and the laptop screen. The teleprompter operator shares the screen from her computer so Corden can read the autocues for his monologue. And that’s where the host interacts with this guests like Hugh Jackman (whose wife was sorting shoes in the background while his son chased a dog) and Stanley Tucci from London who was called upon to show Corden how to make his first martini.
Does Corden have a wee man crush on “seductive” Tucci and his manly arms? “Irrelevant of your sexuality, you can’t help but be in awe of the man,” he said. “I aspire to be that refined at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday. I let him know what an inspiration he is to me. I have a glass of red wine occasionally, but I hope when our children are slightly older, 5 p.m. isn’t just about trying to feed small people, but I can saunter over to my bar and make my wife a martini.”
There’s an increased intimacy to these interviews. “Pomp and circumstance is stripped away,” said Crabbe, whose crew helps the guests set up their eyelines. “It’s strange for everyone. It’s really interesting what people’s houses look like.”
Adapting to the lockdown world has forced Corden away from elaborate comedy skits and musical production numbers and encouraged him to talk to people. “That’s the nature of our show,” said Corden, “It’s 200 people and guests out there together, you never really have an intimate interview, you’re very aware you’re on TV, and you do want to be fun and lighthearted. There was something humanizing about interviewing people in their own space.”
Both Sen. Joe Biden and his host got misty-eyed by the end of their first interview. While Corden isn’t as overtly political as the other talk show hosts, he doesn’t hide his views either. “I don’t think anybody watching our show would be in any doubt about which way we lean politically,” he said. “It was wonderful to hear the presumptive Democratic nominee talking in a way that was human, and I took great encouragement from it. He talked about the things that America has faced and the world has faced before. And also when he’s at his best, that’s his greatest strength, he has empathy, something lacking in politics the last few years.”
The bookers also changed their approach to guests on the show, bringing on Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari (“Sapiens”) to discuss COVID-19’s Impact on humankind. “We have a lot of big choices to make, whether we deal with this crisis with nationalistic isolation,” Harari told Corden, “or deal with it through international solidarity and cooperation. This will shape the world for years to come.” He decried the politicians who have deliberately undermined the trust of the public in the government and media. “In an emergency like this, you need 100 percent of the people to trust the government and authority.” Luckily, people do seem to trust in science, even though the United States has abdicated its role as global leader. “It’s doing worse than just about any other country.”
On a more optimistic note, de Botton (founder of The School of Life) brought some therapeutic calm and comfort to Corden as well as the audience. De Botton emphasized that vulnerability was not a bad thing. “This is a time when there’s no more FOMO,” he said. “There is no great party somewhere else, all of us are fragile humans trying to hold it together. The pretenses of the normal world have gone… Life is stranger than we’re allowed to admit that it is. We have turned the world more or less upside down in five weeks…We can radically change how we live and be imaginative and courageous. We can play and experiment.”
Finally, the goal for the reconfigured show was for Corden “to be a warm light in the dark,” he said, “with a slice of levity. We wanted to make a show that just said, ‘It’s OK to feel what you’re feeling because that’s all right.’ I have the belief that the brave face could be the villain of all this. What’s been amazing, normally you call a friend and say: ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m great.’ For the first time you call: ‘How are you doing?’ ‘You know what? I’m struggling, I’m finding it a really tough day.'”
And being at home, Corden watched with his son the National Theatre Live stream of his old show “The History Boys,” which having performed it 400 times, he had never seen. “I thought I had forgotten, but suddenly I could remember what I was doing off-stage,” he said. “It was a crazy out-of-body experience.”
The devastating impact of the pandemic on the theater has been emotional for Corden. He figures people will come back for must-see event theatre like Mark Rylance going back to the West End next spring with “Jerusalem,” by Jez Butterworth. “It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in theater,” he said. “It’s an incredibly important play and has his defining performance in it. And it will take things like that on Broadway, a concerted effort from everybody involved, to give people a reason to put themselves in those rooms again. There is no greater community than that Broadway community, to rise to that challenge. However scared I am about it, I find myself allowing myself moments to look to the future when it will be the most joyous celebration. We don’t know when they will be back at the bar central at Joe Allen’s, but it will be buzzing and bubbling again.”