It seems every time anticipation builds for a new late-night host, the stakes become higher for the host to perform up to expectations in the first week. With that, the late-night host has been shaped recently as someone personable, yet also sardonic, sarcastic, and capable of being ironic. If you can blame David Letterman for setting this path 33 years ago, or if it was formed further with the The Daily Show and The Colbert Report formula, sincerity isn’t always in the DNA of a modern late-night host.
When you look at the entire timeline of late-night hosts, you can see how sincerity was once a major part of capturing viewers. Late-night icons like Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson were always sincere, though also had a hint of ego to keep a comedic balance. Carson evolved from a sincere young host to one arguably a little more egotistical and sarcastic by the time the 1980s and ‘90s rolled around. By then, sarcasm was more popular in comedy where new late-night hosts had to adapt.
You could say Arsenio Hall was the most sincere late-night host on the block back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Even though he brought in the younger demographics craving a young and hip late-night host, the return of his sincerity to late-night syndication a couple of years ago didn’t go over well. While you could blame the lack of marketing and promotion on the cancellation, it could be Hall simply didn’t have enough edge people expect in a late-night host for the 21st century.
Now, when you add up Letterman (as sarcastic as ever in his last year on the air), Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’ Brien, and Seth Meyers, you have a collectively snarky late-night bunch that contrasts interestingly with Jimmy Fallon. Yes, the latter host is a little more sincere, even if he also has a darker edge that wavers between sincerity and bitter cynicism, which is an appealing combination.
But what happens when you get a comedy host who’s always sincere, even through his comedy routines? In the world of The Late Late Show, the comedy style of Craig Ferguson was even zanier and more absurd than even Letterman managed. Letterman went very serious during the 9/11 terrorist attack and changed the entire foundation of his cynicism. If he went back to cynical comedy not long after, you can’t say Letterman has ever been quite as cynical as he was back in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Fortunate or not, Ferguson never had to go up against a serious, world-changing event. His comedy thrived living in its own surreal world, mixed with profane Scottish wit. This combination of freewheeling comedy with a Scot accent was a winning combination for a decade, yet definitely never sincere. Any moments of Ferguson being sincere was for only brief moments or when the cameras were off. The rest of the time, the late-night format and all guests were simply one entire joke.
With James Corden now taking Ferguson’s chair, we see some British wit once again on American TV, though this time with what appears to be the most sincere late-night host we’ve ever seen. Corden already seemed to set this persona in his promo commercials for The Late Late Show over the last several months. Then he proved it on March 23 where he debuted his gentler approach to comedy, view of the world, and honest rapport with guests (two at once) on the roster.
Whether Corden really is this way, or it’s a persona he’s set for his TV personality, it’s something seemingly very genuine. And as time goes on in a world of cynicism in entertainment, a lot of people may appreciate this approach, despite missing the loud guffaws with Craig Ferguson.
The question is whether the public will accept less cynical comedy from Corden, or if they’ll find it too soft. Looking at it from a wider view, it’s also a tug-of-war in all of comedy where a darker view of the world brings bigger laughs than a more genuine view.
Then again, having a genuine personality in a cynical world could be much funnier when you put it in perspective. Think of it as the Forrest Gump effect where Forrest’s genuineness and naïve qualities about the world helped bring an endearing comedy and sweetness helping the jaded view the world differently.
James Corden may just look at the world differently, and that’s very refreshing in the cutthroat world of show business. Let’s hope he doesn’t become jaded in the process while likely fighting detractors along with his likely many supporters. So far, the biggest names in showbiz are showing support, which is the best foot forward.
With a few tweaks of his show format, Corden may nurture a new path in late-night TV where genuine behavior brings a new type of funny that’s almost a throwback to a time on TV when cynicism had no place on a single network.