Late-Night TV Roundup: James Corden’s ‘Late Late Show’ and the Sincerity vs. Snark Battle

Will James Corden become the most sincere late-night TV host?
Will James Corden become the most sincere late-night TV host?

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.

Did ‘Birdman’ Bring a Catharsis to Hollywood Rather Than Provoke Celebrity Culture?

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Did “Birdman” manage to save Hollywood in more ways than one?

A couple of notable films have gone after Hollywood with a vengeance early this year. One managed to win over Oscar, and the other is likely to be forgotten by the Oscars next year because of a release this coming March. But there isn’t any denying the connective strings between Birdman and Maps to the Stars in their stinging condemnation of show business and celebrity culture. Arguably, the latter film has more of a beef against how Hollywood works than the former. And if Hollywood has a possible beef in return with Maps to the Stars, what are they possibly thinking about Birdman?

The above latter film has had a surprising path since it released in theaters this last fall. While working as a writer at The Movie Network over the last six months, I did a review of Birdman and pondered how the Oscar voting academy would take to a film that clearly pointed to show business as destroyer of families, credibility, ethics, and career. While that’s only a possible outcome for anyone, there was a lot of familiarity there. We even had to use the overused term “meta” because Michael Keaton’s own trajectory mirrored that of his character, Riggan Thomson.

Thomson’s character doesn’t have the same outcome as Keaton, which gives an even more powerful metaphorical parallel to actors in the Hollywood system. The greatest thing about Birdman is that Thomson eventually becomes aware of how much he’s been destroyed by his career and the trap he’s found himself in trying a comeback on Broadway. Regardless, with so much of Hollywood going to Broadway lately, I still posed the question of whether the film would offend celebrity culture voting in the academy.

It turns out that assumption was wrong on every level. Birdman has won every major award on the award circuit up to this writing. With this blog written a day before the Oscars, it’s likely the film will either get Best Picture or at least Best Director as a split with Boyhood.

So did the magic of the filmmaking behind Birdman usurp its message? Perhaps Hollywood wasn’t offended at showing celebrity culture as an inexorable trap nobody can escape. Maybe Hollywood found it refreshing that a film finally took on the issue in a bold way without flinching. It possibly even created spirited discussions in the voting community that would have made a great documentary on its own.

The reality is that celebrity culture has to be aware of the pitfalls their industry has had for decades. Birdman makes it even more painfully aware without necessarily offering any answers to fix it. The film’s ending alone is one that many people are still debating and whether it’s redemption or just giving up.

Any notable person watching the film must have had any complacent thoughts about their own career shaken to the core while accepting either interpretation of the ending. There isn’t a doubt movies are waking us up to increasingly more complex issues in culture and in our lives so we can work toward improvement. Many of those movies aren’t offering direct answers and instead let us know about hidden issues so we can find the long road to finding solutions, possibly years from now.

Maps to the Stars (from director David Cronenberg) is a film that also takes this same tack, though much more blisteringly than Birdman. Cronenberg shows us a ruined actress (this time played by Julianne Moore) with people in her orbit even more ruined by the ravages of show business and parental neglect. The pyromaniac character of Agatha Weiss (played by the still underrated Mia Wasikowska) is an interesting contrast to Emma Stone’s Sam Thomson, despite both being the emblems of what we see so much of in the entertainment industry.

Both of these films had to have hit a nerve with Hollywood families who’ve had kids ending up almost exactly like Agatha and Sam, if even worse (or dead). An Oscar victory for Birdman may be the message that the academy voters get it and they’ll work toward preventing more Riggan and Sam Thomsons from happening again. To them, ribbing celebrity culture and smearing the concept for all of its egoism and hedonism wasn’t the point of the movie. They may have seen the film in a much different light from the public who had more mixed opinion.

The irony here is that because of Birdman’s other innovations in direction, it’s going to be remembered far into the future than Maps to the Stars likely will. Both, however, may be just the beginning of films taking Hollywood to task for their perpetual craziness, whether seriously or through satire.

It may have already been enough for the celebrity world to permanently change things for the better.