Signing Off Earlier Is Now The Norm

James Corden signs off tonight as the fourth and final host of CBS’ LATE, LATE SHOW, and in many circles it’s being lamented as all too quick a run.  Corden only started in 2015, yet another out-of-the-box choice of former CBS czar Les Moonves, and was not among the 19 guest hosts that were given on-air auditions after previous host Craig Ferguson left.  Indeed it was a surprise that Corden, a Brit, was hired to replace Ferguson, a Scot.  He was known among Broadway and West End theatergoers for his turn in an acclaimed play called ONE MAN, TWO GUVNRS and had a lead role in a British sitcom called GAVIN AND STACEY, which had made the rounds of various U.S. networks for adoption in a similar manner to how THE OFFICE had been recreated at the time.

But Corden and Ferguson could not be more different.  Ferguson was a somewhat more vulgar and less creative version of his late night stablemate David Letterman, a credible if brooding interviewer who was buttressed by a skeletal sidekick named Geoff Peterson, who many nights had more personality than did Ferguson.  Corden, in contrast, was literally a ball of energy–doughy, cherubic and musically gifted.  He made far greater usage of remote production than any late night host since Jay Leno, and staged remarkably entertaining disruptions of Los Angeles traffic via his groundbreaking CARPOOL KARAOKE and CROSSWALK: THE MUSICAL franchises.  And he borrowed the all-at-once group dynamic interviewing style of fellow Brti Graham Norton, bringing on his multiple guests all at once, usually after his monologue and at least one extended remote piece, thus allowing more banter and connection between the guests as well as the more fawning Corden.  Not since the days of Johnny Carson–and only when friends would be booked on the same epispde– did American audiences witness something similar.  I personally found it unpredictable and made Corden’s lighter style a more desirable choice than Seth Meyers, who leverages his legacy as Weekend Update emcee to  create biting nightly political commentary and topical humor, but on many more fretful occasions is a bit too heavy for 12:35 AM.

What makes this finale (which will be preceded by a primetime special showcasing the best of Corden’s eight-year run in the 10 PM hour) especiallu poignant is that, after 28 years of at least trying to program a time slot with a show whose name was rooted in the annals of CBS local stations’ running of ancient black and white movies at a time when they were often the only TV station yet to sign off and which they never attempted to counterprogram when Letterman took over for Tom Snyder with a far more daypart-apropos version of his ill-fated NBC daytime show.  Indeed, after his initial success at CBS, it was Letterman who moved Snyder to Los Angeles and resurrected his old TOMORROW format, more akin to the likes of Jack Paar, as his lead-out.  When Snyder proved to skew older than the network would have liked, they turned to a handsome and overly ambitious ex-Daily Show anchor, Craig Kilborn, in a flagrant attempt to age down their audience.  Kilborn delivered a somewhat younger profile than did Snyder but nothing like what he had delivered for Comedy Central. Ferguson was an imported compromise between his two predecessors, yet another alum of one of Moonves’ favorite shows while he ran Warner Brothers TV, THE DREW CAREY SHOW.  And indeed, he was the only one of the quartet to have hosted more than 2000 episodes over a nine-year run.  But thanks in part to COVID and also to a reduced production schedule, Corden will only eclipse’s Snyder’s five-year total of episodes by six even though he lasted only eight years.

Many still think that late night should be a bastion of consistency and, indeed, no one may ever beat Johnny Carson’s 30-year run or Conan O’ Brien’s endurance in the daypart combining his NBC and TBS series–even Jimmy Kimmel, who just celebrated his 20th anniversary, continues to insist he won’t be around for another decade.  Jimmy Fallon’s in year nine, but he’s struggling ratings-wise.  Stephen Colbert, while currently getting more viewership than anyone, is in his mid-50s and somehow I can’t see him doing his shtick in 2043.

No, Corden’s going out in a timeline akin to Trevor Noah (seven years), and he’s been far more successful with digital content than any one of his predecessors was.  Indeed, the entire concept of late night television is now a misnomer, as the majority of viewership occurs both online and in time shifting,  The hundreds of millions of downloads of Corden’s sketches, despite a nominal and older audience on CBS linear and live TV, allowed him to maintain a global presence and will help establish his next move, which apparently will be in his native UK.  He’s still relatively young (44) and has a lot of potential to do what he wants, where he wants, when he wants.

And rather than try and establish yet another new personality, especially with someone like Moonves no longer around, CBS will instead resurrect the “game” show @MIDNIGHT, a far less successful Comedy Central franchise than THE DAILY SHOW or  THE COLBERT REPORT, and will program only the 12:37-1:08 AM half-hour.  It will return time back to the affiliates, who will likely shove in either one of the few syndicated options available (one possibility, ironically, is a clip show hosted by Fergison) or, more likely, paid programming. Because signing off early in a world of multiple screens and declining audiences is a far more bottom-line responsible move these days.

So lift a pint not only to Corden, but to late night television as a whole.  Becaus truth be told we’re far more likely to see more and quicker farewells in the near term than we did in Carson’s day.    And we probably won’t see anyone quite as surprising as Corden in any time slot any time soon.  At least in America.

Until next time…

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