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How James Corden Is Serving a Different Kind of Late Night

James Corden

Corden often asks his team of writers, “How can we make this weirder?”

Photography bySteeve Beckouet.

When news brokein 2014 that James Corden would be taking the reins of the Late Late Show from longtime host Craig Ferguson, the overwhelming response was a collective question: Who the hell is James Corden?

And yet here he is this January morning, sprawled out on a couch in his expansive Hollywood offices, discussing the insane number of YouTube views (47 million and counting) racked up by a recent edition of "Carpool Karaoke," his show's most popular segment. In it, Corden sits in the driver's seat of an SUV, cheerfully belting out tunes with his passenger: none other than Adele. The two cruise through the streets of London, singing over her greatest hits and Spice Girls' "Wannabe," and rapping to Kanye West and Nicki Minaj's "Monster" -- that is, when the chanteuse isn't detailing her drunken exchanges with fans, or questioning her new haircut ("Is it a mum bob?").Adele

In the clip -- the most viral video for any late-night show since 2013 -- Adele is relaxed and hilarious. Watch the same segment in an episode with Mariah Carey, Justin Bieber, or Stevie Wonder, and you come away with a similar feeling: Stars you might have once considered divas or hot messes or inaccessible legends seem so...human.

Their openness is largely a reflection of Corden, who quickly reveals a wry, gently self-deprecating sense of humor. Later, on set at CBS's famous Television City, he marvels at the beautiful unlikelihood of someone like him, a relative unknown (at least here in the U.S.), snagging such a coveted spot.

"To put their eggs in my basket was very bold of them," Corden says. "Outside of my being male and white, it was an incredibly brave decision for CBS."

Of course, it isn't his first time at the rodeo. Before this gig, Corden -- who was born in 1978 to a middle-class English family (his mother was a social worker, his father a musician in the Royal Air Force) -- had already spent almost 20 years in the entertainment industry. He started his career at 17 in a West End musical, making a name for himself in Alan Bennett's The History Boys.

"Then I realized all the other guys in the show were getting big parts in movies and that wasn't going to happen to me, solely because of the way I looked," he says. Corden's sweet revenge: to create and star in the hit U.K. sitcom Gavin and Stacey, for which he won a BAFTA. Since then he's earned a Tony, in 2012, for his performance in Broadway's One Man, Two Guvnors and starred with Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep in 2014's Into the Woods. He'll next appear opposite Nicholas Hoult in the dark comedy Kill Your Friends, about a murderous A&R guy working at the height of the '90s Britpop craze.

His current role, however, allows Corden to collaborate with a slew of personalities on his own terms. The key to Late Late's increasing success, Corden thinks, is its breaking down of the fourth wall. "We wanted to be sure it wasn't one celebrity at a time, telling the same three stories they've rehearsed for every talk show," he explains. "We wanted some semblance of organic conversation." Thus the setup: essentially a roundtable of two or three guests, with the audience seated around them, stadium-style.

Corden often asks his team of writers, "How can we make this weirder?" The answer usually involves booking an unexpected mix of talent -- Zac Efron with Ben Kingsley, Betty White with basketball player Amar'e Stoudemire -- and integrating them into loopy, often elaborate sketches. One bit featured Corden and Tom Hanks acting out scenes from Hank's filmography in a frenetic medley full of wigs and costume changes. Bieber has popped up in multiple "caraoke" skits, doing the robot and, for once, just looking like a fun, goofy kid.

"Ultimately, the segment's appeal lies in the unguarded nature of it," Corden says of "Carpool Karaoke," which was born in 2011, when Corden drove George Michael around, crooning Wham! songs with him for a sketch for Comic Relief. "There's something very joyful about seeing people singing their own hits in the same place we sing them in. When I started the show, I was very aware that it was my job to make people smile. I'm good at that."

Corden pauses. "Finding what you're good at is the real gift, which always brings me back to school," he says. "If you're like me, you might get bullied. I did. But I always knew, Yeah, you might be smarter or stronger or more popular than I am, but when the school play comes around, I'll be the king. The truth is, if you didn't get bullied in school, you're probably a prick."

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