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Opinion: No one knew who James Corden was. Then he made ‘The Late Late Show’ a huge success

Opinion by Bill Carter for CNN Business Perspectives

Every time a host leaves an established late-night show, the guessing game begins:

Who will be the successor to Johnny Carson or David Letterman? Or, in this most recent case, James Corden at CBS? Corden announced Thursday that he will leave “The Late Late Show” next year.

The last time this specific opening occurred, in 2014, when Craig Ferguson left as host of “The Late Late Show,” I was asked frequently about who might replace him. I felt a certain confidence in saying CBS would surely pursue a talented woman to host because that was such a screaming deficiency in late-night history.

Then CBS announced Corden had the job, which not only blew up that idea, but also every guess anyone had made anywhere. I didn’t think of him for a basic reason: I had never heard of him.

That was on me for not following Broadway very closely, because Corden had already won a Tony Award for the play “One Man, Two Guvnors.” But, in my defense, who else knew this guy? CBS executives had seen him in the play and decided he was a big talent (correct), thinking initially he might star in a sitcom. Late-night occurred to them only after Ferguson left.

How unknown was Corden? He once told me a story of how in the weeks of preparation to begin his show, he took a break one afternoon to get a sandwich, walking off the CBS lot in Los Angeles. When he returned, a guard refused to let him in, saying he had no idea who Corden was. Corden pointed to the enormous billboard atop the building announcing his upcoming show. It had his face on it, about the size of a baseball diamond. The guard looked at it, shook his head and said, “Nah. I just don’t see it.”

Now it’s seven years later, and Corden has had a successful run, bringing a truly original voice (in his case, literally) to late-night, and fitting in superbly with the biggest new requirement in the job: finding creative bits that can drive viewing online to augment the continually falling ratings for the nightly broadcast versions of these shows. Think Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets” or Jimmy Fallon’s “Thank You Notes,” etc.

Corden’s voice — the guy can sing — has been his great asset because his signature bit, “Carpool Karaoke,” has become an entertainment industry phenomenon. It’s now so popular that just about every major recording artist does the segment with him. (Corden told me that he had to beg people at the beginning.)

Well, why not when they see viewing numbers for the bit? His automotive collaboration with Adele from 2016 has garnered more than 250 million views on YouTube.

The lesson? If your pool of potential successors is dominated only by the world of male stand-up comics, and you don’t seek out the outliers somewhere in the UK or South Africa or an obscure corner of the internet, you’re likely to end up wet — and wrong.

In this case, CBS should again count gender among its priorities. It’s still kind of a scandal no women have broken out in a broadcast late-night show. The talent is there: Samantha Bee on TBS and Amber Ruffin on Peacock (among others) have demonstrated that. Could they succeed five nights a week on a network? Why not?

Someone with a sketch background might also be smart: Kate McKinnon from “Saturday Night Live?” Perhaps Kristen Wiig? What about Robin Thede from “A Black Lady Sketch Show?”

CBS has some candidates close at hand at its sister network Showtime, where Desus Nice and The Kid Mero from “Desus & Mero” are doing impressive, original late-night comedy. They would fit the bill with creative bits to play online, if a little untraditional for CBS.

Some people have floated CBS bringing Trevor Noah and “The Daily Show” over from Comedy Central, a corporate sibling. But that would be destructive to Comedy Central, and Noah is already in the big leagues with an 11 p.m. show. Why move to be a wee-hours follow act, even to a star like Stephen Colbert?

A different sort of diverse fresh face, maybe? Actress and comedian Awkwafina is an intriguing name. So is the very talented stand-up Ali Wong.

All of that said, the world is full of funny, talented people whom I have not previously heard of — something James Corden has proved conclusively.

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