James Corden recently left his job as host of the CBS late night talk show The Late Late Show after eight years, and following his departure I had assumed the network would replace him with a new host as they have always done with that show ever since Tom Snyder was replaced with Craig Kilborn in 1999, but it turns out Corden would be the last Late Late host because CBS has decided to end the series completely. This was surprising to me because it not only meant that Corden was out of the late night game but it also meant that a television show that has been on since 1995 was leaving the air. So I decided to explore the origin and history of this television institute that I have had the pleasure of growing up watching through the years.
The origin of the series came after comedian and late night talk show host David Letterman left NBC’s Late Night to host The Late Show on CBS in 1993. Letterman’s contract with CBS gave him and his production company Worldwide Pants the power to produce the show in the time slot immediately following Letterman’s talk show, which at that time featured repeats of CBS’s short-lived crime investigation series from the early ’90s Crimetime After Primetime. When deciding on a host for the series that would come to be known as The Late Late Show, Letterman chose news anchor and broadcasting personality Tom Snyder for the job.
Tom Snyder had previously gained national fame as the host of The Tomorrow Show, the late night talk show that used to follow The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on NBC from 1973 to 1982 before David Letterman’s Late Night replaced it. Tomorrow had a less conventional and less comedy-focused approach to talk shows (Snyder’s background was in news, not comedy) and David Letterman idolized Snyder, so that less conventional format carried over into The Late Late Show when Snyder left his job at cable network CNBC and returned to broadcast television to host the show in 1995. Snyder had previously hosted his own post-Tomorrow television series back in the 1980s on the local ABC station in New York, but after Oprah Winfrey’s popular talk show took over the time slot and dashed all hope for Snyder to take his show to syndication, he moved to radio and later CNBC before finally joining the CBS family.
Filmed in Los Angeles, California at the famous CBS Television City and complete with jazzy saxophone theme song, The Late Late Show had no studio audience and it brought Snyder’s intimate and conversational interview style to CBS late night to much success. Similar to the style of Charlie Rose, Snyder had more than just actors promoting movies on his show. He dedicated entire episodes to interviews with people in the world of news and politics as well, and his conversations were almost always fascinating.
Of course by the time Tom Snyder came to The Late Late Show on CBS, comedian Conan O’Brien had taken over Late Night from Letterman on NBC, and CBS wanted Late Late to be more young, hip and funny like Conan’s show, so after Snyder’s run ended in 1999 and he departed, comedian, ESPN SportsCenter commentator and former Daily Show host Craig Kilborn took over the show from 1999 to 2004 and brought his own style to the series (Jon Stewart would take over Kilborn’s duties as host of The Daily Show the same year).
The edgy Kilborn was known for his deadpan delivery, cheeky humor and slightly anarchic energy. After his self-narrated intro, he would deliver a monologue, chat at the desk to his audience and deliver news, interview celebrities and play such games with his guests as Five Questions and Yambo (a high-pressure trivia game) plus perform sketches and introduce wacky characters like Sebastian the Asexual Icon, the Ewok Guy and more. Kilborn had a good run but he reportedly grew out of his desire to host a late night comedy after five years, with some speculating it was dissatisfaction with the pay, although he said he developed a different comedy style than what CBS wanted and found the late night talk show format repetitive and the business side unsatisfactory.
Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson previously moved to L.A. and found regular work as Drew Carey’s boss Mr. Wick in the ABC sitcom The Drew Carey Show from 1996 to 2003, and a year after that, after guest hosting the show following Kilborn’s departure, Ferguson was tapped to succeed Kilborn as the permanent host of The Late Late Show. Ferguson, my personal favorite of all the Late Late hosts, brought an irreverent anti-talk show sensibility to the show from 2005 to 2014, from his robot skeleton sidekick Geoff Peterson (voiced and operated by Josh Robert Thompson and constructed by Grant Imahara of Mythbusters fame) to his recurring “Awkward Pause” in which he and his guests would sit and do nothing (sort of) to his running gag of introducing a picture of Paul McCartney and instead showing a picture of Angela Lansbury. Ferguson’s unpredictable devil-may-care persona was truly unique in the American late night comedy world.
In 2014, it was announced that Ferguson would be replaced by English actor and writer James Corden with Letterman’s Worldwide Pants no longer being involved in the production. Corden gained fame in the UK for his roles in British television shows like Fat Friends (2000-05) and Gavin & Stacey (2007-10) which Corden co-created with his Fat Friends co-star Ruth Jones, and he also had acting experience on stage and in film as well as experience hosting such events as the Brit Awards. When Corden came to American late night, he brought The Late Late Show its first house band, led by comedian and bandleader Reggie Watts of IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, and Corden also brought a British style to the way he performed interviews with multiple guests being interviewed at once in a dinner party fashion that was similar to The Graham Norton Show. Corden, who was competing in his time slot directly with Late Night with Seth Meyers on NBC but had more in common with the fun-loving Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, had many fun and hilarious segments but Carpool Karaoke, in which Corden hung out and drove around with celebrity musicians, was by far his most well-known and by far the most viral recurring late night comedy sketch in YouTube history, even getting a spin-off series produced by Corden. This made James Corden by far the most widely popular host in Late Late Show history.
In 2022, James Corden announced he would be leaving The Late Late Show, and with that decision, CBS decided to end the talk show for good and currently plans to revive the Comedy Central panel show @midnight (without the involvement of Chris Hardwick) in its place, with current Late Show host Stephen Colbert serving as executive producer. Which means The Late Late Show has officially ended. I’m pretty sure the show in its various incarnations has been one of the most experimental and wide-ranging in style of any single late night talk show franchise. It even won a Peabody Award thanks to Craig Ferguson, which makes its run even more amazing. There will probably never be another show like it again.