Some weird stuff is going down at 12:37 a.m.
Since the beginning of the year, CBS’ The Late Late Show has been in transition. Its former host Craig Ferguson stepped down on Dec. 19, and new host James Corden doesn’t start until March 23. In the meantime, the show has soldiered on with a rotating cast of emcees—people like Judd Apatow, John Mayer, Sean Hayes, and Whitney Cummings. The revolving door has allowed some of the strangest and most exciting things on TV to happen—because for the first time in a long while, a late-night show is giving viewers the impression that anything can happen. Simply put, there are no rules.
Each guest host puts his or her own spin on the job, but they all have one thing in common: They have nothing at stake. They aren’t competing for a job, they don’t have to worry about ratings, and they’re allowed to bring their friends—or in some cases, family—as guests.
When comedian Jim Gaffigan hosted on Jan. 19, he brought his five children to perform a song and interviewed his wife about their babysitter (who turned out to be Batman). Mayer got Andy Cohen to retell a dream he had about the singer (“I think it was PG, headed toward another direction”), covered Jeff Buckley’s version of “Lilac Wine” with John Legend, and had a surreal conversation with the two sharks that danced with Katy Perry at the Super Bowl. Apatow shared family photos and moderated a conversation between Lena Dunham and Adam Sandler involving Brooklyn fashion and Taylor Swift. Regis Philbin’s turn as guest host involved a surprisingly candid, freewheeling interview with David Letterman and Paul Shaffer. (Fortunately, you can watch everything you’ve missed so far on The Late Late Show‘s YouTube page.)
These unscripted moments give us exactly what we want from a talk show: surprising conversation. We get to see celebrities riff the way they might when there are no cameras. No one’s guard is up, no one’s plugging anything. Everyone’s just…chill. It’s enough to make you wonder: Why can’t a talk show always be like this?
Apatow, for one, enjoys the format. “Having a lot of hosts over a short period of time is a fun oddity,” he tells EW, adding that the friends-as-guests formula adds a certain unplanned magic: “I knew we would have things to talk about that other talk-show hosts wouldn’t know to ask.” On his second night, Apatow invited Garry Shandling and Jeff Goldblum, since he knew they were friends. “They had strange things to talk about that other people wouldn’t.” For instance, viewers learned that Shandling and Goldblum share a therapist who, much to Shandling’s horror, ended up getting tipsy and dancing at Goldblum’s wedding. “I knew it wouldn’t be just one person but all of us talking—a little bit like how people spoke on those shows in the ’70s. And that’s fun—becaue when do you get to see Adam and Lena talk? And to see how they relate to each other?”
Apatow adds that he had a failproof method of making sure things felt loose: “I’ve noticed that whenever I do well as a guest on a talk show, almost nobody calls me. So I convinced myself that absolutely no one was watching, and that made me feel better.”
Even when things haven’t gone right, the show has been a blast. Case in point: Adam Pally, whose stint happened during a snowstorm without an audience or a proper set. It was one of the most delightfully bizarre hours of television to air in a while, due in large part to the hilariously improvised banter between Pally and his collaborator Ben Schwartz. Apatow himself called it “riotously funny.” That’s news to Pally’s ears: “I don’t think CBS even knows that the show aired,” he says. “I kind of was like, ‘Okay, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ve been improvising with Ben for 12 years, and I know him very well.’ So I just thought, ‘If I’m not going to have an audience or do a traditional talk show, I should have as much fun as I can.’ ”
Pally attributes the show’s off-the-cuff nature to the fact that the network’s too distracted with other things. “Literally, I think it was an afterthought [for CBS]. The truth is, they’ve got to launch two late-night shows with, like, billions of dollars worth of sponsorships [at stake]. To have one talk show with a marginal comedian, I just don’t think it’s as important to them as other thingss—as it shouldn’t be.” But he does adds that CBS has reached out to him since the taping: “I just got a call today that they wanted me to come in. I don’t know when that’s happening, but I’m also not sure if it’s just because they think I filed too many expense reports or something. I think I might be going to the principal’s office, but that’s okay. I deserve it.”
With one month left, there’s still a lot of fun to be had on the The Late Late Show. Some of the guest hosts you can expect to see include: Thomas Lennon with guest “Weird Al” Yankovic and Natasha Leggero on Feb. 17; Will Arnett with Jimmy Kimmel, David Cross, and John Krasinski on Feb. 20; Kunal Nayyar with Bob Newhart on Feb. 26—and much more. One person who probably won’t be on, though? Judd Apatow. “I’d run out of friends to invite in one more day,” he jokes. “And besides, the lack of interest from Hollywood was resounding.” Well, we’re certainly into it—but maybe it’s better if CBS thinks we aren’t watching.