By Melissa Maerz
Updated March 23, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

What do you think of this new guy, James Corden?

It was the question on everyone’s lips early Tuesday morning, after the 36-year-old British funnyman took over for Craig Ferguson as host of The Late Late Show. And no one enjoys asking more than Corden himself, who has spent the past few weeks posing that question to security guards and shoppers who have no idea who this “James Corden” guy is.

During his show’s premiere, Corden often riffed on the idea that he’s still a relative unknown in America. “Hello everyone!” the sandy-haired, baby-faced host said to the crowd. “I know what you’re thinking: Oh look, Andy Richter’s got his own show!”

But if Corden were truly a nobody in Hollywood, he never would’ve gotten an all-star introduction like this. In one early sketch, Corden joked that he’d landed the gig by finding one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. He was shown beating out Simon Cowell, Joel McHale, George Lopez, Lena Dunham, Billy Crystal, Eddie Redmayne, Katie Couric, Chris Rock, and, finally, Chelsea Handler, whose golden ticket Corden stole. Friends from CBS stopped by, including Leslie Moonves and Allison Janney, to coach Corden on his hosting duties. Jay Leno slapped him. His Into the Woods co-star Meryl Streep appeared to him as an angel. “I believe in you,” she said. “Everyone does. Right now, I think the problem is you don’t believe in yourself. You are on the edge of glory. You were meant to be a host.”

When he thanked her, she replied, “You’re welcome, James… I’m sorry, what’s your second name?”

A brief primer: British people know Corden as the co-creator and co-star of the U.K. sitcom Gavin and Stacey. Broadway musical-goers know him as the Tony-winning co-star of One Man, Two Guvnors and as the baker from Rob Marshall’s movie adaptation of Into the Woods. Geeks like me know him from Doctor Who and the cult comedy-thriller The Wrong Mans. Late-night viewers know him as a popular guest on Conan, Late Night with Seth Meyers, and The Late Show with David Letterman. No one knows him from stand-up comedy. Unlike most late-night hosts, he doesn’t come from that world. He can sing. He can dance. But the old-fashioned monologue isn’t really his thing.

Maybe it’s wise, then, that Corden skipped the topical jokes and went straight to introducing himself. He was surprisingly earnest in his opening address, where he established himself as the married father of a four-year-old son and a daughter who’s only 16 weeks old. He was humble, making sure to issue a “massive thank you” to Ferguson, and insisting that “however shocked you are that I’m doing this job, you will never be as shocked as I am.” He even took the time to introduce his parents to the audience, awkwardly joking, “They’ve never been to Los Angeles before… They’re eating kale every day. My mum’s getting a boob job next week.” (His mum vehemently shook her head: “No!”) At one point, he stopped to look directly into the camera, promising, “I will really do my best not to let any of you down.”

Corden has been telling reporters that he wants to bring “warmth” to late night, as if the ediger days of, say, Letterman insulting Madonna hadn’t already given way to the kinder, gentler, celebrity-friendlier era of Jimmy Fallon. He has positioned himself as an anti-snark crusader in the mold of Ellen DeGeneres. That’s surprising, since warm-fuzziness hasn’t always been his strength. In the U.K., he’s known for what the London Observer describes as “mouthy, occasionally off-colour jokes.” Remember that this is a guy who held his own in a public brawl with Patrick Stewart.

Somehow, last night, the nice-guy role served him well with his first guests, Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks. He kicked back with them on the couch instead of conducting a formal interview from behind a desk, which made the conversation feel less stilted. The Late Late Show’s producers have said that they’re modeling the format on Graham Norton’s U.K. series, in which all the stars all come out at the same time and talk to one another instead of being introduced and interviewed one by one.

For now, that format works: There’s a playful, cocktail-party vibe among the guests. Corden recently told Esquire that he doesn’t want to have rehearsed interviews where “someone comes out, sits in the chair, and [the host] says, ‘Now, you’ve just been in Venice,’ and they tell their story.” Instead, he grilled Kunis about whether she and her fiance Ashton Kutchor had secretly gotten married—“I don’t know, maybe!” she said, grinning—while Hanks grabbed Kunis’ hands to search for a wedding band. The three of them discussed the demands of parenthood. Corden teased Hanks for “manspreading” on the subway.

It was nice to see a late-night host talk freely with actors about their lives instead of just quizzing them about the movies they’re promoting. Yet when Corden inquired about Kunis’ jewelry line, prompting her to promote her brand with a “gift” for Corden’s wife, it made me long for the days when actors actually talked about acting.

You could argue that the oddest interview moment came from Corden’s band leader, Reggie Watts. “In 1806, do you think that people might’ve been a little bit different than the way they are today?” Watts asked Hanks. “Well, I’ll tell ya,” Hanks replied, “they had no concept of Velcro.. and I think that alone makes them a lesser form of humanity.”

The Late Late Show could use more weird moments like that. One of the biggest advantages of Corden’s gig is that his 12:30 p.m. time slot eases any pressure to appeal to a broad audience. Ferguson earned his rep as one of late-night’s best hosts by experimenting with ideas: robot-skeleton sidekicks, singing puppets, foul-mouthed bunnies. He booked unusual guests, let awkward pauses linger, ripped up producers’ notecards.

Corden could stand to take a few more risks, especially since the night’s best moment didn’t feel all that new. In a montage set against a green screen, Hanks performed scenes from his most famous movies while Corden appeared as the Mona Lisa in The Da Vinci Code or Wilson the volleyball in Castaway. It was a fun sketch, but it was clearly indebted to Fallon.

Corden is the youngest host in late-night, and he has the youngest showrunner in 33-year-old Ben Winston, who has directed films and videos for One Direction and Justin Bieber. But Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have already tapped a younger audience with celebrity stunts and goofball pranks made for viral consumption. The fact that Corden has a bar on stage, just like Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live, doesn’t help. He will have to develop his own voice if he wants to compete.

Late night desperately needs new voices. Jay Leno is gone. David Letterman and Jon Stewart are leaving. Larry Wilmore is just starting to crack the same old white-guy-with-a-scruffy-haircut mold, and Handler will follow him next year with a new show for Netflix. This is the perfect time for Corden to show what makes him different. His closing piano ballad, an ode to viewers like “the stoner who can barely lift her face from off the futon,” was funny and sweet. More musical sketch-comedy numbers could help set him apart from his peers.

So, for now, I’m with Meryl Streep. I’m rooting for him. But it’s no wonder that nobody knows who Corden is: He’s still figuring that out himself.

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