The Enigma of James Corden

When I went to see The History Boys during its first run back in 2004, I was aware that the ‘fat guy’ was the funny one. It was the same in the movie – the character of Timms was defined by A) his weight, and B) delivering the most overt chuckles in a play which is, tonally, a bit like The West Wing played out in a Northern grammar school. Obviously, when Gavin and Stacey started to air in 2007, we all realised exactly who the actor playing The History Boys’ ‘fat guy’ was, and, since then, he’s become part of our weird, collective cultural consciousness in the UK.

The best and worst thing about James Corden is that he’s not obviously particularly good at anything. I love Gavin and Stacey, and I love his character Smithy, but his jokes in the show can be pretty much broken down into three categories: jokes about his bromance with Gavin, jokes about Essex, and jokes about food. Subtle it is not. Similarly, whilst there are moments of emotional catharsis in the show, the delivery is a bit more soap operatic than your average sitcom, so the show is scrubbed clean of the tough edges of its logical predecessors like The Office and The Thick of It. But, all that said, the show is great, and its great precisely because it’s not that good. It’s a show that is best summed up by its musical choices, which consist of insipid 00s indie-pop bands, like The Kooks, Razorlight, Paolo Nutini and The Pigeon Detectives (if anyone remembers them).

Here in the UK, James Corden has become chillingly ubiquitous. His voice – surely the least interesting part of the man – has begun an insidious quest to occupy our airwaves, like some amorphous villain from Doctor Who. During the last festive period, Corden was roundly ridiculed for his excessively earnest narration of the BBC’s adaptation of Esio Trot, in which he tried to seduce children with a desperately saccharine, come hither voice. If that wasn’t bad enough, Corden used to provide the voiceovers for adverts, but in a bizarre twist, since he became, presumably, out of their price range, they’ve started to employ a vocal doppleganger instead. And thus, Corden has been able to spread himself more thinly than any regular human would imagine possible.

But the most curious thing is that none of this has engendered much dislike. Nor have his hit-and-miss shows like A League of Their Own or The Wrong Mans, or the critically uncertain response to his lead role in Into the Woods. Instead, we all kind of like James Corden. “You know he won a Tony Award?” we say, incredulously. “He convinced me to sell my car…” we despair, ashamedly. “He’s lost quite a few pounds recently,” we observe, smugly. And, all the time, we’re not sure whether we like him or dislike him (it’s certainly a milder sensation than the standard love/hate dichotomy).

James Corden’s debut on The Late Late Show has been pretty big news here in the UK. The “James Corden” tag has been stuck to my Facebook trends for the past month, as we all wait with baited breath to see how he’s received. Americans love British stuff, but, generally, they like to repurpose it as their own. We all remember how Robbie Williams almost bankrupted himself to try and make it big in America, and how Ricky Gervais soured Anglo-American relations with his Golden Globes hosting gigs. And we’re still apologising for Russell Brand (I’m sorry) to this day. Corden is a much milder blend of British white male than Williams, Gervais or Brand, so I think we all accept this isn’t Monte Carlo or bust. You’re allowed to be indifferent about Corden because he’s affable, in the mould of the Michael Palins of this world, and pudgy, like our beloved two Ronnies. Ricky Gervais used to be a-bit-fat, but you never wanted to give him a hug. James Corden looks like he was custom engineered to be cuddled. And we like him for that. We like his ambassadorial role as a big, bumbling ball of Britishness.

And then, in the middle of his angelic ascension as High Wycombe’s answer to MDF or cardigans, he fronted When Corden Met Barlow, the worst hour of TV ever put together by inhabitants of our cosmos. I have never before wanted so desperately to reach through the screen and commit atrocious acts of violence as I did when I saw Corden fawning over the beiger-than-beige Barlow. It was a horrible, agonising moment and it will haunt me until I die.

And therein lies the mystery of James Corden. I have doubts as to whether he’s capable of greatness, but he’s certainly capable of his own form of excellence (see Gavin and Stacey or One Man, Two Guvnors). Equally, I had doubts as to whether he was capable of true terribleness, until I saw When Corden Met Barlow. He is, therefore, both the most vanilla of British exports, and the most maverick. The most middle of the road, and the most divergent. The most squishly guy you just want to roll around under a 13.5 tog duvet with, and the most likely to create a work of art so murderously terrible that it initiates the fall of humanity.

Anyhow, he’s America’s conundrum now.

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