One of the biggest challenges facing British actor/writer/producer James Corden as he prepares to take over The Late Late Show next year is that few Americans know who James Corden is. That’s hardly an insurmountable hurdle, as current Late Late host Craig Ferguson wasn’t much of a boldface name when he started the job in 2005, either. But at least people recognized him as “oh yeah, that guy from the department store on The Drew Carey Show.” In any case, David Letterman will take the initial steps toward solving the mystery of Corden when the host-elect appears on Letterman’s Late Show this Friday.
It’s reasonable to expect that Letterman will do his hostly duty by tossing Corden a few softballs to establish his background and bona fides, but you should also look for the Late Show veteran to size up the new star of the 12:35 a.m. slot, as Letterman does whenever he chats with any of his fellow late night desk jockeys. When Letterman’s successor, Stephen Colbert, came by to chat earlier this year, for instance, Letterman referred to him as the “new kid,” simultaneously endorsing and deriding the basic-cable refugee:
“New kid” was a friendly jibe, but Letterman can be more cutting, like the time he visited Late Night With Conan O’Brien shortly after O’Brien’s debut to ask the truly unknown host—O’Brien was much more obscure in 1993 than James Corden is in 2014—how the hell Conan landed this sweet gig:
Ferguson was hand-picked for The Late Late Show by Letterman, so the Scottish import has typically received a gentler touch from Dave. In a 2009 visit, Ferguson felt comfortable telling Letterman that he’d probably get beat up in New Zealand:
When Jimmy Fallon came to the Late Show in 2012, Letterman treated him as a full member of the late night fraternity, reminiscing about bygone shows like Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow:
Letterman warmly tolerated a fidgety Arsenio Hall for a few minutes last year as Hall was promoting the (ultimately brief) resurrection of his own late night career. After Hall brought a manic enthusiasm to some lukewarm Miley Cyrus material, Letterman remarked, “You’re just dying to get back on the air, aren’t you?”
But Letterman wasn’t always the king. In 1991, shortly after NBC decided that Jay Leno, not Letterman, would take over for Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show, Letterman (whom Carson had wanted for the job) visited Carson in one of the most memorable host-on-host segments in American late night history. These were two alpha-male hosts, as demonstrated by the fact that Letterman essentially commandeered the first three minutes of the interview, telling Carson, “We’ll get to your questions in a second.” Carson, wise enough to be patient, let Letterman gas on before finally unleashing his first question—“Just how pissed off are you?”—to the delight of the crowd:
If, this Friday, Corden can think on his feet half as well as Letterman and Carson do in that clip, he’ll be off to a good start.