Sometimes the most withering criticism of a TV show is to say nothing at all — to withhold even a passing mention, even as the person at the center of it screams “Look at me! Look at me!” over and over. During the first year of his ultra-annoying stint as host of CBS’s “Late Late Show,” it seemed the most effective response to James Corden was to pretend there was no such thing as James Corden.
But it’s not that easy. If ever there was a louder, needier, more obnoxiously pathetic host in the American late-night genre, then I’m glad to have missed it. And I could have gone on ignoring Corden except for the slow invasion of his “carpool karaoke” segments, seen and shared by tens of millions online, which on Tuesday night will get a prime-time replay on CBS (with fresh material).
“The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Primetime Special” can be viewed as a doubling-down by a network that keeps shoving Corden our way, like parents who summon their most irritating child downstairs to once more sing for the grown-ups (or torture them, as the case may be). It’s made a little worse by the child’s unfailing eagerness to show off.
Yet I can’t deny the fascinating horror contained in Corden’s karaoke rides, in which a pop star climbs into the passenger seat of the host’s Range Rover and, within minutes, is singing along with Corden to some of their greatest hits. Mariah Carey has done it, as have Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Chris Martin, the members of One Direction, Sia, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo, Justin Bieber and, most popularly, Adele. (The Adele segment, which first aired in January, is nearing 90 million YouTube hits.)
Although the dash-mounted cameras in Corden’s car point in equal directions between driver and passenger, Corden has the wheel, and he fights to keep the attention on himself. The celebrities sing along to their own recordings with a tentative sort of reverence for the music at first, but not Corden. He always sings at the top of his lungs, showing off a natural ability for pitch and, where necessary, an impressive falsetto that threatens to crack the windshield. You’ve perhaps seen the same phenomenon in actual karaoke bars, where volume triumphs over skill — Corden is the microphone hog who invites an obliging and often more talented friend to help out with a duet and then keeps all the lines and high notes for himself.
Since his show’s debut last March, Corden, 37, has followed but one marching order: Be more inane and more self-centered than Jimmy Fallon, whose “Tonight Show” at NBC is still considerably ahead in live ratings at the 11:35 p.m. slot (with more than 3 million viewers); than CBS’s “Late Show With Stephen Colbert”; or ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” At 12:35 a.m., Corden is pulling about the same numbers as his predecessor, Craig Ferguson — around 1.3 million viewers, which is slightly behind his competition, NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” at around 1.6 million.
But the other key measurement these days is that less quantifiable gauge called buzz — online or just ineffably present, and not just a soft buzz, but a loud and sure buzz, which is why Corden, a British actor with some background in theater, tries so very hard to be hyper and ostentatious.
He’s like the kid who both emcees the talent show and performs in it — twice. He interrupts your song with his own louder version. He laughs — shriekingly so — at all of his own jokes.
If you’re quick enough, you can lunge for the remote at the end of Colbert and never have to see or hear Corden. The celebrities, however, don’t get this choice. These are dark times for them. No one will just let a movie star or a pop singer come on a late-night TV show anymore and sit in a chair and talk or perform a song from their new album. For publicity’s sake they must endure Fallon’s games and contests, smashing eggs on their heads and other degradations in the land of improv. They must acquiesce to some humiliating pre-taped segment on Kimmel. They must lie down on fake grass and gaze into the stars with a philosophical Colbert.
And — most tragically, popular culture at its most ingratiating — they must climb into a car and act friendly while some damn fool drives them around town and murders their greatest songs at the top of his lungs.
The stars have to pretend like it’s the most fun they’ve ever had. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to.
The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Primetime Special (one hour) airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on CBS.