James Corden and his wife, Julia Carey, at the Met Gala in May. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
4 min

No more Mr. Nice Guy — or maybe James Corden was never so nice to start with.

The internet was treated this week to one of its favorite things: the story of a celebrity behaving badly, in this case involving the “Carpool Karaoke” and “Late Late Show” host allegedly yelling at waitstaff at a restaurant. Keith McNally, owner of New York movers and shakers’ treasured brasserie Balthazar, declared that he had banned from the premises the man he called “the most abusive customer” in his restaurant’s history (not to mention a “tiny cretin”).

Why “eighty-six” Corden? Well, this summer, after discovering a hair in his food, McNally said, Corden demanded in “extremely nasty” fashion that a new round of drinks appear “this second” and previous rounds be comped. And this month, his wife ordered an egg-yolk omelet that arrived with “a little bit of egg white” in it. The kitchen remade the dish, but it emerged with — the horror! — home fries on the side instead of a salad.

“You can’t do your job! You can’t do your job!” a manager’s report apparently describes the star berating the server, as though belting out a “Carpool Karaoke” chorus. “Maybe I should go into the kitchen and cook the omelet myself!”

James Corden sent back an egg yolk omelet — so we tried to make one

Corden did not go into the kitchen and cook the omelet himself. Instead, he received free champagne as reward for his complaining. And his exile from power-brunching paradise was only temporary. McNally says the disgraced proved “magnanimous” with a prompt and profuse apology, so “all is forgiven.” Many unadulterated egg yolks lie in store.

All this overblown and now blown-over drama raises the question: Why was any of this so big a deal? The assumption, you’d think, is that celebrities are tantrum-throwing brats by default. But that’s the rub — Corden took pains to present himself as an exception.

You might say that in this case, James was Ellened. Ellen DeGeneres was accused in 2020 of cultivating a toxic culture on her television program, which is bad for anyone but especially bad for someone who has very deliberately made kindness her personal brand. Admittedly, no one does (or did) nice like Ellen. But Corden does it well enough, and his variation got him where he is today.

“Carpool Karaoke” is charming because you don’t expect Justin Bieber to be singing to himself in a car the same way you do when you’re zooming off to work and manage to make all the stoplights. You expect him to be singing onstage to thousands of starry-eyed fans. The point is pleasantness, but it’s also approachability. Corden has to embody this cheerfully casual ethos. That he could by all appearances as easily be a humble math teacher as a hotshot movie star is the point.

You need to believe that this is the kind of guy who might really need to carpool to work. This is the kind of guy who’d wait cheerfully in traffic or in line for a table — and the kind of guy who’d just ignore a hair in his food or a little bit of egg white in his wife’s fussy omelet.

The trouble, of course, is that when someone performs niceness and normalness as specialty, they have to actually be nice and normal — and, on the flip side, if a celebrity is nice and normal without turning it into part of their public profile, it merely comes as a pleasant surprise. This week’s revelations weren’t merely disappointing. They also spoiled the show. James Corden isn’t just like us, because if he were, he’d eat up and shut up. He’s like any entitled star, which may cause him trouble down the line — and not only when it comes to getting a reservation. We can’t watch him pretend anymore while feeling the way every actor wants us to feel: as though he’s not pretending at all.

Maybe this is a warning to all the stars whose livelihoods depend on illusion after illusion — that while down-to-earthness is plausible as a coincidental personality trait, it’s unsustainable as a brand. Or maybe it’s a warning to everyone tuning in that it’s silly to care about who those stars really are at all.

A while back, a discerning city-dweller saw an SUV on the Los Angeles streets — the Range Rover of “Carpool Karaoke” fame, with host and guest sitting chummily up front. Ahead of the vehicle was a tow truck, hauling it along. Corden wasn’t driving at all.