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Not since Humpty Dumpty has an egg made such a mess.
Monday night, one week and countless news cycles after he was scolded for obnoxiously complaining about an omelet order at the Manhattan restaurant Balthazar, James Corden went on his talk show to do the kind of damage control once reserved for offensive remarks or acts of adultery.
You knew it was serious because instead of telling jokes, he started by twice showing shots of his elderly parents in the audience, a classic humanizing gesture. Then he got down to the business of confession, adopting a grave face while expressing deep regrets about his terrible behavior to the waitstaff.
“I made a sarcastic, rude comment,” he said, adding that he understood and respected the difficulties of being a server, while not being quite able to resist sneaking in that the breakfast order was messed up no less than three times, including via a dish that would have inflamed his wife’s allergies.
But no matter, ahem; back to the taking full responsibility.
“It was an unnecessary comment,” he said with feeling. “It was ungracious.”
This is hopefully the final chapter of an absurd and inadvertently revealing melodrama. Call it James and the Giant Breach. It began when Keith McNally, the owner of Balthazar, barred Corden from his restaurant in an Instagram post that was deliciously long on specifics (“Get us another round of drinks this second,” it said Corden demanded) and insults (McNally called Corden a “tiny cretin of a man”).
According to a manager report posted on McNally’s Instagram, Corden, host of “The Late Late Show,” became enraged after his wife ordered an egg yolk omelet, only to receive egg white mixed with the yolk. After demanding a new dish and receiving a second try mistakenly replacing salad with home fries, Corden reportedly erupted, “You can’t do your job! Maybe I should go into the kitchen and cook the omelet myself!”
This is the entitled stuff of a villain from a John Hughes movie. It’s obviously bad behavior. As a former busser, I understand the white-hot rage about it. And yet, what followed was a bit much. Corden was denounced on the internet as if he were a war criminal, his actions reported on by countless media outlets, his transgressions detailed in explainers and called out in thought pieces. Then came the devil’s advocates. Restaurant owners defended Corden in The New York Post, saying he had been lovely to them, leaving generous tips and singing with bartenders, never once pelting a sous chef with a pastry.
This was followed by the first apology and the rescinding of the ban. Like a generous priest, McNally, whose long history of aggressive behavior in public feuds didn’t seem to make many question how reliable a narrator of events he was, wrote a second post forgiving the star, adding that “I strongly believe in second chances.” Ah, yes, sweet providence.
Not so fast. Extending his misery — and that of the publicity team at CBS — Corden told The New York Times on Thursday that he actually did nothing wrong, which led to another tart response from McNally before Corden reversed course into a full-throated mea culpa for the cameras.
It was all just another day on the internet-driven media, where the demands of algorithms lead to celebrity justice meted out on a regular basis. Yet as with many such brouhahas, it provides clues to soft spots in the culture, to the fragilities that were already there. The backdrop is that Corden, who plans on stepping down from his show next year, is part of a late-night landscape that is going through a transition if not a crisis. Not long after he announced he would be leaving, Trevor Noah somewhat abruptly declared he was ending his run on “The Daily Show.” (The latest rumor is he’ll be replaced by a committee of hosts.)
Ratings for late-night talk shows have been declining for years. There is a growing sense that such invariably topical programs are a poor fit on streaming services. With the networks fading in relevance, there are also whispers of more dramatic shifts to lineups, including the storied NBC institutions of “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
We are in a moment when viewers are questioning what we want these shows to be and what makes for a successful host. For some network executives in the past decade, the answer is clearly likability. They have emphasized performers the audience can relate to, a star who, to use the phrase that used to be a political litmus test in the pre-Donald Trump era, you would want to have a beer with.
Corden was that bloke.
Often described as seeming to come out of nowhere (otherwise known as England), Corden presented himself as an ordinary guy, self-deprecating, quick to laugh, eager to please. His signature bit, “Carpool Karaoke,” pulled off the feat of making pop superstars also seem down to earth and relatable, making for charming television and great promotion. Talk-show perfection.
Corden is not actually ordinary at all. He is a famous actor and gifted Broadway star. As it happens, he earned the late-night job in no small part because of his Tony-winning performance in the hit play “One Man, Two Guvnors,” and his latest drama could be seen as a callback to that show’s comic high point, where his down-on-his-luck character desperately tries to help an inept server. But his talk-show persona, like that of the forever boyish Jimmy Fallon, did not rest on his comic and musical talents, but on how he exploits them to seem like a garden-variety sweetheart.
What’s clear these days is that this edifice of ingratiation is shaky. Bank too much on it not crumbling at your peril. Just look at Ellen DeGeneres, whose reputation for wholesome kindness was used against her by the end of her talk-show run. The amount of testimony from employees that ran contrary to this image became much too incongruous for the public not to start tuning her out. DeGeneres is a brilliant comedian, but that was not her central drawing card toward the end of her career, a problem no publicist could fix.
One reason this minor controversy about Corden took off is that on television, he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would humiliate a server over an egg — more like a guy who would make a bad pun about eggs to be endearing.
Likability has always been important in talk-show hosts but balanced by other virtues like creativity, funniness, political or even journalistic insight, the ability to connect emotionally. Johnny Carson was far too remote to be considered relatable, and David Letterman developed a reputation for meanness that, whether earned or not, was part of his appeal to some fans. Even Craig Ferguson, Corden’s predecessor, relied on a certain roguish charm. The more politically minded hosts like John Oliver or Meyers would not be helped by a scandal over yelling at a maître d, but I doubt it would cause such a fuss.
The truth is that the rich and famous have been rude to servers forever. This is not a good thing, but it also hasn’t been big news until recently. Now social media gives every restaurateur, nanny, production designer and eavesdropper a platform that could reach a global audience. This makes it much harder for a celebrity to control his or her image and almost impossible to maintain a pristine reputation. Being known as a nice person can be dangerous.
John Mulaney is currently touring with a stand-up show about this exact theme.
“Likability is a jail,” he says.
Of course, unlikability can be one, too. Maybe the smart move for a talk-show host is to strike a balance so that public persona matches up as closely as possible to private self. And if you somehow can’t show respect to the people handling your food, tip exceptionally well.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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