Besides his distinctive name, face, accent, talent and so far near-anonymity, the one essential and ineradicable trait of 36-year-old Brit James Corden would appear to be his sheer niceness.
In fact, niceness flows from the new host of CBS' "Late Late Show" like water from a faucet, unimpeded by any British reserve, or distrust of those who ask questions for a living, like reporters.
He speaks rapidly, without pause, tumbling over words and thoughts in search of just the right one, and -- when failing to find it -- forges ahead in the valiant hope that the right one is waiting just around the corner.More coverageMore TV show reviewsMORE FROM OUR CRITICVerne Gay's latest
If interviews yield to metaphor, then a recent one with Corden was like rummaging through a wonderful bookstore, where every item was fascinating if occasionally placed on the wrong shelf.
A little disorientation on his part is perfectly understandable. Corden has done a lot in his esteemed career -- he's starred in movies ("Into the Woods"), he's won a best actor Tony Award ("One Man, Two Guv'nors") and he's built a considerable following as a comic actor in the United Kingdom ("Gavin & Stacey") and even as a singer.
But he's never done anything quite like this new gig.
The good news is that Corden is also the world's best salesman for "The Late Late Show With James Corden," which launches Monday night at 12:35 a.m.
The intriguing news: He won't know what he's actually selling until then.
What will "Late Late" be about? Short answer: He's not entirely sure. Will it succeed? Same answer. Why do it? To be home in time for "tea" every evening with his family. (Corden is the father of two children, including a newborn, and the show tapes in the afternoon.)
"I don't know if I'm capable, but I'd certainly rather do it than have regrets, or play it safe," he said when we spoke in late December. "But I'm not just going to sit at a desk and ask questions every day. I am going to try my hardest to make a variety show every day. There will be music and skits and songs and dancing -- everything, but I'm not going to just be sitting there with a celebrity and say, 'Tell me your funny story about that time in Venice . . .' "
Corden's style is similar to established late-night host Jimmy Fallon, also often described as "nice." Fallon is also someone with a genuine gift for performing skits, musical numbers and comic sketches with guests who seem to prefer those encounters over the ageless (if aged) "tell me about your latest movie" or "trip to Venice" ones.
"Tonight" with Fallon represents a generational shift as much as David Letterman's "Late Night" did 30 years ago, while the tones have shifted as well -- from "snark" to "nice," from sarcasm to unbridled, boyish enthusiasm. Fallon's "Tonight" has also been engineered to the exact specifications of How We Watch Late Night Right Now: In two- or three-minute chunks that are consumed like canapes by most viewers the next morning. There's an absolute premium on performance skills, much less of a premium on interviewing ones.
And because "Tonight" is far and away the most successful late-night TV show, Corden hopes to reverse-engineer it for CBS. The network is expecting no less, and even hired Rob Crabbe, a longtime segment producer on Fallon's "Late Night," as Corden's showrunner.
While Corden and Crabbe will clearly be seeking viral action, too, they've made some concessions to the traditional talk show -- studio audience, guests, band. On closer inspection, even these don't all look like concessions or "traditional" either.
Take, for example, the "bandleader," Reggie Watts. Anyone who has ever seen Watts' performance on IFC's "Comedy Bang! Bang!," or on other late-night shows, would hardly characterize him as a bandleader, but rather a free-form comic who riffs on a vast array of topics who gets around to music now and then.
Funny and original, he's not even in the same universe as Paul Shaffer.
Meanwhile, there is also this to consider. In 2012, Corden starred in more than 490 performances of "One Man, "Two Guv'nors" at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. No two performances were alike. There were improvised elements each time, with some of those worked out right up until the curtain went up, many probably after. Audience members were recruited, too, making Corden's figurative high-wire act just a little more precarious.
It was also a bravura performance by the star who may have gotten the idea that acting -- or late-night hosting -- is best left to instinct, pure talent and a faith in the unexpected. After all, that has worked for Fallon.