Stepping in for Craig Ferguson as the host of CBS’ The Late Late Show just 18 short months ago, Tony-winning actor James Corden was almost totally unknown stateside, with only the support of Les Moonves and a hearty supply of pluck at his disposal. But a Tony-winning turn on Broadway in 2012, in One Man, Two Guvnors, preceded by the British sitcom Gavin & Stacey, which he co-wrote and starred in, was enough evidence for those in the know to give Corden his shot.
Flash forward to today—four Emmy nominations, 1 billion-plus YouTube views and one massive viral concept later—and you could certainly say things are looking up. With his multi-threat talents as a singer, actor and dancer, Corden reinvigorated the Late Late Show franchise, bringing it to the forefront of popular culture, as Carpool Karaoke became a watercooler item of the week. Struggling initially to get guests to join him for a drive, Corden now has Hollywood’s brightest stars at his disposal on a weekly basis, yet maintains the humility and affability with which he began.
In a recent interview, Corden addresses the overwhelming, ever-growing response to the series, his love of the stage, his gratifying experience hosting the 2016 Tony Awards, and more.
As a first-time talk show host, with just 18 months of The Late Late Show under your belt, the show has received four Emmy nominations. Does it feel like a validation?
It’s thrilling, isn’t it? I was so prepared for disappointment because, historically, it’s always been a show that’s been overlooked. We’re sort of in our infancy as a show, so to be rewarded in such a fashion—it’s just so far past what I thought. The restrictions of our budget and the restrictions of our time slot mean we have to take our swings at such delicate moments, and we have to try our best at every point. What’s great is to be making a show like this where the Internet is around—the great thing about the Internet is that it’s a completely fair and level playing field. There’s no big sports game, there’s no lead-in, there’s no nothing. The cream will just rise to the top—the stuff that’s good, the stuff that will get shared. That’s great for us, and for our show, and you hope in your heart that those things will cross through to Emmy voters. And it’s such a wonderful thing—that it has done.
As a Tony-winning actor with a great deal of stage experience, how does the experience of performing these shows before a live audience—in the studio and across the world—compare?
I’ve been lucky enough that in the UK, I’ve done shows that have aired once a week. I make a show there that runs seasonally, and we make one episode a week, and that is great—the value of time. You can really think and finesse what you want to do. And at the other end of the scale is Broadway, where you’re doing it eight times a week, but once it’s up and rehearsed, it’s done. The play I was doing, One Man, Two Guvnors, was just brutal. And then in the middle here is the notion of making four original hours, where you have your taped bits that you’re going to do, you’ve got the guests, so it’s always different every night. But I enjoy, always, the feeling of being in front of an audience.
From 2015 to now, your staff has grown from three people to 90-plus. What has this progression meant for you, and for the show?
We had 10 weeks from landing in Los Angeles to airing our first show, which is a stupidly small amount of time to launch a show, particularly with a host who’s never done it before. You’ve got to hire your entire staff, you’ve got to design and build a set, you’ve got to find your band, and you’ve got to find, tonally, what your show is and stands for. It’s why, historically, these shows often will take time to find their feet. We were always painfully aware that we wouldn’t have that luxury of time, because I hadn’t just left Saturday Night Live; I hadn’t been on a big sitcom. As much as our show has evolved today from what it was, I think tonally, it still feels kind of in the same place, because we knew we had to find that quick. So 10 weeks is a tough amount of time, but sometimes it’s quite good if you feel yourself backed into a corner, because you don’t have time to dither in any way.
With over a billion views on your YouTube page and the rise of your Carpool Karaoke segments to a viral phenomenon, Time has named you one of the 30 most influential people on the Internet. Were you savvy in the online space prior to your tenure on the show?
I don’t know if I would ever say that we were savvy. We understood that for our show to reach the biggest audience it can, we have to embrace the Internet. And we knew that from minute one, we had to find moments and segments that people would watch and share online. Whenever you’re making a show like this, you’re just trying to find, what are the things that define our show? If you think of David Letterman’s show, you think of Top 10 lists, and stupid pet tricks. If you think of Jay Leno’s show, you think of Jaywalking; if you think of Jimmy Fallon’s show, you think of Thank You Notes and Lip Sync Battles.
And so we knew that straight out the gate, we had to find the things that would define our show. So doing that thing on the first night with Tom Hanks, where we recapped his movie career, that’s something we’ve been able to do a few times. It’s night two—Carpool Karaoke. Night four, we did a commercial with David Beckham in our underpants; night eight, we went and did a show from someone’s house—because we just knew we had to come out of the blocks fast.
As a content creator, watching your rising stats and growing online following, are there lessons you’ve learned along the way?
I don’t think the trick is to make something for the Internet. The trick is to just make something good; if you make something good for your show, people will share it the next day. Had the Internet been around when [David Letterman] was doing the stuff where the guy would be a waiter in a restaurant, and he’d have an earwig in his ear; or him and Steve Martin’s big day out, that would have been something that millions of people would’ve watched online. Jay Leno’s interview with Hugh Grant would’ve probably been watched 25 million times within a week. It’s not that you make stuff for the Internet—it’s if you make a good show, the beauty is now, people will share it. Our mechanics are, let’s make a great show, and these are our segments—you’ve got your four shows, which are broken into six acts each. OK, let’s fill these acts. If you sat down and thought, “We’re going to do a bit with Adele, and we’d like 119 million people to watch it,” you wouldn’t go, “Let’s just get in a car!”
It’s fascinating to see that this year, your show—with its Carpool Karaoke segments—is going toe-to-toe in the Outstanding Variety Talk Series with Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.
That show’s fantastic—of course it is. Jerry’s just amazing, but the thing that I’m proudest about in Carpool is a similar thing which exists in Jerry’s show. The songs are all great and fun—those bits in the car—but ultimately, I think it’s the interviews that I’m most proud of. Because the question is, what makes a good interview? Seeing someone in a way that you’ve never seen them before—finding something out about someone that you’ve never known before. And I feel like when I watch the interviews that we’ve done in cars with people, I’m like, “Oh, I’ve never seen the Red Hot Chili Peppers like that before,” or, “I’ve never seen Elton John like that before.” That’s it, you know? That’s it.
As you’ve stated elsewhere, your challenge, with the continual, expansive output of a late-night show is simply to keep it fresh. Where do you continue to find inspiration to do so?
The biggest question we always ask is, what’s the idea, and how do we make it better? How do we up-produce that? Doing that [Carpool Karaoke] bit with the First Lady is a prime example where—we find a date and we go, OK, that’s going to be great. What could be the icing on this cake? Should we see if [Missy Elliott] is around? Let’s ask the First Lady if she knows any Missy Elliott songs. Does she know “Work It” or “Get Your Freak On”? She knows “Get Your Freak On.” Right—is Missy Elliott around? Should we do that? With that bit, had it just been us, it would have been great, and then you’re like, how do we make it better? How do we make it fresher? How do we keep surprising our audience? That’s where it’s really fun.
Where are you in the process with Carpool Karaoke, which is becoming its own series?
There were lots of people who came and were interested, and for us, it was about finding the right home for it. As soon as we started talking to Jimmy Iovine and the guys over at Apple, it just felt like such a fit, because music is at the core of it. It’s incredibly flattering when a company like Apple comes and knocks on the door of a 12:37 show on CBS and says, “We’d like to be in business with you guys.” I’m incredibly proud of that—that we’ve been on the air for 18 months, and that would be where our show’s at. I’m also proud of it in the sense that we want to be a profitable show for our network, and when we aired on March 23rd last year, I think we were in 20 countries. I think now we’re in 119.
We have a meeting about [Carpool Karaoke] on Monday morning—we have some ideas for how it might work, and I’m sure Apple will have some ideas. But yeah—we’ve been talking about it a long time, and now we’ve got to get into the weeds of it.
How was your experience hosting the Tony Awards? On record in the past, you’ve seemed indifferent to ratings—taking into account changing viewing patterns and the power of the Internet—yet awards shows seem to remain under that ratings microscope.
It’s not that I’m indifferent about ratings—I just feel like you know if a show is a hit or not. You don’t know how many people watch House Of Cards, and I don’t know how many people watch House Of Cards, but we definitely both agree that House Of Cards is a hit television show. You know where it falls in the notion of whether something’s a hit because it’s talked about, and people have seen it. So the notion of taking overnight ratings and saying, well the ratings are down—You go, “Well, they’re not in yet. They won’t be in for years.” It just feels like a business model that makes no sense to me, because it’s just not the way that people are consuming their content anymore. If you just get pulled into a wormhole one day and you watch five segments of our show on your iPad, no one’s going to mention that in the Nielsen ratings. So it just seems odd to me.
Yes, they do talk about it with awards shows, and I understand why, because they are appointment viewing—it’s a different thing. But when I think about the Tony Awards, I don’t really ever think, “Oh, that many people watched it.” All I ever think is that I feel incredibly proud of the show that it was. It was a test, really, because just to do that volume of singing and dancing live is one thing. I remember sitting backstage and thinking, “Right. In the next eight minutes, I’m going to have to address the biggest mass shooting in American history; then, I’m going to do a parody of the most important musical of the last decade; I’m then going to tell four or five jokes, and I’m then going to do a big song-and-dance number that ends up with 40 people onstage, singing.”
The truth is, I sat backstage and I thought, “This next eight minutes will define whether tonight is a success or not. The night doesn’t recover if this bombs.” It’s a fine line, that thing of talking live at 8 PM on the biggest network in America, to talk about something so unbelievably tragic. So that’s what I think about. I just will always feel very privileged to have been asked to host such an awards show—a show that is so close to my heart, in front of a theater community who I think are amongst the most talented and supportive people in the world. To be there that night, I felt proud.