Back in 2015, when James Corden moved to the US to front CBS’ The Late Late Show, pretty much no one knew who he was—that is, except his fellow Brits back home. While doing the rounds of LA in those first weeks, trying to assure publicists his show would be a good bet for their celebrity clients, Corden embraced the fear of imminent cancellation and threw himself headlong into making a show unlike anything else in the late night arena, as he says, “We absolutely knew that we had to just hit the ground running, that there was no time, there was no period of grace with an audience.”
He more than prevailed with genius segments like Carpool Karaoke, Drop the Mic and Crosswalk the Musical, not only laughing A-listers into booking spots—and getting them to unabashedly sing and rap with him—but also cornering a huge online following. Those highly-shareable segments grabbed an off-the-charts viewership on social media and YouTube–his 2016 musical ridealong with Adele currently stands at over 184 million views on YouTube alone.
With yet another Emmy nom this year for Carpool (the segment won for the past two years running), along with another two for his short-form Snapchat series, James Corden’s Next James Corden, in which he seeks his Late Late Show successor for some as-yet unknown future date, the writer, actor and host discussed hanging out at home with Paul McCartney, skydiving with Tom Cruise, and some serious sugar abuse.
Within a year of landing in LA you had Michelle Obama singing in your car. Why do you think people initially took a chance on you?
I think what we decided to do, which was the only choice we had on the show really, was take all of the things that people would see as weaknesses and try and make them strengths and use them to our advantage. You could sit for a long time, going, “Oh, my God, nobody has a clue who I am here.” And then you can go, “Oh, my God, nobody has a clue who I am here!” And the moment of discovery is great, like, I’m not coming with any baggage actually. We’re not coming with any kind of, “Ugh, that guy, ugh.” You know?
We really threw everything we could at the show. You can only make a first impression once, and so on our first show to do that bit with Tom Hanks where we recreated his film career and then on our third show to put out the first Carpool Karaoke, and then I think on our seventh show we went and just did the show completely randomly in somebody’s house. We just knew that we had to hit the ground running. We had to let people know there was a show here, and this is a show that would reach a wider audience, that we could find a reach, and that’s what we just did.
You’ve said you appreciate how positive people are here in the US generally. Has that changed your approach to your work?
That’s essentially the fundamental core of our show, to try and embrace that. That’s what America represented to me when I was growing up, that’s what it was. It’s like this place is just hope and joy, and anything can happen, and a celebration of success, and a celebration of everything really. That’s the sort of thing I hope it doesn’t lose. Like with everything that’s happening politically, which can really feel like, if you live on Twitter or Instagram or any of those things, like it’s just a really down and dark and depressing place. But actually if you look up and look around, you’ll see that there’s little miracles happening everywhere. Do you know what I mean? That’s sort of how I feel.
You do address politics on the show, but did you feel strange talking about it as a newcomer to the US? You definitely make us laugh about the situation.
That’s very kind. Look, I don’t know. My biggest thing is I feel like I always think, I didn’t grow up here. My only experiences of living in America have been in New York and Los Angeles, and I’m very aware that’s probably not a fair representation of the entire country, and who am I—I’ve lived here three and-a-half years—to talk to America about the intricacies and the plate lines of their country? That’s not to say that we ever shy away from politics; we talk about it every night. Politics has to be a part of your show, certainly today, because the start of your show should always be to talk about what’s happening in the news, and what’s happening in the news a lot right now is that.
Speaking of positive television and uplifting people, the Paul McCartney Carpool was some of the most uplifting television I’ve seen in a really long time.
Thank you so much. It was a good sort of four or five months in the making, from the initial talks. There’s a huge amount of talking and scheduling and timing that goes into those things. At its core it probably ultimately came down to a fun conversation between myself and Paul, where I just explained to him what I thought we could do, and I sort of just prodded him that it would be fun and it would be worthwhile and that he absolutely wouldn’t ever regret doing it. I felt on the day that we captured something quite special. But in truth we were all kind of blown away by the response and the reaction to it, because I think across the internet now, across Facebook and YouTube and stuff, it’s been watched like 140 million times or something. But it kind of breaks quite a lot of rules of the internet, because it’s actually 23 minutes long. People have watched it on their phones or their laptops or whatever for 23 minutes, and yet it’s testament to him really. It’s testament to what he means to people; it’s testament to what that music means to people. The thing I’m most proud of in those Carpool Karaoke segments that we do—of course the music is fundamental in it, it’s really the glue that holds the whole thing together—but I think the thing I’m always most proud of is the interview in it.
What makes a good interview? It’s showing someone in a light that you haven’t seen them in before. You know, I could ask Paul all those same questions in our studio in front of an audience of 200 people, and it would be a very, very different thing, because you sit differently if there’s an audience of people there, and there’s cameramen, and hair and makeup and all those things, and lights. Where the sorts of rawness of it, the kind of nakedness of just chatting in that car, you know, for him to tell stories that he’d never told before, for him to go back into his house, which is something he hasn’t done in I think over 50 years, I felt very, very privileged just to be part of it really.
It was pretty remarkable seeing him sing in “the bog”, as he calls it.
Everything sounds better in the bog, yeah.
Finding out that Tom Cruise is a sugar pusher, because he doesn’t eat it himself, was another favorite moment.
Well, I’m on diet at the moment, as I have been for the last 18 years, and he knows this. I got in this conversation with him, we were actually talking the other day quite a lot about food and stuff, and today at the studio 100 donuts arrived [from him]. I was like, “What are you doing?” Although I have to say, I just watched it back, the piece where we jump out of an airplane together. It’s ridiculous. Fifteen thousand feet.
I have to say I wish you’d been strapped together for the jump, instead of to your instructor.
There was no insurance company in the world that would insure it.
You tried though?
Yeah, but that was a very, very definite no.
Do you feel being a Brit has helped you get away with things in terms of getting celebrities to do things they might not otherwise do on camera?
I think it’s just the trust. I don’t know that it’s about being British. I mean, firstly, I think our format of the show of having the guests out at the same time, and certainly our feedback from people, is that it’s a more relaxed environment than coming out and telling your four stories and…You know what I mean? There’s a pressure when you’re out there on your own, whereas when you’re with someone else in an interview, a back and forth starts. My favorite moments of the show are when we don’t even get to half the questions on the cards, because organically the conversation just comes out of someone going, “You do that? I’ll tell you what I do, I do this.” And then it just spins out a conversation, because I think that’s what you want to see.
Have you ever had a moment with a guest where you’ve genuinely thought, “Oh no, it’s gone a bit wrong, what do I do?”
No, I don’t think so. Because I also think you’ve just got to let things be organic really and that it can’t really go wrong if you’re not aiming to go right. Sometimes in these shows the imperfections are the moments that are the most watchable.
What are some of the skit ideas that you’ve wanted to do but haven’t been able to?
We had a really big idea for the end of the year, which we’re not going to do now because it just became impossible. I can’t really tell you what it is, because we refused to take no for an answer, but we’ll see. We just want to make the show that constantly offers something new and fresh for our audience, whether that’s an audience on the internet, or an audience watching at night. We just want it to be a show where people go, “Oh, God, and then they did this!” You know? And sometimes that’s impossible, but you’re striving for it. That’s all you can really hope for.
With so much success already, what keeps you pushing on?
We’ve just never taken our foot off the pedal really, because we have, in comparison to lots of shows, a very small team, but we are all just in it for the ride. We’re just like, “Let’s not ever one day wake up and go, “Do you remember that time when we just had an hour to do whatever we wanted on television every day, and it was really up to us?” Let’s not ever look back and go, “Oh, we should have tried more stuff; we should have tried to be bolder.” I consider it a real privilege to be tired like my cousin’s tired. He’s a bricklayer, you know. But if he’s not moaning, then how could I? I love a moan more than anyone. So I’m not saying it’s like we’re all walking around like it’s a picnic here every day. I don’t want it to be that. But at our core, at the core of what we want to do is just not feel like we ever just didn’t try our best.
Most people will tell you that these shows are disposable, and on one level that’s true, but on another level, we want to make stuff that hopefully will exist for a very long time on the internet and can keep bringing that bit of joy to people, whether that’s in the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning, or with their kids on a train, or wherever they are. That’s why I think that Paul McCartney piece, to come back to that, just felt like it was a combination of everything we ever wanted the show to be, which was funny and joyful and new and interesting and ultimately uplifting.