How James Corden Flipped Late-Night on Its Head

11 minute read

In just over a year, James Corden has gone from the relatively unknown new host of CBS’s Late Late Show to the heart of prime-time, in large part thanks to his skills behind the wheel. On The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Primetime Special, airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. E.T., Corden’s chauffeuring skills will be in the spotlight, as past “Carpool Karaoke” bits and a new sketch with Jennifer Lopez will get introduced to a whole new audience.

Corden’s sketches, including Carpool Karaoke—in which he and anyone from Adele to Justin Bieber to Elton John harmonize while driving—have helped turn the host into an online sensation. Indeed, he was one of TIME’s 30 most influential people on the internet thanks to his breakout success on YouTube, where Adele’s clip is close to 90 million views.

Corden’s dedicated attention to what works—he keeps close tabs on his viewership numbers—means he knows when to ditch what doesn’t. He’s changed the late-night game by refusing to stick with old talk-show traditions. Start with the interviews: He brings all his guests out at once on a couch, leading to real conversation rather than the usual canned promotional banter. And his signature segments put stars in far riskier and more unusual segments than they’d face on a traditional, studio-bound chat show. TIME spoke to Corden about how he comes up with his ideas and why he decided to play a Nicki Minaj verse for Adele.

TIME: What was the planning process like when you first got the show? Were you already planning out Carpool Karaoke, for instance?

Corden: That particular thing came from—we had done a sketch for a charity at home, they do a big telethon called Comic Relief. I had written a sitcom for the BBC and my character was quite popular, I’d done a couple of sketches for that night, and we did one that started with my character in the car with George Michael and we were singing Wham! songs. There was something incredibly joyful about it. We couldn’t really put our finger on how, but we kind of thought it was. We just happened upon it, and said “I wonder if we get stars to come in the car, and L.A. is famous for traffic, the carpool lane…” Nobody would do it for a long time. We started our pre-production on January 10, and we aired March 23. We basically asked everyone on the planet who has recorded songs. Some people were lovely and said “Not right now, but maybe later,” and other people were just straight, flat nos. I had a chance meeting with someone who has the ear of Mariah Carey at her record label, and I showed her me singing with George. She immediately got it when she saw it. We did it on a Sunday and we aired it on a Tuesday—our second show. We always wanted to make a show that was irrelevant of timeslot. It’s very handy, having not grown up here or been aware of the differences in shows that air at 11:30 or 12:30. We just thought we’re going to make our show and, if it’s good, what a wonderful time to make a show that airs, let’s be honest, ridiculously late. But if we make it good and the content’s good, people will find it. I have friends at home who love The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. They live in the U.K. and they’ve never seen an episode, but they love it.

Has booking big stars gotten easier? And what goes into convincing them?

Now, for us, it’s mostly about protecting it and not doing it too much. We’ve only done 11. We could do one every week, if we wanted to, but we don’t. To stagger it so it always feels fresh. The two things we think are: They have to have enough hits, and there are so many brilliant artists who I’d love to ride around in a car with, but you have to have enough hits to ride around in a car for 10 or 12 minutes. And I have to be a fan. I have to go, “Oh my God.” Because that’s part of the joyfulness of it, that this is someone I love and respect.

What’s the collaborative process with an artist like Adele? Was the Nicki Minaj rap, for instance, her idea?

I’m very lucky, in that I’ve known Adele for quite some time. We met about seven or eight years ago and got on very well. My wife has known her, or first met her, before I ever did, and we have a lot of mutual friends. The beauty of that was to be able to talk to some of her friends and ask what would be a great thing. A few of them said “You’ve got to get her to do the Nicki Minaj rap, she’s amazing.” A few other said “She’s a huge fan of the Spice Girls, a proper bona fide fan.” Having that bit of insight is terrific. But the whole notion of how this happened is a sequence of events, from Mariah Carey going brilliantly, then we had the Justin Bieber one that went crazy, we had 50 million hits in a month. As soon as that one aired, people knew, “This is fantastic PR for our client.” The biggest thing people would say after that one was, “Oh, I really like Justin Bieber! What a lovely guy! I’ve been completely wrong!” And then we did it with Stevie Wonder—that took us about three months to do it. When Stevie’s came out, his greatest hits went to #1 in various countries around the world. And then record labels were like “Oh!” By the time we got to Adele, the song we did in the car, “All I Ask,” which was an album track, I think was at #109 on iTunes charts. It went to #4 six hours after we did it. It’s the most viewed clip in the history of late night television. Ever. Which is crazy. It only aired January 7 or 8, so in six weeks, 81 million views? So yes, it has got easier.

Where does your show fit into the late-night landscape? Do you compare yourself to other hosts?

We just try and make the best show we can. When we set out to do it, what we thought we would like to get, given that I had never been on television in America and no one knew who I was, our aim was to have a million hits a week. If we do that, we’ll be on a good track. And we wanted to try and get to a million subscribers on YouTube. Now, we’ve got 3.8 million subscribers, and we’ve had 787 million views on YouTube, so, to have not come off Saturday Night Live for 10 years or had a hit Comedy Central show, it’s amazing how quickly people have responded to it. If you can reach people in their pockets, on their lunch breaks, on their commutes to and from work, on recess at school, and make things they want to see, that’s an amazing thing for a show like ours.

How do you balance the need to be fun and funny with the fact that making a daily broadcast is tiring?

I feel very lucky—this is nothing compared to doing One Man, Two Guvnors eight times a week for 496 shows, at the National Theatre, on the West End, on a regional tour, Broadway—I’ll never be as tired as I was doing that. The greatest thing about it is there’s another show tomorrow. It gives you a great freedom. It’s not like you’re making eight shows a year, where the pressure’s really on. We’ve had bits that haven’t worked at all. But the great thing is, they’re gone the next day. That’s the freedom I feel: So much less scrutiny. Last year, we had our premiere, and then we followed David Letterman’s last show, which was really big for us, and then we followed the Super Bowl, we’re very lucky that twice in a year—the one after Letterman was the highest-rated in the history of the franchise, then after the Super Bowl, that became the highest-rated in the history of the franchise. We can’t take credit for that, it’s the lead-in. But you try and make a show that is a brilliant advert for your show and what you’re doing every night, and you hope that people either stay awake, DVR, or find it the next day. We always try to figure out how to make things better.

Ratings aren’t supposed to matter when you’re making art. But if you don’t have people watching and responding, so it must be nice to watch the numbers roll up.

That’s the greatest thing about the Internet. It’s absolutely there and clear to see if it works, if people like it. We hope that within our first 12 months, if we could be within 4 million subscribers on our YouTube channel by then, that’s crazy. And it’s people making an absolute choice to subscribe because they want to see the clips. I’m very, very proud of the show, because as long as The Late Late Show has been on CBS, it’s never operated in that space, really. It’s also wonderful, because it gives you a real reason—if these didn’t exist, you’d think, “I’m only relying on people happening to be awake.” Now, though, when we make things, we think “it’ll travel.”

How have you had to adjust your British sensibility to make American audiences more comfortable?

The biggest thing you can do with these shows is just be yourself, and the best version of yourself you can be. So when we’re talking about politics, the presidential race, what we find is great on our show is we never try to be really—if I’m not that knowledgeable about something, I’m not going to pretend I am. We’ll do a thing of going “Okay, so you guys are doing this. Wow! I didn’t even know that that could happen!” There’s something very freeing about that. John Oliver does so well; he’s so incredible at it when he’s able to go, “As an outsider, this is nuts.” There’s something very refreshing about that, in a world where all you’re trying to find is what makes you different. In a mass of white guys in suits behind desks, how can we look and feel different? You just have to use it as a positive.

I’m not a stand-up comedian, I’m not a satirist. All of these shows are not about playing to your strengths, they’re just ignoring your weaknesses. The other day, I was trying to do a Bernie Sanders impression, and I just can’t do it. But I feel very lucky my job is asking, “What would be fun tonight?”

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