James Corden's Carpool Karaoke: why is this late-night segment such a hit?
Stars such as Adele, Bieber and J Lo seem to do anything the Late Late Show host asks of them when they hop in the passenger seat with him. How does he do it?
The formula for the bit is almost ridiculously simple: two people driving around and singing along to the radio and chatting casually. Corden has coaxed everyone from Justin Bieber to Mariah Carey to Rod Stewart (and A$AP Rocky) to Carrie Underwood to One Direction to ride shotgun with him and drive around the streets of Los Angeles, breezily chatting, startling pedestrians and joyfully singing along to their greatest hits. But pop star performances are hardly new on the late-night circuit, and Jerry Seinfeld has an entire show dedicated to interviewing celebrities in cars, so what makes Carpool Karaoke such a hit?
First, to say it’s a “hit” is an understatement – it’s a phenomenon. His segment with Adele has become the most viewed online clip in the history of late-night television. It has been watched a staggering 90m times in two months, thanks in no small part to the joy of watching Adele flawlessly rapping Nicki Minaj’s verse in Monster. Bieber’s video has close to 70m views, and Iggy Azalea’s ride has been watched more than 31m times. (And just three days after J Lo hopped into the car, her clip has racked up 15m views.) The numbers are so massive that it seems clear that if someone far better at math sat down and did the computation, Carpool Karaoke would register as having a deleterious impact on the world’s productivity levels.
It’s hard to say what exactly accounts for the wild success of Carpool Karaoke, what makes viewers click and share the videos across the web at a rapid-fire pace. Attempts to reverse engineer virality always seem to falter, but Buzzfeed’s Jack Shepherd wrote in the Guardian that one key element to making something go viral is that “people are more likely to share something if they have a strong, positive emotional response to it”. It’s hard not to have a positive emotional response to watching Corden in action on Carpool Karaoke. Whether he’s belting Baby along with Justin Bieber or making jazz hands in the drive-thru with Jennifer Hudson, Corden is having more fun than anyone in late night.
Corden rose to success in the UK thanks to Gavin and Stacey, the show he co-created and co-starred in. He also had a recurring role on Doctor Who and won a Tony award for his performance in the comic play One Man, Two Guvnors. He was working his way through Hollywood thanks to his role in the film version of Into the Woods, but was still relatively unknown when he was brought in to replace Craig Ferguson in the Late Late Show chair.
When Corden debuted as host a year ago, the Atlantic dubbed him “relentlessly positive”. In the year since, not much has changed. Corden is a lovable goofball who has all of Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon’s charm but none of his smirk. While Jimmy Kimmel’s success is built on his sardonic wit, Corden doesn’t seem to have a cynical bone in his body. While the Late Show’s Stephen Colbert has a well-honed facade that only Helen Mirren seems able to crack, Corden revels in his ardent and unabashed fandom, and that is never clearer than when he’s hosting a session of Carpool Karaoke.
Whether Sia, Jason Derulo, Coldplay’s Chris Martin or Sir Elton John is in the passenger seat, Corden plays the part of a real fan with a deep knowledge of their discography. He knows every word as he sings along to their hits (hitting all the notes as he goes), which not only proves his bona fides as a music enthusiast, but also makes the singers feel at ease. Viewers are treated to a candid, loosened-up version of the stars – seemingly free of soundbites or rehearsed lines. Stevie Wonder was happy to sing I Just Called To Say I Love You to Corden’s wife over the phone. Iggy Azalea tried on wedding dresses, and Justin Bieber showed off his best dancing-while-seated moves – twice. When Corden offers to be One Direction’s choreographer, it’s hard to tell if he’s joking.
Corden’s ebullient affability is clearly contagious, and the best episodes of Carpool Karaoke happen when the stars lead the fun. When Jennifer Hudson, one of his earliest guests, sang his burger order to stunned drive-thru employees, Corden chimed in with his own R Kelly impression. When Wonder teased him about his accent Corden gleefully went with it, and when Lopez started doing sexy arm movements Corden happily joined in the fun.
While the host is undoubtedly a fan of his guests and happy to let them take the lead in the fun, he also never seems cowed by the presence of the star in his passenger seat. It’s a neat trick that lets him play chauffeur to some serious star power while also remaining completely in control of the situation, as he sits behind the wheel. That gently commanding nature is what makes Lopez finally respond to those rumors that she got her rear end insured for a million dollars and then happily comply when Corden asks for her phone so he can text the most famous person in her contacts. One of music’s biggest stars just laughed as Corden scrolled through her phone before texting Leonardo DiCaprio that “I’m kind of feeling like I need to cut loose”, signing it: “J.Lo. You know, from the block.” It’s like a late-night writer’s dream come true when DiCaprio texts back: “You mean tonight, boo boo, club-wise?”
Corden has had a few other sketches that have made the online watercooler buzz, including when he convinced Tom Hanks to act out his entire filmography in less than seven minutes. There was also that time he hawked underwear with David Beckham, and when he created Crosswalk, the Musical, which involved putting on a full production of Grease in a Los Angeles crosswalk (much to the horror of drivers stuck at the red light). But it’s Carpool Karaoke that has come to define Corden’s year-long late-night tenure because apparently there’s nothing more fun than watching celebrities have fun, which they clearly do in Carpool Karaoke.
Over the last year, the sketch has developed a life of its own. It’s fitting then that, just as Jimmy Fallon’s Lip Sync Battle spun off from the Tonight Show, Corden and executive producer Ben Winston are interested in making Carpool Karaoke a standalone show, according to the Hollywood Reporter. But they may have competition: Spike, already home to Lip Sync Battle, plans to premiere Caraoke Showdown, its own take on the “celebrities singing in cars” craze that Corden kickstarted. Caraoke Showdown would be hosted by comedian Craig Robinson.
It’s hard to imagine the shows will be half as much fun without Corden chirpily singing along behind the wheel.