James Corden on ‘Carpool Karaoke,’ Ratings and Staying Out of the Political Fray

“What’s next?”

James Corden won’t let himself — or his team — sit still.

Two years into his surprise takeover of CBS’ 12:35 a.m. late-night slot, he’s not taking success for granted. While his “Carpool Karaoke” phenomenon may have turned the once unknown British comedian into a household name on these shores, he’s ever aware of the fickle nature of audiences. Especially in the wee hours.

“I think with a show like ours you’ve got to build tentpoles that will prop your year up,” he says. “We always want our show to be more ambitious than its time slot.”

Art Streiber for Variety

So his schedule is packed with plans to keep innovating beyond the 60 minutes of airtime allotted by CBS for his “Late Late Show.” Recent weeks have seen him invite Harry Styles to move in for a weeklong residency and launch another prime-time “Carpool Karaoke” special (which earned him one of his two Emmys). Next month, he’ll transport his show home to London for a three-day stint. And along with the previously announced spinoffs of “Carpool Karaoke” for Apple Music and “Drop the Mic” for TBS, he’s rolling out an offshoot for Snapchat.

“I don’t know if it will work,” Corden says. “I hope it will. I really feel like we’ve got a nice idea for it. But if it doesn’t, we’ll regroup and try again. We just want to be at the front of every format digitally we can be, because our time slot will never move the needle for us.”

For Corden, his competition isn’t the other late-night hosts — it’s sleepiness among the post-midnight viewers.

“My ego is too big to make a show that’s on at 12:37 at night. It’s as simple as that,” he says. “So I can’t allow that. We want to make a show that can be consumed all through the day and all through the night.”

Others may obsess over ratings points, especially on the late-night battlefield, where the recent resurgence of Stephen Colbert has changed the conversation markedly. But Corden — who ranks third in his time slot against “Late Night With Seth Meyers” on NBC and “Nightline” on ABC, averaging a 0.3 rating in adults 18-49 and 1.3 million viewers per episode — claims not to know the stats.

Instead, his creative team obsesses over his digital viewership — and those numbers Corden can rattle off like a statistician. His YouTube channel boasts 10 million subscribers — behind only Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Fallon among TV personalities. (Executive producer Ben Winston says the first numbers he checks in the morning are the YouTube stats, not the Nielsens.)

“What’s the point? I can’t move that needle. I can’t change that dial,” Corden says of his Nielsen ratings. “But what I can do is make the very best television show we could ever possibly make — one that’s consumed whenever people want to find it.” While he dismisses ratings numbers as based on whatever his lead-in is on any given night stretching back to 8 p.m., digital viewers, he maintains, are “a pure and true number of people who have gone, ‘I am making a choice to watch that. My television isn’t just on.’”

That argument makes sense to media buyers like Lisa Herdman, SVP/director, national video investment and branded content, at RPA. “For us, it is about where the viewer is watching the content they enjoy,” she says. “James Corden has great ideas and knows where his fans are and what they like. CBS was smart enough to support his creativity and knowledge in finding his fans and, more importantly, new fans.”

After a year that saw him host the Grammys and the Tonys and film a role in the star-studded “Ocean’s Eight,” his cultural relevance clearly extends beyond midnight. (He’ll host the music awards show again in 2018.) “Corden is certainly an example where you can’t look at the ratings to make a determination as to how well he’s penetrating the culture,” says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “He really has capitalized on the modular thing. Everybody’s doing it — but he’s doing it with more energy.”

“I think I always knew that it was a brave and risky choice that they made in giving me this job.
It’s only now I realize quite how ridiculous it was.”
JAMES CORDEN

Next month’s trip to the U.K. was the brainchild of executive producers Winston and Rob Crabbe. “We thought it would be a really lovely thing, almost like a homecoming for James,” says Winston.

But the gambit comes with risks — two years in, the L.A.-based “Late Late Show” crew has become a “well-oiled machine” at pulling off the elaborate stunts the team dreams up. He’ll be relying on all-new resources across the Atlantic.

While the late-night format hasn’t quite taken off in Britain, Corden’s “Late Late Show” has been well-received in its airings there. The London shows will be held in Westminster Cathedral — which holds 1,500 people — a bit more elbow room than the 170 who normally crowd his studio on the CBS lot. “There were a million requests for 4,500 seats,” he reports, confessing to a bit of grateful surprise. “That’s lovely for me, that being my home, to know people would want to see it that much.”

Details for the shows are up in the air — he’s still working out the schedule — but he’s perhaps most excited that there’s going to be an election when he’s there.

Wading into American politics, however, is less comfortable for him, he admits. “I’m very conscious of the fact that I’ve only lived here for two years, and I don’t know if I’ve found the sort of legitimacy that you need to come out and be able to talk about it,” he says. “I don’t ever want to look like I’m remotely knowledgeable about what it’s like to grow up in Ohio or Detroit. How can I? I’m from High Wycombe.” But he’d like to earn that right. “I would hope that one day I would start to understand more the plate lines of this vast country and that I would have earned the respect of the audience,” he says. “When 9/11 happened, everybody looked to Letterman for that ‘What’s he gonna say?’ You’ve got to earn that.”

Thompson applauds the host’s decision to stay out of the fray. “Corden has decided to settle completely different real estate,” he says. “For him to do Trump jokes for the first half hour of the show would not make sense. There are enough people doing that.”

That’s not to say Corden shies away completely from the headlines.

He talks proudly of delaying production of a recent episode to add jokes about the firing of FBI director James Comey to the monologue. And then there’s the powerful video he made after the announcement of the so-called Muslim ban, filming himself traveling with ease through the airport and ending with the message: “Freedom of movement should be this easy for all legal immigrants. Not just the white and Christian ones.” Corden shot it himself on his iPhone as he went through security at LAX, en route to New York to shoot “Ocean’s Eight.” He says it was as political a statement as he feels he could make. “It was our show in a wonderful sense, in that it was shot on a phone,” he says. “It felt immediate and digital, and I think because ours is a show that doesn’t do [politics] all the time, it almost comes with greater weight.”

The so-called Trump bump has had a seismic effect on the late-night landscape — dethroning late-night king Fallon in favor of Corden’s CBS stablemate Colbert and raising the profiles of Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah. Corden considers it his mission to produce a variety show — “a blend of song, dance, sketch and comedy” — but he also knows that to ignore the thundering storm of politics altogether would be tone-deaf in this climate.

Art Streiber for Variety

“We talk about whatever is in the news, but we don’t want to only talk about what’s in the news,” he says. “I just don’t know that’s what our show should be. I’m also conscious of the fact that we follow Stephen’s show, which is a very, very political show. I don’t know if people who are watching it that night necessarily want another hour of the same thing. We should cover both ends of the seesaw.”

His first night on the air, Corden did “Roll Call” with Tom Hanks, re-enacting all of the actor’s famous films in seven minutes. His third night, he did “Carpool Karaoke” with Mariah Carey. Both still rank among his most popular videos. “You just couldn’t imagine that something would fly that much,” he says. Of course, there have been other segments that haven’t landed quite as solidly. “Too many to mention,” he says, laughing and singling out the recent “Dogs in Sunglasses” as “particularly ridiculous.” “The beauty of these shows is there’s another one tomorrow, so you’ve got to try stuff. And then hopefully you’ll happen upon a ‘Drop the Mic.’”

The TBS offshoot is set to premiere in the fall; Apple Music’s version of “Carpool Karaoke” will bow later this year. “We just keep shooting them,” he says, rattling off a list of pairings: him and Will Smith, Billy Eichner and Metallica, Blake Shelton and Chelsea Handler, Alicia Keys and John Legend, the entire Cyrus family. “Every time I think the show is done, a new pairing will arise and we’ll go, ‘Ah, we gotta shoot that.’ And Apple will go, ‘All right. Do it.’”

He reserves the “rarefied air” of the “biggest recording artists in the world” for “The Late Late Show.” He’s got two lined up: Katy Perry and one that’s “blowing my mind,” he says coyly. He’s been practicing the lyrics daily in the car. But as much as he loves the singing, it’s the interviews he’s most proud of. “You forget that these cameras are on and you just chat,” he says.

Thompson credits the success to the savvy of Corden’s team. “I don’t think it was just luck or coincidence,” he says. “They managed to pick some things that played to his strengths that were funny yet incredibly simple — and that were different from what everyone else was doing. What Corden does doesn’t look like what Letterman did or what Seth Meyers does.”

Agrees Winston, “What I’ve learned is that we should play to the strength of our host and do things that maybe our host can do better than others; he’s the only guy who can do the stuff that he does.”

Yet for all the triumphs, Corden’s still searching for that next big inspiration. “I feel like there’s another idea that people will go, “Oh, my God! Did you see that?” he says. “When this show ends and we all go and do different things, I would hope that we would have had just one more thing that would define our show. But then I’m saying this, painfully aware that most of these shows only really have one or two.”

Daniel Holloway contributed to this report.

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