Jensen Karp says he can teach anyone to rap in two hours.
The executive producer — and former rapper — has been proving it regularly on James Corden’s “The Late Late Show,” with the segment “Drop the Mic” which pits two stars against each other in a war of wits and rhymes. “We haven’t been proven wrong yet,” says Karp.
Now his teaching skills are being put to the test with the standalone spinoff, set to launch October 24 on TBS.
Hosted by Method Man and Hailey Baldwin, the show has an impressive lineup of talent set to show off their rapping skills (courtesy of Karp): Chrissy Metz (“This Is Us”) vs. Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Modern Family”). Boyz II Men vs. Rascal Flatts. The “Veep” cast. The “Big Bang Theory” cast. Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat”) vs. James van der Beek.
“That was a brilliant rap battle — and very funny,” says executive producer Ben Winston of Park vs. van der Beek. “It could be really brutal, but it’s all done with a wink and a nod and a joy that I hope all of our shows have.”
Corden, who also serves as an executive producer on this effort, will mostly keep his skills to his latenight program, but he will jump in on two episodes this season. “I think him vs. Nicole Richie is quite a battle,” reports Karp. “You’d think after twelve of these we’d have run out of ways to call James fat, but we have not yet. We’re finding new ways each time.”
The show is hosted by Method Man, who Winston calls a “monster of a host,” alongside model Hailey Baldwin. “What I didn’t expect was how good Method would be,” says Winston. “I thought I’d have to do work with him as a host, which I was prepared for. But as soon as the audience came in, he just lit up. He’s a real talent.”
And he’s known Baldwin ever since she came to the filming of the One Direction movie to meet the band, recalls Winston. “I loved the fact that she hadn’t done a TV show before and yet is really well-known,” says Winston. “She has a lot to say and has a lot of charm.”
Some of the performers have surprised him: “Gina Rodriguez is an unbelievable rapper; she just spits lyrics,” says Winston, an assessment Karp agrees with. “Gina Rodriguez could probably put out a mixed tape tomorrow,” he says. He also praises Park as “an amazing rapper.” So much so that he wants to pit them against each other in a championship round.”
Winston admits others have disappointed, though he won’t name names, saying simply, “Just watch the show; you’ll be able to tell.”
“I don’t want anyone to look like an idiot,” Winston says. “That’s not our thing. They’re already opening themselves up to a huge amount of criticism. They are having someone rap all the bad things about them. Everything that’s been in the public eye that their publicist wanted to hide, we bring up. But somehow you get away with it. It can seem harsh and nasty, but because they’re rapping it, you get away with saying stuff you would never expect.”
There’s a writing staff on hand to help craft the raps, but sometimes the talent wants to handle it themselves. “Chrissy Metz, I expected her to just read. But she had her own thoughts as to what she wanted in there,” says Karp. And nothing is off-limits.
Park really went after van der Beek, for example, Winston reports, rapping: “I’m team Pacey. Katie Holmes won’t return your calls anymore. You’re too white. You’re an ugly Ryan Gosling.”
But in the end, van der Beek came offstage and said that was the most fun he’d ever had on a TV show.
Karp reports there’s little difference between the raps he writes for the cable version. “We just did Sam Jackson, so you can imagine the number of F bombs we did on CBS,” he says. “I think it’s just the amount of times we get bleeped. I think at TBS we’re allowed two s–ts and one a–. But when we did Kevin Hart, I’d written, ‘It must be hard to rap with your head up Lin-Manuel’s a–.’ I was ready to get that one pulled, and CBS was like, ‘Nah, keep that one in.'”
Coming on the heels of “Carpool Karaoke,” which is wrapping up its first season run on Apple Music, Winston says the “Late Late Show” team has been approached by multiple networks, looking to turn more of the show’s signature bits into series, like “Emoji News.” But he’s resisted them all. “I’ve genuinely said, no. that is a really lovely 8-minute bit. It’s not going to be a good half-hour show,” he says. “And they’ve said we’re willing to make it. But I’ve said, no, it’s not going to be good enough….We want to get these two right and perfect and then we’ll just see what’s next.”
But “Drop the Mic,” he says, weathers the transition well — so much so that good material has ended up on the cutting room floor. “We have two good hosts. We have four very famous people who you want to spend time with. And then you have two big rap battles on every show,” he says. “Part of me would love to make it longer.”
Winston admits not everyone they’ve approached is game — not just for the rapping, but for getting trash-talked. “But I think the people that have have loved it, and their publicists have seen how much they’ve loved it,” he says. He compares it “Carpool,” where no one wanted to do until Mariah Carey signed on. “It’s a much easier show to book now than it was six months ago.”
And he praises the execs at TBS for giving them the freedom to make the show they wanted. “They do stuff that puts their head above the parapet. That isn’t afraid to be a bit bold and a bit naughty. And take a few risks,” he says. “This show is that. It suits the brand.”
Watch a sneak peek of James Corden with Nicole Richie below:
“Drop the Mic” premieres on TBS October 24 at 10:30pm.