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James Corden on Hosting the Grammys: ‘It Isn’t About Me; It’s About the Artists’

James Corden’s passion for music is infectious. That’s what gets A-list artists like Lady Gaga, Adele, and hopefully one day Beyoncé — his as-yet-elusive dream guest — into the passenger seat on his viral hit “Carpool Karaoke.” Not only can he harmonize, he knows every lyric.

“Music means the world to me,” he says. “At its best, music has the ability to make you feel like you’re not on your own. That, I think, is an unbelievably powerful thing. In times of joy or sorrow, someone you’ve never met can somehow, in three minutes, reach out a hand and tell you these things that you’re feeling are not particular to you. And that it will all be OK.”

It’s that enthusiasm that he hopes to bring to the Staples Center, on Feb. 12, as the host of this year’s Grammy Awards. Corden was tapped to host the music awards show two months ago, replacing LL Cool J, who has emceed for the past five years.

“His musical knowledge and his love of music are just perfect for us,” says Ken Ehrlich, the longtime producer of the Grammys, of Corden. But more than that, “he’s just got it. There are people that are born to do these shows, and people that should really never do them. The fact of the matter is you really want someone who loves what they’re doing and loves the music they’re going to be standing in front of for three-and-a-half hours. This guy is one of those people.”

Ryan Melgar for Variety

Ehrlich compares him to Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ellen DeGeneres — all of whom hosted the Grammys before they went on to host the Oscars.

Corden isn’t sweating the fact that he has yet to start rehearsals, even though the show is fast approaching. “Two weeks feels like a lifetime,” he says when interviewed by Variety. “That’s quite a long time away.” He notes that he didn’t start rehearsals for last year’s Tony Awards until five or six weeks before the show.

Besides, he’s got a packed schedule before then: He’s flying to New York to shoot scenes for his role in “Ocean’s Eight” with Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway; he’s meeting with a potential host for “Drop the Mic,” which he’s executive producing for TBS; and, of course, he’s banking another segment of “Carpool Karaoke,” not to mention his regular gig as the host of CBS’ “The Late Late Show.”

It’s not that he and his longtime producing partner, Ben Winston, haven’t been planning for the Grammy show. But on-stage logistics are the least of their worries.

“Right now we’re trying to figure out tonally how we should approach it,” says Corden. “It’s quite a hard show in that respect. Awards shows, let’s be honest, are about a group of millionaires giving each other gold statues. And this isn’t that.”

Unlike other awards productions — the Oscars, the Tonys, the Emmys — which rise or fall on the charisma of the host, the Grammys are essentially a concert, with the nominees taking the stage to perform. “This is a show that seven years ago didn’t even have a host,” says Corden. “The truth is it isn’t about me. It’s about the artists.” He points out that he’s in the three-plus-hour event for only 18 minutes.

But as much as he downplays his own role in the night, Corden admits he’s giddily anticipating sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in the music industry. “I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he says. “It’s the best job you could ever imagine.”

Since arriving in the country two years ago, the British comedian has charmed his way into the zeitgeist — his “Late Late Show” defied expectations with its viral videos, which have set YouTube records. And his gig as the host of the 2016 Tony Awards won raves for balancing the tightrope of paying tribute to the Orlando shooting victims while showing off his talents as a song-and-dance man.

But don’t expect him to perform at the Grammys. “I certainly don’t sing as well as the people in that room. I don’t dance as well as the people in that room,” he says. “So how do you just not look a little bit as a sort of amateur? You’ve got to be really careful not be too indulgent about it. You’ve got to put your ego to one side when you’re doing a show like this.”

That’s why he’s not planning a cold open, which has become a familiar staple of award shows. “It would be incredibly arrogant and indulgent for me to go, ‘I would like to kick the show off,’” he says, pointing out that the Grammys traditionally begin with a performance. “You can’t do a cold open when Beyoncé and Adele are there!”

He has also dismissed the idea of a “Carpool Karaoke” segment (too time-consuming, he explains), as well as a monologue. “I don’t know if that will work in the Staples Center. I don’t think you can come out and start doing Trump jokes,” he says.

“It would be incredibly arrogant and indulgent for me to go, ‘I would like to kick the show off.’ You can’t do a cold open when Beyoncé and Adele are there!”
James Corden

So how will he bring the Corden touch to the show? Given his relationships with the musicians — many of whom have ridden along with him in “Carpool” — he’s planning to schmooze with the audience. “I feel that’s what I can bring to it — to try and bring a looseness,” he says.

If all this sounds like producers are still tinkering with the show — and Corden’s role in it — they are. Ideas have been developed, then tossed out. The only thing they’ll confirm is that Corden will take a back seat to the performances.

“It’s about finding the balance between making the show not too much about James and more about the music,” says Winston. “James’ role will be giving the show a little more warmth and structure.”

While they are planning an “exciting” opening, don’t expect any pre-taped segments — for now, at least.

What the producers are counting on is Corden’s spontaneity. “He quite likes when he’s got a minute to fill,” says Winston. “Because then he can watch the show and comment on it, and have fun with the audience and with whoever happens to be around.”

And should things get political — and given the current climate, that’s all but a certainty — the producers are confident he’ll be well equipped to handle those charged moments.

“One of the great things about having James is, because of his live-TV background and his glibness, I think he’ll react well,” says Ehrlich. “This world we live in right now, there may be some things he’ll have the opportunity to respond to.”

Corden himself hopes to simply blend in. “If someone said to me, ‘What do you want to achieve?’ I would love for nothing more than to usher the evening through in the best way and to kind of go unnoticed,” he says. “If you think about what the biggest Grammy moments are, none of them involve the host.”

He points to his own favorite moments of the past — duets from Elton John with Eminem and Kendrick Lamar with Imagine Dragons.

“I’m a fan of so many of the people who are in that room,” he says. “If I can bring half of the excitement I’m feeling, than that’s the feeling I hope people get when they watch the show.”

And while he admits he’s nervous — “Stuff can happen and stuff can go wrong” — he wants to harness that energy into the show itself.

“I’m really gonna try to enjoy it,” he says. “I’ll be most disappointed in myself if I don’t enjoy it, because who knows if you ever get the chance to do something like this again.”

***

The speed at which Corden has moved in the national conversation from “Who’s he?” to “What’s next?” has been remarkable.

“If someone had told us 18 months ago that this is what our life would be like, there’s no way that would be even remotely possible,” he says. “I think everyone else would have agreed.”

Relatively anonymous in the States at that point, Corden was considered a surprising choice to replace Craig Ferguson in CBS’ 12:30 slot.

“We were so unknown it was joke,” he says. Since then, his show has won two Emmy Awards, a Critics’ Choice Award, and multiple nominations — as well as spawned several spinoffs, including a version of “Carpool Karaoke” for Apple Music and “Drop the Mic” for TBS.

“We absolutely are not taking for granted the opportunities that have come our way,” says Corden. “We feel incredibly proud of what we’ve done, but at no point do we want to rest on our laurels. We feel like we’ve laid the table. We’re now at the time to show people we can cook.”

Even with the runaway success of “Carpool,” he’s realistic about the chances of lightning striking twice and finding another viral hit. But he’s going to keep trying.

“To have something that people respond to so quickly, so instantly, so you get the biggest artists in the world and the first lady of the United States going, ‘I’d like to do that’ — that’s a really rare thing,” he says.

So does he expect the new first lady to take a spin in his car? “We’ll see if they call,” he says with a laugh.

When it comes to his talk show, Corden is particularly sensitive about his learning curve on American politics. “I’m painfully aware that I’ve only lived here two years.

So I can’t start talking about federal legislation or what it feels like to be an American right now. I hope that one day that will come, and I’ll feel comfortable enough to start to ask those bigger questions.” That said, he adds, “I also don’t believe anyone should be getting their news from a late-night talk show host. I really don’t.”

But in the wake of the president’s anti-immigration executive order, Corden made a simple but powerful political statement: He opened his Jan. 30 episode with a video that showed him moving with ease through LAX as he checked in, ordered food, and boarded his flight. The segment faded to black with a simple message: “Freedom of movement should be this easy for all legal immigrants. Not just the white and Christian ones.”

Corden’s success has kept rumors alive of a timeslot swap with Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show,” but he dismisses the notion. “I feel honored to follow him every night. There’s no way anything like this is ever going to change.” He predicts Colbert will make a fantastic Emmy host.

“He’ll have nine months to come up with something great,” he says. “I just hope I get to be in the room.”

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