How James Corden and His Team Reinvented ‘Carpool Karaoke’ for Apple Music

When it comes to singing in the car, few can harmonize like James Corden. He’s made an art form out of “Carpool Karaoke,” turning the late-night sketch into a viral hit.

And now Apple Music is picking up where his “Late Late Show” leaves off, with its own version of the popular segment. But instead of Corden always behind the wheel, the show will feature celebrity pairings singing along to their own playlists. While the first episode features Corden with Will Smith (though their ride of choice is a helicopter), other upcoming pairings include the Cyrus family; Shakira and Trevor Noah; Shaquille O’Neal and WWE star John Cena; “Game of Thrones” stars Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams; Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith; and John Legend, Alicia Keys, and Taraji P. Henson.

Ahead of the series’ Aug. 8 debut on Apple Music, Variety talked to Corden, along with executive producers Ben Winston and Eric Pankowski (who serves as showrunner), about how this version will differ from the original, how they came up with the pairings — and which talent surprised them the most.

How did you make this version different from the segments you’re doing on “Late Late Show”?

Corden: When “Carpool” became the thing that it is, we had to implement our own rules in that they had to be huge recording artists with lots and lots of hits. And then there was just a plethora of people who would phone the show and say, “Can I do that?”, and we’d have to go, no — big movie stars and people like that. We’d say no, we’ve got to keep “Carpool” on our show in this rarefied air. There are people on the board in this series, we would 100% do “Carpools” with on “The Late Late Show” singing their hits without question. A lot of it actually comes down to timing and schedules and people’s diaries. We have some “Carpools” coming up on “The Late Late Show” that I’m really excited about.

Winston: It was quite a difficult thing. When you’re brainstorming this show, it’s how do you make “Carpool Karaoke” without James Corden? We always were thinking, what is it that would make this show sustain? Because ultimately it’s a very simple concept: It’s just a car. That’s it. It’s a car with chat and singing. So ultimately what we realized is it’s all about the pairing. It’s all about who you would like to see with each other. And therefore when you get certain pairings, like Billy Eichner and Metallica, that’s a really fascinating thing. When you see Miley Cyrus, we’ve seen her in lots of things before, but we’ve never seen her with her grandmother, her brothers, her sister, her mom and her dad. It’s about finding pairings that would either be fascinating watching or they’re just really great together, like John Legend and Alicia Keys. They’re the best singers in the world, and seeing them duet is a sight to behold. Same with John Cena and Shaquille O’Neal. Two fun people, you just put them in a car and there’s immediate buzz with it. So ultimately it was just about finding those pairings and those people who we thought would make really good shows.

The pairings are pretty inspired. How did you decide to match Billy Eichner with Metallica?

Pankowski: We really approached it from a few different places. One was, are there organic relationships that we can take advantage of and go after those? So obviously with Miley Cyrus and her family, that’s an organic relationship. John (Legend) and Alicia (Keys) were friends for a very long time, grew up in the business together. We thought, being able to see these people as friends, with no artifice, just them in the car, would be really fun. That was one bucket of casting and booking. Another one was strange bedfellows: Who would be fun together? That’s where we got Billy Eichner and Metallica. They both were very interested in doing the show. We reached out to both because we were fans of both. And we thought combining those two together, you get an “opposites attract” thing. Our goal was to have these two pieces of talent who do not know each other, they meet that day, and by the end of the road trip, they’re hugging each other. Watching that dynamic play out was really fun… With Tracee Ellis Ross and Big Sean, she’s a fan of his rapping. Shaq and John Cena have crossed paths, but they weren’t friends. This is the first time they really hung out in a personal way. So we really got to play in a bunch of different worlds.

James, you did an episode with Will Smith — but you also pop in the backseat of another episode. Will you be doing that often?

Corden: I’m in a couple of backseats. It’s always fun for me, whenever we do it. Something happens when we do the show and we do these bits, it’s a wonderful freeing environment to be in.

The stars also get out of the car as well which adds a nice twist. Did you know the Cyrus family was going to play in that bouncy house? 

Corden: That bouncy house is a perfect example of the organic nature of the show, really. That was never planned. We never said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we did this?” They were driving along, Miley Cyrus goes, “Oh, I love bouncy castles, let’s go to that kid’s birthday party.” The same with Will Smith when we stop by the wedding. That’s not something we planned. Obviously in the show there are moments when we thought, this would be a fun idea if we did this, but I would say it’s 50/50 things that organically turn out and things that we have tried to think out of the box.

How much have the stars been willing to play along and let loose?

Pankowski: That has been the most refreshing part of the whole series. Each episode is really its own special because there’s no host. Every one takes on the voice and the perspective of people in it. We work with each talent and each star from the beginning process of booking them to talk about the creative. They are invested in it. There’s not just been any of them that have not embraced the dynamic of the show, the spontaneity that James is talking about. Also the idea of coming up with these fun bits outside the car. They throw ideas out to us, we throw them back. We work with their teams, and with them personally, and we come up with what we think is a pretty special show.

Who surprised you the most?

Corden: What I was most delighted by in booking was that other late-night hosts wanted to do the show, which I think is really brilliant. The fact that Chelsea Handler and Trevor Noah have done it, I found a real compliment towards the series, that two such brilliant people would want to do it. The most surprising for me was when Seth MacFarlane and Ariana Grande said they wanted to do a purely theatrical musical episode. I was a bit thrown by that at first when Eric mentioned it, because I never thought we’d have themed episodes. I was concerned with that in the edit, but then you watch it and it’s one of my favorites. It really works with the theme, and there’s some clever tricks that we’ve done with graphics. It’s beautiful to watch two really good singers going at it.

Pankowski: I would throw out, too, Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, two female stars from “Game of Thrones.” We shot them in Austin when they were there promoting “Game of Thrones” at SXSW. What was great about that was that I don’t think we as fans know them as well as some of the other talent that we have on the show. Seeing these people who are known for playing very dark, very intense, very serious characters get in the car as friends and really be silly for a couple of hours was amazing to watch.

How much creative freedom did Apple offer you?

Corden: They’ve offered us complete creative freedom. This whole experience started after the “Carpool” with Stevie Wonder had gone out. I was in my office one Friday and my assistant came in and said Jimmy Iovine is on the phone. He just wanted to say how much he loved the Stevie Wonder one, and did I want to go for dinner in his house in Malibu? I’m a huge fan of his. I’m a huge fan of so much of the music that he’s created, and the very device that I listen to the music on. He’s an incredible person. So I went to his house. We really didn’t talk about this as a series. He just wanted to know where I was from, how I got here, what it was like doing this show, was I happy in Los Angeles. He was just terrific. Then it was a few weeks after that, that we started talking about this as an idea. As soon as we sat with Jimmy and Eddy Cue, this phenomenal brand, this incredible place, and they were saying we want to do this on Apple Music, there was really no other. There was nothing else. There was no one else we even considered taking it to. This is a perfect match for us in every sense. The whole thing has been a joy.

Winston: We were just excited by the excitement they showed for it as well. Eddy Cue really had a vision for what this show could be. They were so excited by helping us turn this into a series. For us to be with Apple, Apple has a pulse on everything that feels relevant and feels cool. The fact that they wanted to do the series with us and they backed it to the hilt like they have is a wonderful thing for us.

How much latitude do you have with episode length? With language? 

Pankowski: The wonderful part about being on Apple, and they said it to us in the beginning, is let the content decide. So if we go out and we bring it back into the bay and we edit it and it’s a 13-minute episode, great. I think we all embrace the thought of leave everybody wanting more. And we don’t have to adhere to certain times like you do in traditional broadcast or cable television. We let the content dictate it. As for cursing, there’s some of that in the show, but it’s not something that we are highlighting. We try to be real.

Corden: That’s not a point that it’s allowed on Apple or not. It’s not something that the three of us like very much. It hasn’t really come up. We want these episodes to be enjoyed by everybody. If anything, we see “The Late Late Show” as a late-night thing; this is even maybe more of a mainstream vision that we’ve got for this show.

Carpool Karaoke: The Series” debuts Aug. 8 on Apple Music. You can stream the official “Carpool Karaoke” playlist from Apple Music here. You can also watch a new teaser for the show below.

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