James Corden Got a Little Help From Paul McCartney on His Drive to the Emmys

The late night host got surprisingly emotional with the ex-Beatle for 'Carpool Karaoke,' a big part of the reason he has the most Emmy nods — seven — of any on-air TV talent this year.

James Corden Paul McCartney Carpool Karaoke
Courtesy of CBS

Saying “Baby, I could drive your car” has proven to be a very good strategy for James Corden — never more so than when he put Paul McCartney into the highly sought passenger seat.

The primetime special “Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney, Live From Liverpool” is a contender in five Emmy categories this year, including variety special (prerecorded), plus directing, writing, editing and sound mixing for a variety special. That’s hardly the only impressive stat Corden can claim, though. The late-night host himself is up for seven Emmys, the most for any on-air performer this year, and five of those nods are directly associated with the “Carpool Karaoke” franchise. (The only person with more 2019 nominations than Corden is his executive producer and director, Ben Winston, with eight.)

“You’ve got to be really careful at times like this to not start to think you might be more of a dude than you really are,” admits the “Late Late Show” host, faced with the abundance of Emmy love (which the Television Academy keeps having to adjudicate upward, having previously undercounted before establishing in late July that he got seven personal nods).

It does not hurt to have an ex-Beatle as a co-dude. “I just always felt he was made for” the segment, Corden says. “Genuinely every day since that went out, somebody somewhere has talked to me about it. It’s rare to have a segment on a late-night talk show that would seep into the public consciousness in that way.”

McCartney himself brought it up repeatedly on his recent stadium tour, pointing to the single “Come on to Me” (from 2018’s “Egypt Station”) as “one you might have heard” because of “Carpool Karaoke.” Says Corden: “Every few weeks I’ll get a text from a friend saying, ‘Dude, I was just at Paul McCartney’s show, and he mentioned you.’ It’s lovely that he would talk about it in such a way. Paul had not had a No. 1 album in America [since 1982], and he very kindly and publicly credits that segment as being an instrumental thing in that happening. But I also know that he feels very proud of it because it took a lot for him to open up in such a manner.”

It’s not just McCartney who opens up. When Corden recently did a “Carpool” segment with the Jonas Brothers, s— got just real enough for a few minutes that it seemed as if the seemingly frolicsome bit might be the most revealing interview they did as part of their post-contention comeback.

“Obviously people think about the songs when we do these ‘Carpool’ things, but I think the thing I’m proudest of is the interview,” says Corden. “You’re in there for a long time. I mean, the one we shot with Paul was shot over five or six hours. And the Jonas Brothers was, I think, three hours. Everybody just relaxes into that segment. It’s very rare that we use anything that’s shot in the first 10 minutes of those ‘Carpools.’ Then very slowly people start to open up and chat, and you’ve got to let them know that this is a safe place and they can trust you — and then you’re seeing a real version of themselves, because there’s no one else around. It’s blocked off cameras. There’s not a soul there. If you and I were conducting this interview now in front of an audience of people, or with loads of cameras around, or even a crew around, we’d probably be talking very differently than we are right now, and that’s the thing.

Another freeing element, he says, is “there isn’t the construct or the pressure of time. You can go down some dead ends. You can organically find stuff. If you’re in there with, like, Migos… Offset was in the back, and he was carrying something like $200,000 in cash in a bag, which I had absolutely no idea about. That wasn’t set up. They hadn’t told me. I was just like, ‘What?’ And then that just opens up a whole new sort of thing.”

With McCartney, that played out in an unexpectedly emotional way for interviewer and subject. As Corden recalls: “We were going back to Liverpool, telling stories that he had never told before. On the day of shooting, he said, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ We were in this hotel, and we went into this walk-in closet and he said, ‘Listen, I know we’ve talked about this, but I don’t want to go back into my house.’ And I said, ‘Can I ask why?’ And he said, ‘I just feel weird about it. I haven’t been in there in 50 years.’ It’s now a National Trust house. ‘All I ever do when I bring people to Liverpool is I drive up outside and I show them that house, and I show them where John lived …’ And I said, ‘Look, Paul, don’t overthink this. If you don’t want to go in, we’re not going to do anything you don’t want to do. All you have to think about is having a great time, and that’s all that’s expected of you. Nothing else matters other than you and me enjoying this. Just see how you feel. And if you don’t want to go in, just give me a look, and we’ll drive on.’

“That was a moment where I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s happened to my life that I’m standing in a wardrobe giving Paul McCartney a pep talk about enjoying himself.’ But when we pulled up outside the house, I looked at him, and I suddenly realized we probably should have used a word, because what if he’s giving me a look and I don’t know? But he goes, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ And it was glorious.”

Obviously only parts of it were played for comedy. “I didn’t expect for it to be quite so moving,” Corden says. “And I didn’t expect to have feelings or thoughts of my grandfather. My grandfather was a musician, my father is a musician, and I remember so vividly them playing me ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Hey Jude.’ And I said to Paul, ‘If my granddad was here, he’d get a real kick out of this.’ Because I know that he would. And there’s a moment where Paul just says, ‘He is.’ And it gives me chills now even thinking about it.”

The McCartney segment wasn’t originally planned to be a primetime special. It originally ran on the late-night show at a mere 23 minutes, but “the reaction to it afterward was so incredible, and we just had so much footage left over, that we spoke to the network and spoke to Paul’s people” about expanding it to an hour for primetime. There was so much content there. Just being with him walking down Penny Lane, it felt closer to something you’d maybe see on ‘60 Minutes’ or something, you know?I mean, we could have made it longer, in truth.”

We mention that there probably are some Beatlemaniacs among us who would go see “Paul McCartney’s Carpool Karaoke: The Motion Picture.” Corden laughs at that idea and says, “I think we might be done now. But you’re very sweet. I’ll try and cut one just for you.”

The “Carpool Karaoke” idea pre-dates Corden’s move to CBS — and to the States — in 2014.

“I always believed in the idea,” he says. “We’d done it with a sketch with George Michael in 2010 for Comic Relief — a bit where he was singing in a car with me, and it really resonated with people. And then we’d done a documentary with a brilliant singer-songwriter called Gary Barlow, and quite a lot of that involved us traveling around Great Britain, singing his songs in a car. And I knew that it would work. What I didn’t know was that publicists wouldn’t understand it. When you’re trying to pitch it to people, I just perceived people would go, ‘That’s a great idea.’ But mostly they were going, ‘Sorry, who are you? Why would they do that?

“So we’re always very, very indebted to Mariah Carey for being the first person. But you know, on our first show we did this thing called ‘Role Call’ with Tom Hanks where we re-enacted his whole film career, and that’s something we still do now. Then on our third show we had ‘Carpool Karaoke’ (with Carey). It’s quite rare in your first week to have two bits that you’re still doing 640 shows later. But we didn’t have any choice, you know. We couldn’t book any guests on the show.”

Asked for more pre-McCartney highlights, Corden goes first to Adele, “for many reasons, not just because it’s been watched so many times” (202 million hits on YouTube so far). “[She] is an artist who is so specific and precise in where you will see her, and her wanting to be part of it and doing that in London was incredible. And then in terms of just sheer enjoyment, Bruno Mars was an incredibly fun segment. One of my favorites to this day was with Jennifer Hudson. I mean, my God, being in a car with her singing is just insane. And that was the second one we ever did.”

Beyond his own Emmy nominations, Corden is thrilled that “my best friend Ben is the most nominated off-screen talent. It’s very nice for two friends who met on the set of an Andrew Lincoln drama in 2000. I feel you have to take all these things with a bag of salt, but I feel very proud of him and I hope that he would feel proud of me.” Corden also touts a nomination for the McCartney special’s writers, seeming surprisingly willing to point out publicly that he doesn’t make it all up as he goes along. “The greatest thing I can say about them is that they’re so good, you don’t really see the writing — but that also means that I don’t know that people ever really see the writing. So I’m really thrilled that they got nominated for that special, because it’s a huge amount of research and stuff to get something like that right.”

As “Carpool Karaoke” has increasingly supplanted a “SNL” musical guest slot as the ultimate get, does Corden’s team feel the pressure from music publicists?

“Yeah, a little bit,” he confesses. “But then, we’ve only done it twice this year. We could probably do it every week, but there’s an element of wanting to keep it within that rarefied air that makes an artist like Paul McCartney or Celine Dion or Adele go, ‘Yeah, I would want to see that.’ There’s an element of protection with it, really, and we’re very cautious of that.”

That said, Corden has two more carpools planned before the end of the year, and “I’ve got loads of people I’d still love to do it with. We just hope that we’re on the air long enough that we get to come around to them, you know?” he says, sounding like he’s not certain he’s as much of a dude as the Emmys say he is. Not to worry; since this interview was conducted, CBS announced his contract to host “The Late Late Show” had been extended through 2022. That’s a lot of time to put any remaining music greats from his bucket list in the bucket seat.