Singing in the car is so commonplace for millions of people, it would hardly even attract a side glance. James Corden does it, too. But when he lets loose, there’s a big difference: He has Adele or Stevie Wonder riding shotgun. And tens of millions of people are watching their every groove.
Mind taking a seat in the back for a sec, Lip Sync Battle? The literal joy ride that is Carpool Karaoke — as seen on CBS’ The Late Late Show with James Corden, or more likely, YouTube — has become one of late-night TV’s biggest, sunniest viral hits. Running up to 15 minutes in length, the segments feature super famous artists hitching a ride with the charming British host, and when he cues up their biggest hits (and perhaps a surprising cover), perfect harmony ensues. In the buzzed-about Jan. 13 installment, Corden and Adele cruised through such songs as ”Hello,” “Rolling in the Deep,” the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” and, sure, Nicki Minaj’s verse in Kanye West’s “Monster”; it already has tallied more than 62 million YouTube views. Two Justin Bieber editions have racked up a combined 85 million views. One Direction’s ride? 37 million. And with Coldplay frontman Chris Martin’s road-trip adventure with Corden on Tuesday, and Elton John set to ride shotgun during The Late Late Show’s post-Superbowl installment on Sunday, the franchise is rolling right along.
“All you’re searching for when you’re coming up a new show is: What are the bits that will define our show?” Corden tells EW. “If you think about David Letterman having a Top 10 List or Stupid Pet Tricks or Jimmy Fallon with a Lip Sync Battle or Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets, you want two or three, and just hope you’ll find them over time. For us to have shot one before we were on the air is incredibly great for us. [Carpool’s quick success] is not lost on us.”
Inspired by a moment from a 2011 Comic Relief sketch in which George Michael sang Wham! tunes in the car with Corden, and scenes in a 2014 documentary in which U.K. musician Gary Barlow crooned his own hits with Corden on the road, “we realized that it’s quite hard to get people to sing their old stuff, but singing it in a domain like the car was just really joyful,” says Late Late Show exec producer Ben Winston. When Mariah Carey agreed to be a first-week guest last March but couldn’t attend the taping, the producers asked her to be the inaugural passenger in their mobile music experiment. (It was an immediate hit, now boasting 17 million views.) “It’s funny — when we were even trying to tell our staff about it, there were certain members that would be like, ‘Yeah, but then what happens?” recalls Corden. “And we’d go, ‘Well, no, that’s it,’ and they go, ‘Right, but it feels like it’s missing a beat.’ And we’d go, ‘No, no — that’s it. It’s singing songs in a car.’”
Then what makes it compelling? In an age when artists typically appear on TV only to promote their new singles, it’s refreshing to see them revel in old hits (and someone else’s), especially in such unusual and unusually close quarters. And because the musicians spend anywhere from 45 minutes to a couple of hours driving around with Corden, they can riff on their lives in more revealing ways than they might in a seven-minute couch interview. “There’s an ease and an intimacy to it where you’d never ever see stars quite so unguarded,” Corden says. “l’m different from when I’m doing the show when there’s an audience of 200. Seeing a huge megastar sing their hits in the same environment that you and I sing on our way to work — it’s humanizing.”
And perhaps unexpected. Notes Corden of Adele’s “Monster” performance: “She had told me over a year ago, ‘I know every word of that rap,’ and then it just stayed with me. It’s just a treat to see someone like Adele in that environment, because this is someone who has released the biggest album of the year by doing three appearances on television in America. That was it.” Corden’s famous passengers — such as Martin, whose road-trip to the Super Bowl involved a motel sleep-over — seem to enjoy playing along with these sing-alongs. “After every song he was like, ‘Oh, I haven’t heard that for ages!’ Or, ‘It brings me back to where I wrote this!” he recalls. “It’s actually quite a lovely thing for them to reminisce; they hear their whole career in eight songs.”
It’s also having an impact on sales. Stevie Wonder’s 2002 greatest hits album shot to No. 1 on the U.K.’s iTunes in the days after his Carpool. (When Adele sang “All I Ask” from her new album during her Carpool on Jan. 13, the song enjoyed a 68 percent sales gain in downloads the week ending Jan. 14, and jumped another 107 percent the following week, according to Nielsen Music.) While the traditional ratings haven’t been goosed — the still-nascent Late Late Show lags behind Late Night with Seth Meyers and Nightline in their head-to-head matchup for viewers 18–49 — the show has been experiencing significant digital growth. (The Late Late Show recently passed half a billion YouTube views, which includes other celebrity participatory hijinks, such as one bit in which actors like Tom Hanks and Matt Damon act out their film careers with Corden in a hurry, and another in which singers like Alanis Morissette and Meghan Trainor parody their own songs.) “A late-night show’s job these days is to be relevant and to be talked about and to be shared,” says Winston. “The fact that this is happening on such a big scale, that’s what makes us really happy.” Adds executive producer Rob Crabbe, “We hope these Carpool Karaokes are a gateway drug that bring you to see the other stuff we’ve done.”
And how, by the way, is Carpool’s pick-me-up formula concocted? Set lists of the artists’ hits are sent to them in advance, but the producers also like to work in an element of surprise during the filming, so they might talk to their managers and friends to find out which covers would make for a good moment. (This led to Bieber’s revelation that he sings Morissette’s “Ironic” in the shower.) Corden may practice in his car for a week or so. “We were leaving the studio one night and he was in the car behind me,” reports Winston. “I pulled up in traffic, and it was like I was looking at a mental person, because he was rapping to Kanye, getting ready [for] Bieber the next day.” The karaoke-mobile usually moves between 10 and 15 miles per hour, with several guide cars surrounding it on the L.A. streets (some of which have been cleared for the shooting). “Part of the joy of it is that it does feel like he’s in a carpool on a commute,” says Winston, “so we never talk too much about it because we want to keep the illusion.”
It can be difficult to keep the shoots under wraps, though. For example, the attendant fuss that always surrounds One Direction (fans, paparazzi) led to the band being spotted and news leaking on social media almost instantly. “Carpool Karaoke was trending worldwide barely before they got out of the car,” chuckles Crabbe, “when we still had two weeks before we could air it.” A lot of eyes, of course, will be on The Late Late Show on Super Bowl night, when Sir Elton buckles up. What to expect from his journey? “We did ‘Crocodile Rock,’ and it’s flamboyant,” promises Corden, adding: “To sing ‘Tiny Dancer’ with Elton John in a car, you just think: If this was an auction prize, it would go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. I feel lucky every time I get in the car with any of these people who I just really admire and respect.”
In case you are wondering, there are no immediate plans to expand the franchise, in the way Lip Sync Battle became its own series on Spike. (“The trickier thing about that is Lip Sync Battle can exist without Jimmy Fallon,” says Crabbe, “but Carpool Karaoke can’t really exist without James Corden.”) But Corden is still thinking big; he has a wish list of notable prospective passengers to motion-duet with, including Kanye West, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen. “Taylor Swift, of course,” he adds. “Sia is someone who I’d absolutely love to have a go at.”
He’s also brainstorming even more unlikely places for his sing-alongs. “I shan’t share it with you because I’d like for you to be surprised,” he says coyly. “But I have got one or two ideas of some detours we could make on the way.” Let’s hope he keeps the good times rolling.