It’s a bit of a famous story by this point. In the months before James Corden was set to launch his version of The Late Late Show on CBS in 2015, the largely unknown British actor and presenter spent days knocking on publicists’ doors in order to sell his vision for the new show and how he hoped to shake up the genre. Oh, and you know: book their clients as guests.
Roughly 210 episodes of The Late Late Show later, everyone from Tom Hanks in that premiere episode to Adele, in the most-watched late-night clip of all time, have been booked on the show, singing karaoke in cars, re-creating their acting careers in 6½ minutes, engaging in rap battles, and, yes, even just sitting on a couch chatting.
The hustling, it appears, has paid off. Not only are bookings easier than ever, but Corden’s being hailed for having “flipped late-night on its head.” In truth, Corden has produced probably the most viral-friendly late-night show yet—no small feat in the age of Jimmy Fallon’s lip-sync battles—and transformed the genre into one that transcends its time slot.
“It’s quite difficult to get people to turn the TV on at 12:35, you know?” Corden tells The Daily Beast.
His solution: create content so irresistible that people will want to watch it at any time.
“That’s the great thing about the internet, really,” he says. “It’s an incredible leveler. If you make something that’s good, if you make good content, people will find it.”
Rewarding Corden’s pursuits, The Late Late Show has been nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards: Best Variety Talk Series, Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series, and Outstanding Variety Special for his “Carpool Karaoke” primetime event.
Landing the Variety Talk Series was a big one—The Late Late Show was nominated over perennial winner The Daily Show, buzzy Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, and even Corden’s Emmy-favorite timeslot companion, Stephen Colbert.
With Emmy voting underway, we chatted with Corden about his big year, how he’s changing the genre, his hopes to be your “friend at the end of the day,” and whether there is such thing as too much “Carpool Karaoke.”
Congratulations on landing the Emmy noms. On what level when you’re starting out a show like this, which is still young, is that a goal, or a benchmark of legitimization?
I don’t think when we started sort of talking about what the show would be that seemed so far out of our orbit, really. That’s the truth, given the show that we were coming into, which was a show that traditionally had not been recognized in that way. I was very much prepared for a level of disappointment, I guess. You can’t help but notice when you sort of get talked about in that way and you sort of think that’s just not going to be the case. I was beyond thrilled for the whole team, really. We have such a small staff in comparison to the other shows. And I’m such a new host. So much of it was about just informing people that there’s a show here. I’m so happy to have been recognized in such a way. I really, really am.
I read an anecdote at some point about before the show premiered you would go knocking on publicists’ doors just to introduce yourself to them.
Yeah! I did.
Thinking back on that now that the show is Emmy-nominated for Best Variety Series, what’s it like to reflect on that hustle versus what the show has become?
The show, really, is just trying to stop this archaic way of looking at television, of being a show that is defined by its time slot. I look at our show and just think it’s on TV 24 hours a day. That’s how so many people consume stuff now. That’s the great thing about the internet, really. It’s an incredible leveler. If you make something that’s good, if you make good content, people will find it. There’s no big football game. There’s no 10 o’clock drama. There’s no lead-in. It’s just there, and the good will rise to the top. You know? That’s what’s so thrilling about making a show like this right now, today.
That’s obviously the best mentality to have given the way many people consume content today. But how has that conversation been with people at networks who are used to how things have traditionally worked? Have you had to convince people who are used to looking at night-of ratings that it’s this way of consuming content that actually matters?
Well, ultimately, what are these shows about? They’re about relevance. That’s it. That’s the key. And the internet is really where you gain your relevance. So as far as our network goes, they are so supportive of our show. We have no notes, actually. It’s just constant encouragement of “yeah, do it, go, run, make your show.” I feel like we’re bringing a different audience…well, actually, we’re not. It used to be, back in the day, this audience that would watch this show in this slot was a big student audience and a younger crowd. Now that they will watch whoever they want when they want, that’s still our audience. The audience hasn’t changed. We just have to listen to the way that they consume a show.
And that’s no longer necessarily live right before bed?
It’s quite difficult to get people to turn the TV on at 12:35, you know? You’re so reliant on what comes to you then. But the great thing about the internet is that it’s a purer number, if you like. So when we got over 7 million subscribers to our YouTube channel and I think across the internet 1.6 or 1.7 billion views in 210 shows, how could a network not be happy with that?
Did you feel that there was a turning point—maybe an episode or sketch—that changed the way people looked at you and the show?
I don’t think so. We were very conscious of the fact that we needed our first episode to be a great example of what our show can be. So we just knew that we didn’t have the luxury of time, because we didn’t have the luxury of an existing audience who were already fans who will stick by you. We had a window of grace where people would check it out. That’s why on our show we did a big sketch with Meryl Streep and Jay Leno and Shia LaBeouf. Then we did that big thing with Tom Hanks where we recapped all his movies in 6½ minutes. Then in night two we had this thing where we’d sing in a car with Mariah Carey. Who knew that was going to go the way it did? The next week we did a big sketch with David Beckham. Show 8, we went and did a show from someone’s house. We didn’t know how it was going to go. We just knocked on someone’s door.
Listening to it recounted, it’s astonishing how quickly you hit the ground running.
We had to come out of the blocks so fast, and let people know that this is a show where people come and do stuff. And if they did, they’d be rewarding with views online. That Tom Hanks bit I think has been viewed about 18 million times. If you were to launch a show and 18 million people watch it, it would be amazing. I don’t know if there was a turning point. There’s been moments. When we did the Carpool with Stevie Wonder, that was a great thing for us. We did a Primetime Special that got nominated for an Emmy. We really threw everything at that. We did a big Super Bowl show. There’s been these sort of tentpoles that we’ve worked towards and run at, and thank god they’ve all sort of worked out in a way.
Whenever a recurring sketch on a show like this is a hit, there’s handwringing in the blogosphere over whether it might burn out. Clearly that hasn’t happened yet with Carpool Karaoke, but do you share that concern that it could happen?
It’s really up to us to just try and keep it as good as we can, and protect it. Look, we could probably do that bit every day if we wanted to, in terms of the people who would like to do it. It’s up to us to, as best we can, try to protect it. As long as people enjoy watching it, then that’s all that really matters. We just have to keep coming up with a great show every day. We did this segment which we’ve done like four times called “Drop the Mic,” where we do these rap battle things. That’s now going to have a spinoff show.
Are you ever surprised by the willingness of these celebrities to do the work it takes to participate in some of these sketches? That Tom Hanks bit, “Drop the Mic,” these are things that take a lot of preparation on the celebrities’ part, and leaves them quite vulnerable—and in a genre that is notorious for puffy, easy publicity for them.
Yeah. But not really. I think if you go back, to when like Dave Letterman and Steve Martin did “Steve and Dave’s Gay Vacation,” and they went out a shot a load of things. If that came out today it would be a huge viral moment. I feel like ultimately there’s been a change in television. It used to be that if you were doing my job 20 years ago you would be a broadcaster. Because there were four, five channels and there wasn’t this massive political commentary in a world of a million podcasts and 24-hour news and stuff like that. It was a different thing from what it is today. It used to be two guys. Now it’s like six, seven. It’s just finding the lane your show fits in.
Do you feel like you’ve found your lane?
The way I view it, we follow Stephen Colbert’s show. I don’t think anybody is going to do political satire or commentary and skewer those topics better than him. So the way I look at our show, we have to sit at the other end of the seesaw in a way. We have to provide a little bit of light and levity at the end of the day. I think guests respond to that. That’s what our show is. It’s part talk show, part variety show, part just, hopefully, a friend at the end of the day.
A friend at the end of the day. I like that.
I feel like the news that you consume now, what you’re exposed to now in terms of where we are in the world is a very different place to what it was 20, or even 10, years ago. I think you’re in a different mindset at the end of the day if you’ve been watching the news and you’ve been doing those things. I think our show is just a place where people can come, and if you feel in the midst that things might be terrible, then realize maybe it isn’t all bad and there’s fun to be had. It’s OK, and it could be a lot worse.
It complements not only Colbert’s show, but the climate in general.
In the same way Stephen’s show comes from a 650 theater in New York. So we’d talk about our set in terms of where you might you go if you were leaving the theater. Well, you might go to a bar. You might go to a restaurant. You might go to a comedy club. So let’s bring our seats closer to the audience. Let’s bring all our guests out at the same time, so it promotes a sense of organic conversation. That’s how we think about it, really.
It’s nice to hear you talk about how you view the role of your show in people’s lives.
You hope that you can find that. You hope that it can be that. And that’s not to say that we will ever shy away from talking about “things.” But in the world of The Daily Show and John Oliver and Samantha Bee’s brilliant show and Stephen’s show, there’s lots of people who are already doing that. So you just find your lane, I think. I hope that we might have found ours.
So if you do win, who gets the bigger bouquet: Mariah Carey, for being the first Carpool Karaoke, or Adele for being the biggest?
(Laughs) I don’t know if that’s anything that we’re going to have to worry about. That is very much First World Problems. If we win, I’ll send flowers to everyone. Including some to you.