James Corden has many special talents, but his greatest asset as a late-night host is one that can’t be taught or even honed: He is so damn charming that you can’t help but smile at him. Even when he makes the same joke again for the 200th time.
That joke had its grandest rollout yet when Corden’s Late Late Show got its first primetime special Tuesday night, an hour-long retrospective that served to celebrate the show’s one-year anniversary but mostly to hail the Cadillac success of its hit sketch “Carpool Karaoke.”
The latest installment of the show’s popular bit featured Jennifer Lopez, and premiered during the special.
If there’s anyone who rivals Corden on the charm scale, it’s everyone’s favorite American Idol from the block, an actress/singer/professional beautiful person with a calibrated charisma as masterful as her contouring.
And so it is a testament of the risk of over-playing any tune—karaoke in a car or not—that the combined charm offensive of J.Lo and J.Co can’t keep “Carpool Karaoke” from dangerously approaching repetitive status, rather than the song you couldn’t wait to crank up every time it came on, as it once was.
“Carpool Karaoke” hasn’t become a sketch-show car wreck yet, of course.
The whole occasion for this primetime pomp and circumstance is that The Late Late Show is only a year old. All infants are adorable; their cuteness never wears out their welcome. As Tuesday’s retrospective proved, cuteness abounds from James Corden in a way that late-night so desperately needed.
The special opened with Corden leading a musical number that was equal parts The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Glee, a perfect encapsulation of a corniness so unabashed that it transcends silly embarrassment and becomes joyous.
“A primetime special of my own,” Corden sang. “When people watching aren’t stoned.”
Much is made in these early minutes of the special about it being in primetime, victory-lapping the boon that the eyeballs trained to be on an episode of NCIS at that hour will supposedly have for the show’s exposure.
While there’s no arguing the worth of this televised birthday party—the jolliness of the hour made it perfectly pleasant viewing by any measure—it seems confused and antiquated to consider the primetime slot some sort of essential platform when the Internet and social media has already given Corden the viral outlet he needs.
Even Corden says, introducing an encore of the brilliant Adele installment of “Carpool Karaoke,” “It has become the most viewed online clip in the history of late-night television.”
Late-night may have at one point been a haven for Not Ready For Primetime Players, quirky talents who wouldn’t be appreciated at this earlier hour. Now it’s a home for those who are perfectly ready for primetime, but don’t really need it.
Corden proves this with a replay of “Crosswalk, the Musical,” one of the most inventive sketches I’ve seen in late-night in recent years.
Performing a production of Grease on the crosswalk of a Los Angeles street during red lights is the kind of absurdist-meets-populist Candid Camera-esque comedy that our viral culture devours.
In tandem with a bit that had him filling in as a real estate agent alongside Million Dollar Listing’s James Harris—trying out, in various states of undress, the pool, shower, and toilet—Corden takes the model that Ellen DeGeneres made stale with overuse on her daytime show and dialed it to a vanity-free 11, making it relevant again because of Corden’s clown-like gusto and seemingly reckless abandon.
Which brings us to “Carpool Karaoke.”
It would be difficult to say that Corden would be as popular as he has become without it. The bit has come to define his short late-night tenure thus far, but the bit also wouldn’t be as successful were it not him, specifically, who is doing it.
As much of a hoot as it is to watch Jennifer Hudson belt a drive-thru fast food order (few things are more hoot-worthy), Mariah Carey prove she’s in on the joke of being Mariah Carey (arguably a career-saving move), or the boys of One Direction act like goofy teenagers who could be your best friends (call me, Harry), it only works because Corden is as engaging, if not even more so, as the superstars in his passenger seat.
He sings with a studied enthusiasm for these artists’ catalogs that reads as infectiously genuine, whether or not that’s true. (Though, on occasions when he tears up as Stevie Wonder sings “I just called to say James loves you” on the phone to Corden’s wife, there’s no denying the authenticity.)
He engages them in conversation so casual that these musical deities show rare glimpses of being real, actual people—an interviewing skill of his that might not get the credit it deserves.
It’s easy to fawn over a guest as a fan (Fallon) or humanize them through relentless sarcasm (Kimmel), but it’s hard to make anything people this famous do or say seem organic, which is precisely why “Carpool Karaoke” has gotten such a positive response, both from audiences and the talent themselves.
That might explain why it’s been so overdone by this point.
Everyone from Justin Bieber to Carrie Underwood to Rod Stewart, Chris Martin, Jason DeRulo, and even Iggy Azalea has done one. You can only indulge in so many treats before the glutton of it all leaves you nauseated and turns you off it. Jennifer Lopez might be the final bite.
Lopez appeared game from the minute the bit started, and when Jennifer Lopez is game for something you know you’re in for top-notch entertainment.
She came alive, as she does, singing along to hits like “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” “Booty,” and “On the Floor.” She giggled along, even though she likely wanted to tuck-and-roll out of the car then and there, when Corden started grilling her on rumors that her butt was insured.
It’s when Corden convinces Lopez to let him text the most famous person in her phone that the bit mines what might be one of the greatest moments in “Carpool Karaoke” history, right up there with Adele rapping Nicki Minaj.
“I’m kind of feeling like I need to cut loose,” Corden texts, of all people, Leonardo DiCaprio, asking him what’s going on tonight and then signing it, “J.Lo. You know, from the block.” Endearingly mortified, Lopez scoffs, “I’m gonna have to explain that.”
After another radio sing-along, to Corden’s and eventually even Lopez’s delight, DiCaprio texts back, with the best response any late-night writer could have asked for: “You mean tonight, boo boo, club-wise?”
Corden couldn’t have orchestrated it better, except that he did orchestrate it: This show has become an expert in setting the stage for moments like this to happen. Again, it’s why this bit has become so popular.
It’s funny, though, that this J.Lo “Carpool Karaoke” moment happened during the show’s primetime special. Fun as the Leo texting was and for all of Lopez’s wonderfulness, the bit as a whole came off as formulaic. Because, at this point, the sketch is just that.
It’s much like the NCIS-like procedurals that normally air in the slot that Corden was filling Tuesday night. The formulaic aspect of these shows make them familiar, which is part of why their popularity endures for so long. But the predictability of it all is why the buzz burns off, the coolness goes away, and the shows become a pop culture joke.
“Carpool Karaoke” isn’t there yet. But it’s pedal-to-the-metal on its way.
That doesn’t mean that Corden and The Late Late Show are going to stop doing it. Quite the opposite, I imagine that this primetime special is a tryout of sorts for a weekly “Carpool Karaoke” series, much like Lip Sync Battle.
Until that happens and the groaning ensues, it’s fitting to celebrate this highly entertaining bit. And, for that matter, Corden, who has clearly made one of the strongest debuts in recent late-night history.