The Unlikely Lucky History of Carpool Karaoke
When you’re a new late-night host, the first thing you need is a signature bit. A Mean Tweets. A Top Ten List. Something that cements your comedy identity with a viewing public who couldn’t pick you out of a lineup of anonymous Carson Dalys.
And in 2015, new CBS hire James Corden knew it.
“When you’re putting together a show like this, you’re searching for the tentpoles that might prop up your show,” Corden told People.
It’s one thing to come up with a killer comedy bit. It’s quite another to devise a gimmick that can be repeated night after night, season after season, like Letterman did with his lists. Oh, you want your guests to be part of the bit as well? We’ve just raised the degree of difficulty.
As Corden and his team were brainstorming possible tentpoles, he remembered a bit that he’d written for a sitcom years earlier. A character on the show “was driving George Michael to a meeting for Comic Relief, and we were singing Wham! songs in the car,” remembers Corden. “And amazingly it just really resonated with people.”
OK, singing songs in a car. Good, good. Late Late Show executive producer Ben Winston suggested that maybe there was an element about helping people get to work.
“In the carpool lane,” chimed in head writer Ian Karmel.
“I said, ‘Carpool Karaoke,’” says Corden. “And we all just went, ‘Okay, that’s it!’”
But would it actually work? And who could Corden and company get to sing along as proof of concept? I mean, what actual music star wants to wail along in a car with an unknown British comic?
"You know, it was crazy,” remembers Corden. “I mean, we managed to get Mariah Carey and I will always be indebted to her for saying yes. So I genuinely honestly don't know if we're having this conversation if she hadn't said yes. I think it's that important to our show."
“And it exploded,” late-night TV historian Bill Carter said recently on The Town podcast. “Now every musical act in the world wants to do it with him, right? And he has the talent to do it.”
Every musical act in the world? Well, maybe. Corden’s crazy all-star lineup of participants includes Adele, Celine Dion, Madonna, Britney Spears, Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, One Direction, BTS, Ariana Grande, and Michelle Obama.
But none of those artists is Corden’s favorite.
“I mean, doing it with Paul McCartney will probably take some beating from me personally,” says Corden. “It was just a day I'll never, ever forget."
What was the best part of singing with Sir Paul? "All of it. Sometimes I think if that was an auction prize what would it go for, you know, and I'm at work."
So why does Carpool Karaoke work? It doesn’t hurt that the carpoolers are some of the planet’s most famous people. And yet, says Corden, “they're in an environment which is completely humanizing."
Lucky for Corden, it didn’t take him years or even months to find the perfect, enduring comedy bit. Sometimes you get lucky and find it on the first try. “I’ve never been as sure of an idea in my life,” says Corden. “I felt completely certain. I’m almost always uncertain of everything. This was an idea I could see it, I could see what it is.”
And with Corden announcing his late-night retirement last week, it's up to his replacement to find that next signature idea.
For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:
5 Rejected Comedy Sketch Ideas We Wish Would Have Happened
15 Insider Tips To Break In As A Comedian On TikTok
The Judd Apatow Show Starring Loads Of Stars That ABC Threw Out
For ComedyNerd exclusive content and more, subscribe to our fancy newsletter:
Top image: CBS Studios