YouTube is probably the no 1 internet site for leading you down primrose byways – you start off, earnestly, to see if that interview you want a quote from has been posted online and before you know it you’re looking at pictures of kittens with captions. I’ve never actually made it to the kitten stage but I have lost a lot of writing time this way, following rabbit hole suggestions to that point where you suddenly realise you’re watching a video someone’s made about their camper van. The bonus is inadvertently finding some other bits and pieces along the way; and one of these discoveries is a very happy find: the Carpool Karaoke segment of James Corden’s American late night chat show. This has proved an ideal switch off for when things aren’t going well and you sit down with a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit to take a break. They’re the perfect mini cheer up – compressing good humoured banter, silliness and singing into an eight to fifteen minute clip that gives you a little window of joy in what can seem like an increasingly drab world.
The basic premise is extremely simple – Corden needs someone to carshare with him so he can use a priority lane in negotiating the Los Angeles traffic on his way to work. He calls up a friend to help out and they chat about what they’ve been up to, while singing along to songs on the radio throughout the journey.
Except that the ‘friends’ are the likes of Elton John, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna, and the songs on the ‘radio’ they’re singing along to are a compilation of their greatest hits.
The result is every bit as entertaining as you could wish for, with energetic seat dancing, unexpected insights, ridiculous jokes, some very funny moments and, of course, some great singalongs. (Corden takes this to a whole other level in the Gwen Stefani clip when George Clooney and Julia Roberts hop in, discuss favourite lines in (their) films and join in, wholeheartedly bellowing along to a Queen chorus: ‘We are the cham-pions!!!!’)
It’s this collision of extremely famous stars sitting next to the nominally ordinary Corden, doing the everyday things that you or I do, and the illusion of intimacy with them that this brings, that gives Carpool Karaoke such massive appeal.
What makes it work so well is that Corden is a fan of the songs without being fan-like around the singer: responding to each artist as a musician whose work he respects and appreciates, rather than the focus of tongue-tied adulation. His unaffected delight: ‘This is such a good song!’ is palpably genuine; he knows all the words and can hold a tune. Above all he is unashamedly enjoying himself, completely unselfconscious in the way he belts out each song as if it’s his best mate, rather than a famous pop star, who’s in the passenger seat. He knows when to let rip, when to hold back and his skill at harmonising has impressed to the extent that Coldplay’s Chris Martin invited him to sing ‘Nothing Compares to You’ with them on stage. Corden accepted, only to discover that 90,000 people were in the audience. Apart from a little – understandable! – nervous breathlessness, he acquitted himself extremely well.
I was aware of James Corden as an actor, from having seen the film of Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, and was vaguely aware of the hugely popular tv sitcom he wrote and starred in: Gavin and Stacey, but that was about as far as it went. Sir Nicholas Hyntner, the director of The History Boys, described him as ‘indecently talented’ in the commentary of the film (Alan Bennett himself encouraged Corden to write) – something that was clearly recognised by the executives at CBS. After starring in a hit Broadway play (for which he won an award) Corden went in to the American television network to pitch a sitcom – and came out as the next host of their iconic The Late Late Show, despite a complete lack of experience in the talk show field.
The Carpool Karaoke segment of the show had its beginnings in a short sketch for British charity Comic Relief‘s ‘Red Nose Day’, which featured Corden’s character Smithy from Gavin and Stacey. The characters in Gavin and Stacey often sang along to the radio on car journeys and the gag for the Comic Relief sketch was that it was George Michael in the passenger seat next to Smithy – and they were both singing along to a Wham song.
There was a simple joyousness about the sketch that hinted at further potential and both Corden and his producer, Ben Winston, were keen to develop the idea for The Late Late Show. No one, however, got what they wanted to do – as Corden later said ‘Think of anyone and they turned it down.’ The turning point came when they buttonholed a woman from Marieh Carey’s record company at an industry event and showed her the sketch on their phones. She persuaded Carey to get involved, which resulted in a brief five minute slot for the show. An up-all-night Carey seems surprised to hear her own music or even that she’s expected to sing but, after some shameless flattery and attempts by each to imitate British and American accents, Corden successfully coaxes her into singing along.
With this first television clip as a showcase, and the ease with which filming the segment could fit around stars’ schedules, Carpool Karaoke rapidly demonstrated its potential when it netted Jennifer Hudson next, by literally driving her to work. Despite an awkward beginning, when you can’t quite tell how serious the little spat is over Corden being kept waiting, there’s an immediate rapport. When her music comes on and Corden responds with genuine appreciation: ‘such a good song!’ and begins rapping along to the opening, knowing all the lyrics perfectly, she’s both impressed and disarmed.
Hudson enters into the spirit of things pretty much from the off: singing Corden’s burger and fries breakfast (??) order at a drive through, using a bottle of water as a microphone and taking part in a selfie on the pavement at her Hollywood star. Hudson completely gets into it, seat dancing and all – Corden turns up the radio and they both belt out the numbers, Corden visibly in awe at one point as Hudson showcases her amazing voice.
Stevie Wonder, in the sixth instalment, enjoyed himself so much he insisted on carrying on beyond the allotted time, driving round for over two hours and singing ‘I just called to say James loves you’ down the cellphone to Corden’s wife. (The resultant YouTube clip went viral, with 2.5 million views in 24 hours.) Wonder had released a Definitive Hits album, some time previously, but was officially on the show to promote his new tour. When the album went to No 1 on the UK iTunes chart, shortly after his Carpool Karaoke segment aired, agents and promoters for other artists suddenly sat up and took notice. Since then, Corden’s Carpool Karaoke has featured stars such as Adele, One Direction, Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars, and become a massive YouTube hit, with Adele’s clip alone garnering over 169 million views.
The success of the series owes much to James Corden himself. One of Corden’s strengths is that he can operate on so many levels at once: he is both insider and outsider, with sufficiently impressive credentials on his own account, having won awards as an actor, writer and talk show host, to justify the assumption of equality. But he’s also, in his very normality, simultaneously the viewer’s representative in the exchange, their conduit into intimacy with the stars, flicking easily between professionally confident and the fanboy living both his and their dreams.
The fact that he’s actually driving the car and has his attention on navigating the traffic for most of the clip, asking his questions in an almost absent minded tone, goes a great deal towards creating this intimacy and encouraging the stars to relax. (To ensure safety he drives in a convoy of slow moving vehicles from the show; if you look out of the back window of the car you can often see a large black van tailing them, which I always imagine as full of sweating PR and security for the star. When Corden and Martin buy lemonade from a roadside stall in their clip – their reaction after drinking it is one of my favourite moments – you can see the van in the back of the shot.)
Even without this ploy, Corden is clearly extremely good at rapidly breaking down the stars’ professional interview barriers and establishing a rapport. Justin Bieber, in the third clip, comes across as an engaging youth, misfortunate to have had the usual idiocies of the teenage male take place under intense public scrutiny. He appears slightly wary to begin with but it would be impossible not be disarmed in the face of such genuine enthusiasm: ‘It’s a huge tune!’ or Corden’s uninhibited seat dancing. The two end up sharing fries while they talk lyrics: ‘I think you put fondue in there just because it rhymes with whatever’ and at one point Corden pulls out a Rubik’s Cube to test the rumour that Bieber can do one in under two minutes. (He can.)
Corden excels at a type of banter that brings down the starry quality of the encounter without, crucially, putting down the star but he’s equally quick to make similar jokes at his own expense or run with their jokes at him. In Madonna’s clip her jibe at his shirt: ‘it’s very Seattle, 1990s’ becomes a recurring joke in their journey, with the humour expanded by Corden’s reactions to the ‘insult’ to his fashion sense.
What makes Corden so funny is his acute awareness of the ridiculous in a situation, as seen in his frank avowal of the strangeness of his appointment as host of The Late Late Show. (When Adele asks him whether she should have a wig or a weave, to give her more styling options after a recent cut, Corden deadpans: ‘What I like is that you’re coming to me for this advice.’) He is the little boy who has wandered into the emperor’s court, gleefully debunking pretensions but, again crucially, in a way that invites those he’s pointing at to join in with him in recognising and appreciating the joke.
Corden pairs this with an ability to not pursue the obvious, that effectively unearths the real humour in any exchange. When, in answer to a fairly standard lad’s style question, Jason Derulo replies that five is the most people he’s had in his bed, Corden’s comment is: ‘that’s a large bed’. But when Derulo reveals that ‘it’s circular’, where other talk show hosts would continue to – banally – follow up on the sexual angle, Corden’s response is typical:
‘No! You’ve got a round bed?? Oh come on, Jason! – you’ve got a round bed?? I don’t even know where I’d purchase such a thing! [pondering] I mean, where would you buy sheets for a round bed?’ before cracking up with laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of the concept. Rock and roll ‘glamour’ is brought firmly into context through Corden’s infallible prism – and we can’t help grinning too.
It’s the sort of ribbing you’d get from your mate in the pub, with no malice or intent to trip up behind it. Corden establishes trust, and thus enables further revelations, by being protective of more vulnerable moments instead of exploiting them. When he teases Justin Beiber about his ads for Calvin Klein: ‘I’ve got to be honest, when I picked you up just now I didn’t recognise you because you had a top on’ Beiber reveals that he’s now sent so many free underpants he just wears them once and throws them away. Instead of pouncing on Beiber’s faint embarrassment as most other talk show hosts would, Corden turns the moment with the response: ‘That’s the life – I have to turn mine inside out and wear them again’ and moves on. When he’s coaxed Jason Derulo into singing some opera stanzas after Derulo reveals he’s ‘studied classical music my whole life’, Corden covers as the star warms up his voice, with some loud, over the top warm up exercises of his own. Any too-private matters, inadvertently revealed, are taken out in the editing stage.
All this encourages the stars to come out with the sort of intimate details that celebrity magazines kill for: Adele chugs her tea and gossips about handing out freebies to fans in a restaurant after getting drunk one night; Jennifer Lopez lets him scroll through her phone’s contacts: ‘CRISTIANO RONALDO!! Oh my GOD!! … [more contacts are revealed] This is the. best. phone. I’ve ever. seen, in my life!!’ (Corden ends up sending a spoof text to Leonardo DiCaprio – who replies!); Madonna, in an exclusive, that she once snogged Michael Jackson. Much of these form the basis of celebrity news items in the following weeks.
A large measure of Carpool Karaoke‘s success is Corden’s obvious love of music; the viewer sharing in his deep enjoyment both of the music itself and his amazing good fortune at singing it along with its creator. He has a facility for remembering lyrics, even raps, and a decent voice, and instinctively knows when to join in and when to just appreciate. In the Chris Martin clip, Corden blithely sings along to the Coldplay songs on the ‘radio’, with Martin – who famously squirms at hearing his voice on a recording the way that most of us do hearing our own on an answer phone – faintly pink with embarrassment but gamely singing along too. But when Martin, more in his comfort zone, gets out a mini keyboard and sings as he plays the songs himself, Corden is mostly silent, beaming all over his face and joining in only with a few bars at the end.
Martin comments: ‘You’re such a good harmoniser, James!’ Corden has described being a boy band fan from his teenage years; and the clip of him singing Pray on stage with his idol Gary Barlow in 2012 is a gem. (When Barlow offered to send someone over to show him the moves, Corden assured him there was absolutely no need, and he does completely nail it.)
He’s never more in his element than when singing along with One Direction to their hits (he co-wrote the video with Winston for Best Song Ever which Winston also directed) but it’s the clip with Adele that’s the real stand out. Corden harmonises beautifully as he drives around a rainy, bare tree-lined London, complete with red bus, that seems custom ordered to confirm American stereotypes. (An impressed Adele exclaims: ‘Very good!’ and ‘That was amazing!’ to a visibly gratified Corden.)
There’s an infectious energy about the songs that’s lacking in the studio versions – Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill seemed almost flat, when I looked it up, without an enthusiastic Corden beating time on the steering wheel or shouting out, as he frequently does: ‘This is such fun!!’ And it is fun. Most importantly Carpool Karaoke is fun, not just for the viewer or for the clearly ecstatic Corden, but for the artists themselves (the only one which hasn’t really worked is the Foo Fighters, who, with the exception of the amiable Grohl, seemed too self-conscious about not appearing cool). Justin Bieber went on to do two more videos for Carpool Karaoke as well as numerous guest spots on The Late Late Show – to the extent that there’s a whole swathe of YouTube videos on his and Corden’s ‘bromance’. There’s an interesting demonstration of what a good job Corden has done, at the end of each clip, when the artists do a straight to camera request to subscribe to the Late Late Show’s YouTube channel, suddenly self-conscious and back in professional mode.
It’s easy to feel nowadays that the world is filled with a lot of people intent on propelling us towards a future where a boot is smashing on a human face for ever; that the idea of a society based on love and compassion has been replaced by one based on hatred and fear. What we need to remember, and hold onto in the middle of all this, is that there’s also a great deal of small happinesses out there if we only look for them. They may be overshadowed by many of the things going on in the world at the moment but they are there, notwithstanding, and, without wishing to get all Pollyanna on you, we need to start actively seeking them out, however tiny they might be.
James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke seems to me like a good place to start. It’s a series of mini-interactions on a very human scale, that seem to resonate with a basic kindliness and sympathy; and that underline the value of small moments of joyfulness and the difference they can make. In the world as it is today it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of celebrating humour that isn’t unkind, trust, music and the artists that make that music, and above all the simple joy of singing together which, in itself, is a celebration of life.