Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Carpool Karaoke colonizes primetime on its march toward world domination

Illustration for article titled Carpool Karaoke colonizes primetime on its march toward world domination

In arguably the most inspired moment in the short—and yet substantial—history of The Late Late Show’s Carpool Karaoke segment, host James Corden asks Adele a series of leading questions about her relationship with rap music.

They’re in a car on a rainy December day in London, and they’ve already had loads of fun belting out Adele’s hits, kicking in ‘90s-style with “Wannabe,” and discussing Adele’s drinking habits around the Christmas holiday. But now Corden wants to know if Adele is a rapper—she demurs, insisting that she is “not that talented of me own,” but it is established that she can spit some rhymes. And so Corden goes to his stereo, brings up Kanye West’s “Monster,” and Adele proceeds to perform the entirety of Nicki Minaj’s infamous verse.

Carpool Karaoke, and by extension Corden, is a monster. As late-night television increasingly becomes a YouTube Arms Race, giving the historical goal of watercooler buzz new metrics in views and subscribers, Carpool Karaoke has the 12:30 Late Late Show punching above its weight. With fifteen entries—and a few non-canonical spinoffs—in the show’s first year following tonight’s entry from Jennifer Lopez, Carpool Karaoke has undoubtedly entered the mainstream: when Corden roamed a Los Angeles neighborhood searching for a random house to shoot his show in earlier this month, a man on an intercom declined the offer but insisted he loved Carpool. When they found a group of roommates willing to host the show, the first question? “Wait, are we doing Carpool Karaoke, though?”

James Corden’s first year as the host of the Late Late Show has been an undeniable success: heck, the simple fact that he could roam a Los Angeles street and find more than one household featuring people who know who he is represents a significant victory for a performer who was largely unknown in the U.S. before taking the job (although that might have gone differently outside of L.A.). But Carpool Karaoke has a tendency to overshadow the rest of Corden’s output—while Adele’s carpool journey has now been viewed close to ninety million times on YouTube, Corden’s channel has “only” 4.2 million subscribers, an impressive figure for a show in its first year that nonetheless reminds us that most of the people familiar with Carpool Karaoke might remain unfamiliar with the rest of Corden’s output on The Late Late Show.

Tonight’s primetime special is an effort to change this, combining a focus on Carpool Karaoke—an edited version of Adele, a montage of highlights, and the debut of the most recent segment featuring Jennifer Lopez—with an effort to introduce America to the rest of what Corden has to offer. Admittedly, the idea of Corden’s likely audience watching CBS at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night is a bit suspect, as Corden’s brand of comedy seems unlikely to serve as a compatible lead-out to NCIS: New Orleans. (I know, I thought millennials loved navy crime too, but it would appear not to be the case.) But this special is more about the gesture than it is about reaching a particular group of viewers or demonstrably changing Corden’s week-to-week ratings—Corden could gain viewers from this exposure, but the real victory here is a vote of confidence from the network that the buzz being built online is getting noticed for the right reasons.

I’ll get to Carpool Karaoke itself in a moment, but the real variable in this special was the choice of other content to highlight. Outside of Carpool Karaoke, the Late Late Show producers chose two other segments to showcase Corden’s work on the series, both of which focused on one particular element of his hosting persona. Within the context of sketches, Corden’s role effectively boils down to that of the merry prankster, disrupting the lives of people around him for comic effect. In “Crosswalk the Musical: Grease,” Corden and a group of singers and dancers perform numbers during red lights. It’s an outgrowth of that cultural moment where everyone was doing flash mobs—remember flash mobs?—and showcases a version of Corden that is so busy putting on a show he forgets that the world isn’t his stage.

It’s a “character” that extends to many of Corden’s bits, including the other one chosen: Take A Break, where Corden takes over someone’s job for a day, in this case with Corden touring and then giving an open house on a million dollar listing in Los Angeles. Even more than with Crosswalk the Musical, where his “victims” were random drivers who happened to pull up to the intersection, here Corden is effectively orchestrating a version of Punk’d on his real estate partner, the owner of the home, and prospective owner Tyga. The clip revels in its spontaneity: although everyone involved know they’re being filmed for a comedy sketch, they have no idea what Corden is going to do, and react as you’d expect when he strips down and goes for a swim, showers naked in their presence, and takes a dump to test out the facilities.

And while this is indeed a version of himself that Corden uses fairly consistently in the show’s pre-taped sketches, it’s not my favorite. These segments are not wildly dissimilar from other late-night pre-tapes (I’m thinking of Conan in particular here), but there is—at least from my perspective—a clear line between Conan O’Brien the person and Conan O’Brien the troll who is toying with the people he’s interacting with. I can tell when he’s making a genuine observation from a position of self-awareness, and when he’s feigning a lack of self-awareness for the purpose of a bit. With Corden in these sketches, though, he is playing a version of himself with zero self-awareness, creating some broad comic scenarios—and some fun moments—but couching them in terms that seem too far removed from the actual person who hosts the show (whom I like considerably more).


The show has struck a better balance in other, similar segments. Corden took over room service at a Las Vegas hotel earlier this year, playing games with guests as opposed to simply giving them what was ordered. He’s playing the role of the prankster here as well, but in ways where he’s in on the joke, and acknowledging that doing a bit in order to take the piss out of everyone involved. Corden’s trolling is fine in and of itself, but it’s more engaging when you see his enjoyment creep through, as it does here when he makes a cell phone bet with one of the guests.

When Corden wins the bet and uses the guy’s phone to text his crush a definitively romantic message, and when that message results in a phone call where she admits to feeling the same way, Corden’s façade starts to crack. He’s still making jokes, and he’s still making fun of the guy for ordering Malibu, but he’s also genuinely excited to have made a love connection. When he’s back in his studio Skyping with the couple, you see how much Corden genuinely loves this job, which is something that feels buried in the more constructed pre-tapes featured in the special.


It’s also something that lies at the heart of Carpool Karaoke. The segment’s online success is owed to its intelligent leveraging of the music industry’s growth on YouTube—we live in a world where Justin Bieber’s Vevo account is the most-watched YouTube channel, and a world where more and more young listeners are consuming music exclusively through YouTube. And while other late-night shows have partnered with musicians to generate content (Jimmy Fallon’s “Classroom Instruments” series jumps to mind), none have been as substantial or as distinct as Carpool Karaoke, extending well beyond a traditional performance to explore the artist’s catalog, their personal life, and their sense of humor. Its loose structure gives fans intimate access to their favorite artists, while simultaneously giving those artists spaces to appear human while also being “safe” in a pre-taped segment. Fans want their favorite artists to be a part of Carpool Karaoke, and artists want to take advantage of its reach outside of their core fanbase, which makes it a valuable piece of late-night real estate for CBS.

However, the segment’s success for Corden and the Late Late Show rests on Corden’s own involvement. While the above logic explains why the segment is spinning off into its own entity (with a cable series, similar to Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, likely), the fact is that I have trouble imagining Carpool Karaoke without Corden at the wheel. Carpool Karaoke carries a high degree of difficulty, and not just because Corden is insistent on hitting every high note he comes across. He has to be able to make celebrities feel simultaneously comfortable and not quite at ease, constantly switching modes depending on the given moment. Sometimes he’s the merry prankster, as he is with Jennifer Lopez as he searches for the most famous person in her phone and—similar to his Vegas room-service gag—forcibly sends a bizarre text to Leonardo DiCaprio. But other times he’s strikingly genuine, as featured in the highlights reel when Stevie Wonder is singing “I Just Called To Say I Love You” to Corden’s wife over the phone. And with Carpool Karaoke, the two tend to blur together—in the midst of trolling Lopez, Corden loses it as her earring drops between her seat and the car door, the “bit”—likely planned in advance, at least on Corden’s part—breaking down by nature of the events happening around him.


My favorite quality of Corden’s is his willingness to follow along with his guests (like this Hamilton sing-along with Rosie O’Donnell), which is often where Carpool Karaoke is at its best. When Lopez starts doing sensual music video moves, Corden immediately joins in; when Jennifer Hudson starts singing at the drive-thru, Corden encourages her, and then joined in with an R. Kelly impression. His Carpool Karaoke with Hudson—only his second—remains one of my favorites because of how active she is—whereas some artists seem largely there to react to Corden’s prompts as though it’s a traditional interview, Hudson takes control at various points, prompting Corden to sing and forcibly belting out the window. Their ride is loose and charming, unburdened by any type of self-promotion or the pressure—increasing, in the wake of recent success—of living up to the auspices of the segment.

It’s ultimately two famous people acting like they’re not famous people, which is part of The Late Late Show’s goals under Corden. It’s not surprising that this primetime special didn’t focus on his celebrity interviews outside of a montage of at the very end, but the panel format—with all guests on the couch, borrowed from U.K. series like The Graham Norton Show—guarantees that you’re not going to see interviews like this one anywhere else. Not every combination shines, but sometimes you get a “panel” that comes to life, and you can see Corden reveling in playing ringleader to his very own circus.


As someone invested in Carpool Karaoke in potentially unhealthy ways—see below—and who regularly checks out Corden’s YouTube channel, this special was far from revelatory, and it reinforced my concern that Carpool Karaoke is growing too quickly, generating entries at a pace that will only lead to diminishing returns. But the very fact that Corden could, in just one year, generate a segment with a level of cultural notoriety that would justifying running it into the ground is mighty impressive, and the show around Carpool Karaoke has been filled with compelling experiments that keep me interested even if not always necessarily to my taste (as, unfortunately, was evidenced by non-Carpool choices here). I want to see what Corden does next, even if I may not necessarily care for what Corden is doing in any given moment, which is exactly where a late-night show should be at the end of year one.

There is an irony to Corden’s big opening number here, a take on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Downtown” reimagined as “Primetime” with the help of band leader Reggie Watts. It takes as its thesis that Corden has been off the radar at 12:37, and that moving to primetime is his opportunity to be seen by the masses. However, in the era of YouTube, James Corden has no timeslot. The Late Late Show and its segments exist in a liminal space of availability, able to fit into your day whenever you get time to surf over to the channel or spy a link in one of your social feeds. And while the other late-night hosts are all playing the same game, Carpool Karaoke has helped Corden distinguish himself as the host—for better or worse, depending on your opinion of the man—trying the hardest to find new ways to invade our lives (and, yes, sometimes our homes).


Ranking Jennifer Lopez’s Carpool Karaoke

Warning: I’m about to start taking Carpool Karaoke way too seriously. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Over the past few months, I’ve been keeping a live ranking of the Carpool Karaoke segments, easily one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever kept up for this long. It is built around extensive rewatching of the segments (which I do genuinely enjoy beyond my treating them as cultural artifacts), through which I have developed some key criteria that I’ve never articulated. So, before I rank JLo, let’s break down the five qualities I’m looking for in a Carpool Karaoke.

  • Acknowledge The Conceit: The “Carpool” element is more important than you might realize. It gives the segment a comic note to start on, and a justification for the trip. I’ve seen a direct correlation between videos that leave out the conceit (Underwood, Derulo) as compared with those that acknowledge it. It’s proved so valuable to the videos’ structure that I’m willing to look past the fact it makes zero sense given Corden never travels on a freeway.
  • Balance the Elements: Carpool Karaoke combines interviews, sketches, and musical performances, a microcosm of the late-night format. If the segment is too heavy on interview, it starts to feel too structured; if the segment is too heavy on skits, it loses the focus on the banter between Corden and the guest. It’s only with the right balance that the “celebrity” factor can be broken down effectively.
  • Minimal Playing to the Camera: Carpool Karaoke is built around living vicariously through Corden (I sing in the car, so I by extension would want to sing in the car with the singer in question) and also a voyeuristic opportunity to see the star in an intimate setting. As a result, I find the appeal starts to break down when some people—I’m looking at you, One Direction—spend more time mugging for the camera than interacting with Corden.
  • Songs That Fit The Format: This is tough, and a problem that sometimes can’t be overcome—Jason Derulo just doesn’t have the catalog for this, and Carrie Underwood’s singles are too few and far between even if she sounds great singing them. But even if you have someone who has plenty of good pop songs in their catalog, the choice of songs might not be the ones that best reflect the artist’s history or, in some cases, the sing-along karaoke format.
  • Artist in the Driver’s Seat: The best Carpool Karaokes are those where it feels like the artist is actively participating and driving the conversation/action on some level. While the bulk of all Carpool Karaokes will be driven by Corden’s segues and prompting of specific stories or songs, there needs to be moments where he gets surprised or is forced to react (see, for example, where Rod Stewart starts feeling him up).

By these (admittedly absurd) standards, Jennifer Lopez runs into one unavoidable problem: She does not actually have particularly good karaoke songs. Her more recent musical output has more or less just been club tracks, with “Booty” and “On The Floor” being danceable songs that lack the type of belting that fits best within the Carpool Karaoke format. “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” comes closer, and “Jenny From The Block” works as more of a rap track, but the best musical moment comes from Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” when both Lopez and Corden are really able to sing.


That said, the clip has its moments. The conceit is acknowledged upfront, Lopez gets to run the show during her Spanish track, and she also instigates the “Waiting For Tonight” posedown (which features playing to the camera, but in ways that make sense). And while the lack of memorable musical moments hurts balance, the flow between interview segments survives okay.

The biggest hurdle, though, is in the topics of those interviews: Unfortunately, the segment never finds a way to make Jennifer Lopez seem like anything other than a very, very big celebrity. Indeed, the bit with texting Leonardo DiCaprio is built around how famous she is, and a lot of the topics of conversation are around topics that have been central points in her central gossip narratives (insuring her butt, young romantic partners, etc.). And while it’s fun to see a celebrity be a little bit more normal, the feature can’t have quite the same transformative power with this line of questioning, weakening its effectiveness overall.


Accordingly, Lopez slots in just outside the Top 10 at No. 11, now at the top of the lower third.


(as of 03/30/16)

  1. Adele (She doesn’t need another number one, but “Monster,” y’all)
  2. Jennifer Hudson (Committed, spontaneous, impressive)
  3. Justin Bieber (Fascinating combination of fan service and image rehab)
  4. Stevie Wonder (Wonder’s wit plus Corden’s glee)
  5. Rod Stewart (“God bless you Rod Stewart!”)
  6. Justin Bieber 2 (“Sorry” and Alanis CanCon)
  7. Chris Martin (As I rewatch, I’m connecting with the relative spontaneity compared to other entries)
  8. Elton John (Songs are classics, and both are having fun, but it lacks a definitive moment to square the circle)
  9. One Direction (Niall has fun, but camera mugging ruins voyeur effect)
  10. Sia (Q&A segments are starting to feel too structured, but she plays along well and the high notes are on point)
  11. Jennifer Lopez (Celebrity focus creates a fun headline but along with dance-heavy songs robs the segment of Carpool’s core appeals)
  12. Iggy Azalea (Has fun singing her own hooks)
  13. Carrie Underwood (Lacks the singles to fully resonate)
  14. Jason Derulo (Over-reliant on out-of-vehicle antics, shallow body of work)
  15. Mariah Carey (Never feels like she’s fully engaged, feels like a beta test for format)