Carpool Karaoke recharged late-night TV, but it's running on fumes

Photo: Craig Sugden (CBS)

Tonight on CBS, The Late Late Show With James Corden will air its fourth primetime special focused around the late night series’ most significant contribution to popular culture: Carpool Karaoke, the recurring segment where Corden is joined in a car by a celebrity to sing some songs, share some intimate moments, and bring the carnival of the late night talk show out into the streets of Los Angeles and beyond. Installments featuring Justin Bieber, Adele, and One Direction remain the most-viewed late night YouTube clips of all time, and tonight’s special is focused on the most recent success story: an extended version of the already lengthy Paul McCartney Carpool Karaoke where Corden tours Liverpool with the former Beatle, a segment with over 30 million views on YouTube in under two months.

The McCartney Carpool is tremendous television, as Paul visits his childhood home, strolls down Penny Lane, and surprises a local pub with a “live jukebox” performance, and I’m sure tonight’s extended version will be just as engaging. However, it’s striking that so few of the memorable moments in the segment actually occur in the car itself: Outside of a touching moment where Corden shares a memory of his grandfather after singing “Let It Be,” the actual Carpool sections of this Carpool Karaoke feel decidedly perfunctory. They sing the apropos “Drive My Car”! Corden reads the lyrics of McCartney’s forgettable new single off of his steering wheel! Corden does a series of quick costume changes in a bit ripped directly from the Lady Gaga Carpool Karaoke!

The problem here is not McCartney, or even Corden (although he remains a divisive figure in some circles): rather, evidence suggests the Carpool Karaoke format has lost its distinctiveness amid intense repetition, and renewed competition from the rest of late night. What once felt like a spontaneous and intimate encounter with a celebrity has become, over the course of 40 installments, a plug-and-play series of bits that feels like it’s exhausted its cultural moment a mere three years after its introduction.

As someone who became deeply invested in Carpool Karaoke, and believes it’s the perfect case study for late night’s embrace of non-linear viewing with segments designed for an online audience, I’ve found that investment fading over the past year. The turning point for me was the November 2017 appearance by Kelly Clarkson, an artist whose charming personality and powerful voice made her an ideal candidate for Carpool Karaoke in theory. And while Kelly’s vocals are as strong as you’d expect, the segment—clocking in a short ten minutes, compared to other artists with comparably thin catalogs—feels half-baked: She sings only snippets of her classic hits, with considerably more time spent on her new singles, a balance the segment has struggled with as artists and their representation better understand the potential platform and look to promote new material accordingly. And while an extended segment with Clarkson and her husband/manager enjoying an impromptu date night may be fun, it takes one of pop music’s best singers and keeps her from singing, despite an extensive catalog that the segment leaves mostly untouched.

Beyond the fact it should be a crime to only include 45 seconds of “Since U Been Gone,” the best pop song of the 21st century, the Kelly Clarkson Carpool Karaoke struggles because there’s no more surprise in the format. Whereas Corden’s harmonies and other vocal achievements were once unexpected, they’re now built into the formula. It no longer feels like an individual artist is going to impact what happens in the car on Carpool Karaoke. It’s now about how the show’s producers filter that artist through the predetermined formula, and how the artist’s management wants them to appear within those limitations. Everyone—Corden and his producers, the artists and their management, the viewing public—knows all too well what Carpool Karaoke entails, meaning that unless the segment abandons the car as often as McCartney’s does, the chances of a given segment’s appeal extending beyond the artist’s fans is slim. That might explain why more recent Carpool Karaoke segments are failing to draw the huge numbers of the early installments: Clarkson’s Carpool Karaoke has garnered 10 million views on YouTube, the lowest outside of the Adam Levine—the rest of Maroon 5 was not invited—edition from earlier this spring.

Ten million views is still a significant number: Corden’s 12:30 a.m. competition Seth Meyers has had only one clip earn over 10 million views, while even Corden’s higher-rated CBS lead-in, Stephen Colbert, has seen only five clips click over 10 million over the course of his run at The Late Show. Carpool Karaoke videos are still successful at tapping into individual artists’ fan bases, positioning The Late Late Show well within the swell of promotion that artists do when releasing new albums. But while it may have failed to reach even a million views, Kelly Clarkson’s day-drinking with Meyers for Late Night was the highlight of the promotional cycle surrounding her new record and her debut on The Voice—it was spontaneous where her carpool felt staged, and intimate where her carpool felt like she was going through the motions. And while some of that was the alcohol, it was mostly that Meyers hasn’t already been day-drinking with nearly 50 celebrities. For as much as Jimmy Fallon is prone to oversaturation with his endless collection of games and gags, there’s a reason he hasn’t repeated a recurring feature like Classroom Instruments more than a few times a year since its 2012 debut with Carly Rae Jepsen—the law of diminishing returns is real, and it’s come for Carpool Karaoke.

I understand why Corden and his producers would risk oversaturation: Even the weakest-performing installments of Carpool Karaoke outperform almost every other late night clip on YouTube, and it’s an easy way to convince artists who might not otherwise visit a 12:30 a.m. show to hop onto Corden’s YouTube bandwagon. Would Ariana Grande have visited James Corden if Carpool Karaoke didn’t exist, especially given that Grande has been a regular visitor to Fallon’s Tonight Show in recent album cycles? Maybe their live jukebox musical segment she did at the same time would have been a similar draw, but the easiest way to ensure that a star is willing to be a part of The Late Late Show is to offer them a spot in Carpool Karaoke, even if the segment becomes increasingly less special the more times it’s repeated. But how could the producers argue with the fans breathlessly requesting a Carpool Karaoke featuring their favorite artist in the YouTube comments? When even an “unsuccessful” Carpool Karaoke video draws 10 million views, and the show can pull in additional revenue from movie studios who want to put their stars in the backseat or restaurants that want Corden and his guest to go through their drive-thrus, is it any surprise The Late Late Show is churning them out (albeit not at the same rate in 2018 as in previous years)?

You could argue this was inevitable, and that whatever disruption Carpool Karaoke introduced to late night interviews/musical performances when it debuted would gradually disappear as it became a huge phenomenon. But the show’s production choices have exaggerated its decline creatively, as evidenced in the most recent installment featuring Ariana Grande. Grande’s voice and Corden’s harmonies are as strong as ever, but the segment struggles to find an angle on Grande that hasn’t already been covered. She does an extended riff of her Celine Dion impression, but fans are familiar with that from the multiple times she’s done it on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. The sequence also ends with an appeal to Grande’s love of Broadway, and a duet of “Suddenly Seymour,” which would be fine if it wasn’t lifted directly from Grande’s appearance with Seth MacFarlane on Corden’s own Carpool Karaoke: The Series on Apple Music. This bit of self-plagiarism likely speaks to how few people bothered to watch—or figure out how to watch—the Apple Music spinoff, but it’s also a reminder of how quickly CBS moved to franchise Carpool Karaoke, and how much that has contributed to the fading of the segment’s original appeal.

Carpool Karaoke is still a huge success story for Corden and CBS. Grande’s Carpool Karaoke is well on its way to over 20 million views in its first week, and by gussying up McCartney’s Carpool Karaoke for primetime The Late Late Show will likely garner another Emmy nomination, a strategy that’s made Corden an Emmy-winning late night host despite losing in the Variety Talk Series categories.

But as someone who found the segment to be a breath of fresh air upon its debut, this success obscures a creative decline that has made it almost deflating when an artist who I’d originally looked at as an ideal participant takes part and the whole exercise feels like another stop in their promotional tour. While the challenges of working with high-profile artists and their management are not insignificant, and I have no doubt that the producers often run into roadblocks as they try to create the best segment possible, part of the original appeal of Carpool Karaoke was how it sit outside of the stuffy, controlled, highly produced segments these artists would typically participate in. But as the rest of late night looks to find their own angles on viral success, Carpool Karaoke has lost the spontaneity that defined its early success, and risks losing even more luster if they keep iterating without revisiting what made the prospect of a celebrity being trapped in a car with James Corden a thrill instead of another day at the office.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.