How James Corden Got Adele to Do ‘Carpool Karaoke’

By

By now you’ve probably seen the awesomeness that is Adele doing “Carpool Karaoke” with James Corden for his CBS Late Late Show. If you haven’t, go ahead and watch it now. We’ll wait.

Booking the biggest singer on the planet would be a huge get for any talk show, but it’s a particularly impressive get for a 12:35 a.m. program that is not even a year old. So how did Corden and his crew put together what is already an early contender for one of 2016’s top TV moments? Vulture rang up Late Late Show executive producer Ben Winston to discuss how the segment came to be, whether Corden sweated at all over the prospect of dueting with the Voice of the Century, and which other big musical superstar is set to hop into the “Carpool” lane next (Hint: He’s stone-cold sober, as a matter of fact).

So I guess the first question is: How did you manage to book Adele? It’s not like she’s doing a ton of media appearances, especially now that the album is so massive.
Adele was actually in L.A. when we were planning [Late Late Show] back in January and February of last year, and James and I saw her a little bit. We said to her, “We’d love to do something with you on the new show.” I don’t think we’d even thought of “Carpool Karaoke” then, but we were hinting very heavily how much we wanted her to do the show. She and her manager, Jonathan Dickins, were very sweet. They said, “We’re not doing anything until the album comes out, but the album will come out at the end of next year, and then we will do something with you guys.” When that happens, you sort of go, “I don’t know if that will ever happen.”

So when the time came, I dropped Jonathan a line and said, “You remember when you said you would do something at the start of the year?” And instantly, they came back and said, “Yep. We did. We’re doing it. What would you like to do?” We said we’d love to do “Carpool,” and amazingly, they replied, saying, “Okay. December 21, 12:30 at this address. Does this work for you?” I was like, “Oh my God, that can’t be right. Has someone hacked my email?”

You shot it right after you went on your winter hiatus for Late Late Show, right?
Right. James and I were back in the U.K. for Christmas and the New Year. We both flew back an extra day earlier, as soon as the last show was done. And we filmed it on a Monday. It was raining, as it always is in our beautiful, beloved U.K.

How long did you film?
We had an hour penciled in for it. But she was having a great time, and James was having a great time. And in the end, we filmed for a couple of hours.

Seriously?
Yes. She’s a remarkable woman. She is the biggest star, I would say, in the world right now. But yet she’s the most down-to-earth, lovely girl you could meet. I used to produce the Brit Awards when James hosted it, and she was on it a couple of times. I was always struck by how wonderful she was, even then. You sometimes wonder if success will change someone, but it wasn’t with her. She’s as wonderful as you would hope she would be.

So how did those two hours get cut to 14 minutes?
Well, the first cut of the segment was 54 minutes. The way it usually works is, I ask my editor to go through it and get rid of all the bits — them pulling over, getting in or out of the car, or the stuff that’s too private — that would never make it on TV, and then just leave me with the core stuff. Usually, we’re taking it down from 30 minutes to, like, ten. And on this occasion, my co-exec producer Rob [Crabbe] sat down and watched 54 minutes. We could’ve made an entire episode of it.

Why not air all 54 minutes?
I think you’ve got to be sort of strict with yourself, and kill things that you love. There were some amazing, amazing bits in there. But we chose what we felt was the best 14, 15 minutes.

Is there any chance you might carve out a second installment based on the leftover footage?
It’s a good question. We talked about it. We said, “Should we do another one?” Because we could have filled another one with Adele. But I think that you’ve got to not take advantage of things, and not make people feel like they’ve seen enough. The best television always leaves you wanting more. That even comes down to a bit on a late-night show. If you do too much of that bit, people go, “Eh, I’ve seen it now.” So in the same way Adele wrote 50 songs for her album and chose the best ten, we did an hour of “Carpool” and chose the best 14 minutes. If it’s not going to be as good as the first one, I don’t think you should do a second one.

Was James at all worried about getting too into the singing with Adele? I mean, he’s a great singer in his own right, but Adele is sort of this special being. He wouldn’t want to sing too loudly, right?
That’s such a good question, because that’s literally the thing James and I spoke about on the way to shoot it. There’s something so precious about Adele’s voice, you don’t want to ruin the moment of Adele singing it. So, yes, he did think about that. And I think it’s just right. There are moments where he doesn’t join in, and there are moments where he does. It just adds to the joy. When he’s not singing, he’s admiring this genius gift. In the end, it was like watching two old friends have a blast.

You’ll be airing a special show on the night of the Super Bowl. Did you consider holding Adele for that broadcast?
We did. We considered that. But we could’ve never used 15 minutes on a Super Bowl show. It would’ve meant making Adele ten minutes. That’s the first thing. Second of all, it’s going to be a very crowded time then, with all sorts of other things going on for Adele. And it’s very obviously Christmas in London [during the Adele “Carpool”] … It just seemed like coming back the second week of the year with this would be a very cool thing for people to see. But we did debate it. And then we got another booking for “Carpool,” and we felt that was more suited for that date.

Would that be Sir Elton John?
That would be our Super Bowl booking, yes. Elton is a really iconic name. Whatever age you are, you love him. He’s got a back catalogue that goes for years. When we booked him, we were just punching the air … On that night, an Elton John “Carpool” just felt right.

Have you shot it already?
We have.

Did that shoot in London as well?
No, no. That was literally last week. It was our first day back in Los Angeles. But it was London weather. It was pissing rain. And it was fantastic. Elton is just the most charming, wonderful guy.

So what were the origins of “Carpool Karaoke”? I know it debuted during your first week on the air, but how did the idea come about?
We had done [something similar] with George Michael [in 2011], in a sketch James and I did. And then fast-forward to two years ago, when we did a documentary called When Corden Met Barlow. Gary [Barlow]’s a huge success in the U.K., and rather than doing an interview in a studio, we thought we’d take a road trip with him and go back to where he came from … It was a quite intimate film. Because of how well the George Michael thing had done, we had the idea of playing Gary’s back catalogue, and he and James dueted on it. That was the takeaway from that documentary that everybody was talking about the next day. So then, when we were putting together [Late Late Show], we had the chance to get Mariah Carey. But she wasn’t going to be in L.A. during our first week, and we didn’t want to miss out on booking her. At first we were thinking we could [pretape] an interview with her in the car, but then we remembered, the best bits of When Corden Met Barlow were when they sang … It sort of just came.

Getting Mariah for your first one was obviously a coup. Did that make it immediately easier to get other big names to do it?
It wasn’t really until we did Stevie Wonder. He was just promoting his tour, and not an album. But then, within 48 hours after he did “Carpool,” an album he had released in 2002, greatest hits, went to No. 1 in the U.K. and Europe. And it went up in the U.S., too. He was not doing any other promotion. And the labels and the artists all sat up after that. Suddenly, it wasn’t such a long shot to be asking your Rod Stewarts and your Elton Johns and your Coldplays. That was probably a turning point for us.

More people obviously saw these clips online than on CBS.  The fact that you’re able to boost sales that way really speaks to how important a component internet virality has become for late-night shows, no?
I only worked this out this morning. But by March 23, which will be the one-year anniversary of our show, we will have got up to half a billion views of our show on YouTube. That’s a really interesting stat about the show. And it’s something we really value and care about. I think a late-night show has to be relevant. It has to be spoken about. It has to have an impact. And in this day and age, you’re not necessarily making that impact in the time slot you’re on. You’re making it when people are watching it on their tablets, or their phones, or their mobile devices. So that’s sort of an aim of our show. And not just with “Carpool.” Our “Take a Break” sketch has huge viewing. The other night we did a song with Meghan Trainor about New Year’s resolutions which has over 2 million views. It’s all about getting people to watch it and enjoy it and share. 

I’ve always wondered: How does James not get into an accident doing this? He’s really driving that car.
Well, first of all, we don’t take routes that are difficult. He’s also got two of our cars ahead of him, and three cars behind him — essentially, a convoy. So he’s moving at under 20 miles an hour, and we don’t let any other cars around him. The second thing is, the cameras are tiny. They’re about the size of your knuckle, and they’re [stuck on] the windshield. So it doesn’t really distract his view. That’s how we do it.

Were there any highlights for you during the production of the Adele segment?
Seeing Adele sing “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls was a pretty amazing moment. When you hear her talking passionately about the Spice Girls, and then see her and James singing, it was both a funny and delightful moment of television.  And then when they did “Someone Like You,” the producer who works with me all the time at Fullwell 73, Carly Shackleton … she was sat next to me in the car [behind Corden and Adele]. We were watching them belt it out, and I started to hear this sniffing. I turned around, and she’s in floods of tears. Buckets and buckets of tears. I said, “Carly, what is it?” And she said, “I can’t help it. It’s just amazing. She’s beautiful.” Adele just touches those chords.