The wildly popular “Carpool Karaoke” segments on James Corden’s The Late Late Show works for one very simple reason: You get to see two famous people chatting in a car alone, with no cameraman, no agents, publicists or hangers-on as they belt out some of your all-time favorite songs. It’s a wonder no one had thought of it before Corden officially kicked things off with Mariah Carey in March 2015.
But on Tuesday (Aug. 8) the two-year old phenomenon is jumping to Apple Music with Carpool Karaoke: The Series, with a new episode featuring a surprising mix of athletes, musicians and actors showing up every Tuesday. Instead of waiting for the sporadic late night segment, fans will be able to download 20 new song-and-dance-filled rides with stars including Miley Cyrus and family, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, Game of Thrones stars Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, Will Smith, Metallica, Shakira, John Legend and Alicia Keys, as well Blake Shelton, John Cena, Chelsea Handler, Ariana Grande, Joe Jonas, Camila Cabello, Tyrese, Ludacris, Jessica Alba, Jada Pinkett Smith, Ice Cube and many others.
Billboard spoke to “Karaoke” co-creator and co-executive producer Ben Winston and series executive producer and co-showrunner Eric Pankowski about why the time was right to make the move out of late night and into the digital realm.
The segment is so successful in late night, why mess with a good thing?
Winston: We were always surprised by the success of “Carpool” — when we put the first one on with Mariah Carey, it had 14 million hits — which, when you have a new late night show, that’s the last thing you expect to happen. The fact that we stumbled into this joyful, wonderful piece of television is what makes it an amazing moment. People talk about it being a viral hit, but the fundamental thing that makes it work is that it’s really just a beautiful piece of television with two people having a chat and making each other laugh, singing songs, with none of the barriers we usually see on TV.
Take all those people — publicists, agents, manned cameras — out and it’s just people having a conversation and forgetting they’re being filmed. James and I looked at it and said, “there’s a series here,” and it doesn’t have to have James. If we find the right people we thought it could be a great show. So we met with Eric and the three of us set about trying to make a show with as many beautiful moments as the TV segment has.
James seems busy with his show, will you have hosts stepping in to replace him on the series?
Pankowski: James will host two episodes, the premiere with Will Smith and the finale with LeBron James, and he appears in a few cameos in episodes. But that’s it. When we got together to talk about replacing James, we thought he was such a singular individual. It’s such a beautiful piece, so specific to TV that we didn’t want it to seem as a replacement for what James is doing. No one can do what James does. It came from James: “Let’s not have a host.”
Winston: Rather than trying to find someone to replace him, we have 14-15 people. Even if the host was amazing people would say it’s not as good as James, so in our brainstorm he said, “what if we have amazing pairings every week?” The first few episodes — [comedian] Billy Eichner with Metallica — and John Legend and Alicia Keys, two of the greatest singers today, we thought, “what would that duet sound like… with [Empire star] Taraji P. Henson in the backseat?”
When we started watching through the edits and seeing how eager people are to be doing it we knew we had a series on our hands. And then when we got two late night hosts — Trevor Noah with Shakira and Chelsea Handler with Blake Shelton — we said, “this can really be something different.” “Carpool” has become more of an environment where something can happen than a show James can host.
When did you know some of these oddball pairings would be one of the ways to make it work?
Pankowski: Eichner and Metallica was one, just taping into an organic relationship. And Miley and her entire family; Alicia and John, who grew up in the business together. The amazing thing about the world the show exists in is that Ben and James created it, but no matter if there’s an organic relationship there already or if you’ve never met like Shaquille O’Neal or Jon Cena, withing minutes of them first meeting, when the first song hits, all that goes away, all the awkwardness and they just enjoy the journey together and have fun. It’s a really beautiful and special thing to watch. We talk about how we didn’t do 20 episodes, we did 20 specials, each one is its own thing. The Alicia and John episode feels totally different than Ariana Grande and Seth McFarland, which turned into a Broadway musical episode. It’s really fun to shape each show around [each artist’s] voice.
You probably had your choice of where to take it, why was Apple the right choice?
Winston: We met with [Apple’s] Jimmy Iovine and Eddy Cue jimmy and they were so compelling in their vision for the show as a partner. And the greatest thing they said was, “make a show as long as you think it should be.” So, some [episodes] are 12 minutes, some 16, some 20, whatever it takes to make it the best. That’s the wonderful thing about working with Apple, they let us make the best show we can.
Second, Apple represents so much about what is relevant and cool, and “Carpool” is relevant and it’s a cool brand people love. Apple has always been at the forefront of music and now Apple Music is doing things other streaming services aren’t. They were an obvious partner, a match made in heaven.
Why streaming and not going to another network, like they did with the Jimmy Fallon Lip Sync Battle bit?
Pankowski: The fact that it’s, literally, at your fingertips whenever you want it was an amazing thing for us. As a producer and someone who is responsible for entertaining people… there are 1.2 billion iOS devices in the world. That means our show is available for 1.2 billion people whenever they want it. It’s incredible, it’s inspiring and humbling.
Which are your favorite episodes?
Pankowski: That’s like asking a parent who their favorite child are! I love all the episodes. But when we booked Sophie and Maisie from Game of Thrones, I was excited because I’m a huge fan, but there was some reluctance. We don’t know them as people as well as we know some other stars like Shaquille O’Neal, or Gwyneth Paltrow. Are they different from these dark, intense characters? I don’t know if on Game of Thrones we’ve ever even seen them smile. So, putting them in a car to sing music and saying, “let’s see how it goes…” It could not have been more fun. You realize they’re best friends, they have a sisterly bond and there’s a natural dynamic that comes to life on the show. It was incredible and it’s exciting as a producer to know we have something special. Also, getting the Cyrus family together for the first time to do a big TV appearance exceeded our expectations.
What did Maisie and Sophie sing?
Winston: They did a bit of Britney Spears’ cover of “My Prerogative” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.” My favorite is also John Legend with Alicia Keys and Taraji. You’re used to seeing John and Alicia performing in concert in front of audiences and being on television. But what if I could listen to John Legend sing in a car and then doing a duet with Alicia Keys, one of the best singers around? They’re brilliant characters and they do this performance in a launderette. It such compelling viewing.
My one concern with taking James out was, “where is the funny going to come from?” But in the whole series there are genuine laughs. The subtle difference between a late night show and this series is that on The Late Late Show it’s shown in front of a studio audience, whereas these don’t have the laughs behind them. It’s a different viewing experience, more like a fun documentary or unscripted show.
What do you think will surprise people?
Pankowski: Seeing such mega stars you’ve known for so long, like Jessica Alba or Gwyneth Paltrow, with no artifice, no producer, just being themselves was amazing to watch. That’s part of the charm overall, getting to see that different side of people, in such a relatable place singing with friends. One of the highlights of the series was Maisie and Sophie belting out Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” It’s just phenomenal television. They give every ounce of their passion and energy and that is the core of this show.
It’s a celebration of the joy of music. You see people singing the hits you love, big stars singing other people’s songs — actors, comedians and athletes singing and rapping songs that mean something to them. You can tell [it’s real] because you can’t fake passion and when you see it it’s infectious.