Emmy Talk: James Corden on 5 Moments That Define His ‘Late Late Show’

Mandi Bierly
·Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
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James Corden and Adele filming Carpool Karaoke (Craig Sugden/CBS)

As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 13 to June 27 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances, writing, and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.

It’s been little more than a year since James Corden took over The Late Late Show, and the British Tony winner has carved out a place for himself with some of the most ambitious (Crosswalk the Musical), revealing (Carpool Karaoke), and just plain fun (Toddlerography) segments you’ll see in late night — or at any other time of the day.

“We just always want to be a show that is trying to fill our whole hour with stuff that is funny, or interesting, or absurd, or that you wouldn’t ever really see on another show. That’s all we try to do, really,” Corden says. “That’s our whole thought process: What will make the best hour of TV tonight that people will be able to share and watch and view across the weeks, months, or years that it lives on the internet? The great thing about the internet is it’s a level playing field. It’s fair. There’s no lead-ins, there’s no relying on a football game, or a big 10 p.m. drama, or whatever it is. If your content is relevant and funny and good, then people will find it and share it, and that’s been the most incredible thing about our show.”

We asked Corden, who’ll also host the Tony Awards June 12 on CBS, to choose five moments that encapsulate the comedy he and his staff strive for. From his recent no-holds-barred “Drop the Mic” rap battle with Anne Hathaway to the insanity of “Tattoo Roulette” with One Direction, here are his picks in reverse chronological order:

Drop the Mic with Anne Hathaway

“It’s almost like it’s part roast, part rap battle,” Corden says of exchanging disparaging rhymes with the Oscar winner. “Annie worked with a couple of our writers on her stuff, and I worked with a couple of writers on my bits, and then we did it. A writer on another late night show — I won’t say who it is — sent me a text the next morning that just said, ‘That’s the perfect late night bit. It’s perfect.'”

Other guests quickly said, “I want to do that! I want to do that!” Two nights later, he was back in the ring with David Schwimmer (and Rebel Wilson), who hit even harder. “Our show is such a sugary place to be. I think now that people feel safe in that environment, know that we never want to do anything that’s ever going to upset or annoy anyone, it’s great to have that little bit of Tabasco sauce in there. I think without that, you’re just watching two people complimenting each other or making half digs at each other. What is that?”

Corden also loves the look of Drop the Mic. “We always try to shoot our show in an innovative and interesting way, and try to make it look and feel as vibrant as it can. The natural thing to do would be to do it in front of the curtain, but to switch the stage around and have the audience behind and the audience around, and smoke, and the entrances and stuff like that — I’m very, very proud of the design of it. ”

James Corden Sings His Way Into Primetime

“It’s so rare for a show like ours to be given a primetime slot so early, in its infancy, really. We were very thrilled,” Corden says of the March Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Primetime Special that celebrated his first year. “We never wanted it to just be a clip show, because so much of the content was original, like J.Lo’s [Carpool Karaoke]. We said, ‘Let’s try to open the show with a big opening. Let’s make it feel like a real event.’”

He was in the gym, “pretending to work out,” when he heard the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis track “Downtown” on the radio. “When he did that bit where he says, ‘I’m going downtown,’ I was like, ‘I’m going primetime.’ Luckily, we have such a skilled musical writing team that we were like, ‘Great, yeah, let’s do that,’” Corden says. “And it just looked so good. It looked like a big opening to a big primetime special, and that’s all we wanted it to be. My favorite line in it is, 'A network special of my own, when people watching aren’t stoned. I’ll be a big guy people like, just like Mike and Molly’s Mike.’”

Does he feel like the primetime special succeeded in bringing new viewers to the 12:30 a.m. hour? “Genuinely, I couldn’t tell you how many people watch the show. I just feel like it’s an archaic way of looking at the way that people consume entertainment today,” he says. What Corden can tell you: “We’re the third-most subscribed to late night show in America, and we have the two most viewed clips in the history of late night TV, and we have 5.4 million subscribers to our YouTube channel. Before our show launched, I couldn’t get into our own building without a pass. That’s genuinely true. I couldn’t get in without my pass. They’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t know who you are, so you can’t go in.’ I had to ring the office and someone had to come down and get me,” he says. “To have made those sort of leaps… I feel very proud of that.”

Carpool Karaoke with Adele

It’s nice that THE most viewed late night clip on YouTube, with 107 million and counting, actually involves an interview. “The best thing about those Carpools, really, is that it’s not just the singing in the car, it’s the interviewing. You’ll see an artist at their most human, and their most intimate. You see a side which is impossible for people to show when you’re in a studio with six cameras and an audience of 200 people. You’re never quite going to be yourself,” Corden says. “The very nature of these is we just film for an hour, an hour and a half, or two hours, and then you’ve got the songs, which lift it up, and then the chats are as interesting, if not more so. Particularly with an artist like Adele, who isn’t someone who you feel is documenting every part of her life on Instagram or Twitter — I don’t think you’re ever, ever going to see an ‘at home with Adele’ segment anywhere — to see her quite so relaxed and being her brilliant self is terrific. When you’re shooting those things, you never think that this is going to be the most watched viral clip in the history of late night television. … When we thought about it as a team, it’s like, ‘How do you have a music segment on television that doesn’t alienate generations?’ That’s always the thing. Music brings a great thing to a show like ours, which is relevance, and an interest. We’ve always felt like there would be a great place for organic conversation within that.”

Justin Bieber Takes Over the Monologue

“What’s terrific is, I think Justin has been on our show more than anybody over the last year, and that comes from the trust and relationship we built up with that first Carpool Karaoke we did with him, and then talking to him: ‘What about this?’ He just loved the idea of doing it, and we kept it as a complete surprise. It’s quite an amazing moment, seeing him step out of the curtain. He was a little nervous before he went out — obviously, whenever you take somebody out of their comfort zone — but he was so good. And there’s something quite ridiculous about the idea that before a show, I would be in a robe with a towel on my head — which isn’t the case, I’m normally in my pants, and then straight in a suit and go — and the idea that the show would start without me being ready.“

Tattoo Roulette with One Direction

One Direction fans probably thought they’d seen the guys do everything, which is what made the very real stakes of this game — a 1D tattoo somewhere on Corden’s body if he lost, or the words “Late Late” on the body of whomever was unlucky in the band — doubly exciting. “They were such great sports. We have such a long relationship with those guys, myself and Ben Winston, who’s the exec producer of the show,” Corden says. (Corden’s known Louis Tomlinson since Louis was a child, and co-wrote one of the band’s videos with Winston, who’s directed many of One Direction’s music videos and produced a number of their documentaries.) That element of trust and relationship means that you can do something as absurd as Tattoo Roulette,” Corden says.

Why have we never seen this high-drama game repeated on the show? “It feels like something that is probably unique, because there has to be a reason for doing it, which is that three of the four members of that band have a lot of tattoos,” Corden says. “It would be quite a weird game to play with Betty White.”

The Late Late Show with James Corden airs daily at 12:35 a.m. ET on CBS.