People in LA always talk about the traffic,” says James Corden, who moved over to Los Angeles exactly two years ago to host The Late Late Show. “And they always talk about the carpool lane…” he adds, explaining the origins of Carpool Karaoke, the segment on his show that has made his name in the US and beyond.
Luckily for Corden, when it came to his first show a friend was on hand to jump into the passenger seat and give him access to the incentivised “pool” lane on the city’s freeways reserved for cars with more than one occupant – Mariah Carey.
Motoring through the morning rush hour, the pair did what everyone does: sang along to songs on the car stereo. Songs that were entirely drawn from Carey’s back catalogue.
The rafter-rattling diva didn’t just speed up Corden’s journey to work that morning. She helped fast-track the unknown Brit’s new chat show to the status of national talking point and, a heartbeat later, global sensation.
Carpool Karaoke is the skit that roared. To date, the clips featuring a range of singing talents have amassed more than 1.2 billion views on YouTube. Their internet popularity has helped make the wee-hours chat show a primetime hit and Corden, barely two years in, is now a state-side superstar who this year also hosted the Grammy and Tony awards.
The 38-year-old actor, comedian and now ubiquitous chat-show host says, “That was always our plan with the show, really: to try and make something that could be enjoyed 24 hours a day. Something that people could find on their phones or their desktops, on the train to work or in their lunch hour.
“But we never thought we’d hit the ground running as fast as we have,” Corden admits, stifling a yawn – we’re talking the morning after the Oscars. “It’s taken us all by surprise, the success, especially of that particular segment.”
Since Mariah Carey’s debut, a host of A-list performers have embraced the Carpool Karaoke conceit, joining Corden in his Range Rover for a filmed sing-a-long. Elton John, One Direction, Madonna, Adele, Justin Bieber, even Michelle Obama – in fact, Corden reveals, such is the power of the segment that the then-First Lady approached them.
“She had a new initiative called Let Girls Learn and [legendary songwriter] Diane Warren had written a song. They came to us and said they felt the best way to [promote it] was to do a Carpool.”
With that calibre of guest at his fingertips why, then, is Corden gifting the spotlight of his latest Carpool Karaoke to a British band no one in America knows? Take That might be stadium-filling superstars in the UK, but in the US they can barely get arrested.
The answer is simple: his pals from the old country are a charity case. Well, to be specific, it’s all in aid of Comic Relief. And, as well as being more successful now than they were in their boy-band days, Take That are thoroughly good sports, happy to play up their anonymity in the US in a special edition of the sketch.
“It was an amazing experience filming,” begins the band’s Howard Donald. “You don’t realise how much work goes into it. As soon as you get in the car you’ve got 30, 40 cameras pointing at you from different angles. You have to be sitting in a certain position. There’s a crew of about 25 people. You’re in convoy, and you’re driving around LA for almost three hours.”
Take That superfan Corden and his producers generally keep the nuts and bolts of Carpool Karaoke under wraps. But the Take That trio lift the lid, a bit. “He doesn’t drive fast,” says Gary Barlow, confirming that Corden is actually driving (and not being towed on a trailer as some have speculated). “The trouble with LA is, there’s too many cars. So there’s a circuit they do where the roads are quite clear, so you keeping moving.”
The sketch also involves the Take That boys stepping out of the car and showing the American public just what they’re missing. Which begs the question: when most of the rest of the world has embraced Take That to an arena-filling degree, why has America proved so resistant to their charms?
“I don’t think they were resistant to our charms,” replies smiley Mark Owen. “I don’t think we really properly went for it – because we split up!” The timing of the band’s dissolution in 1996 was inauspicious: Back for Good had just given Take That their first US top ten single. By the time they reunited in 2006, they were all family men unwilling to undertake punishing US tours.
As Corden observes, “You used to have to come to America for 18 months and drive around in a van, trying to get radio stations to play your song. But I remember One Direction’s manager telling me that the first time they came to America, they hadn’t released a song – they’d only been on The X Factor. But there were 2,000 fans waiting at LAX airport. That’s the power of the internet and social media.”
“But let’s be clear,” says Barlow, “we don’t have any designs on breaking America. We honestly don’t. We’re at the wrong point in our career. We celebrate still having a career in Europe!”
Still, the lure of collaborating with Corden, for the good of Comic Relief, was enough for the band to clear time in their schedule. And the sketch works well because Carpool Karaoke, Gary Barlow and Comic Relief have history.
For Red Nose Day 2011, Corden – in the guise of his Gavin & Stacey character Smithy – shot a sketch that involved him and George Michael driving around London singing Wham! songs. Then, in 2014, he made a programme called When Corden Met Barlow. One item in that BBC documentary involved the pair undertaking a road trip and, yes, singing Take That songs.
“We had one camera on the dashboard, and a car following us,” recalls Barlow. “It was so handmade, and we only went a few miles. But we really enjoyed it, and we did it at the start of the filming so it made us relax – I think James was feeling me out, and I was trying to feel my place. So it made it all come together from that point. It just relaxes you, doesn’t it, being in a car?”
“It was only when we were coming [to the US],” says Corden, “and we were brainstorming ideas for the show that we remembered how much people responded to those two clips.”
And yet despite the format being a proven hit, before Mariah Carey agreed to participate, Corden admits that he and his British production team had failed to lure anyone of any stature in the US entertainment industry to take a punt on these unproven incomers’ wacky idea.
“Everybody said no. If you think of any recording artist, they said no,” the host recalls. “But luckily Mariah is a big fan of George Michael!”
Now, presumably, they can book anyone they want?
“Kind of – it always relies on someone having an album coming out or something to sell. That will always have an impact on it. But we’re aware it’s not something we should do all the time – we haven’t done it on the show this year, for example – because it will very quickly become not as exciting. So we want to keep it in that rarefied air. Because the only way you’ll get the biggest acts in the world to do it is by just doing it with the biggest acts in the world.”
There are no special plans to mark this month’s second anniversary of his US splash-down. “But we do have some stuff planned this year – which might involve being in the UK.”
Is he talking about a UK version of the show, or broadcasting from the UK? “We’re talking about it now, really,” he fudges. “We don’t know if we’ll be able to get it together but it’s certainly something I’d love to do, for sure.”
So in the hope he’ll be bringing Carpool across the pond, are there any other British national treasures worthy of a shared commute? Will and Kate? “Oh, of course. I don’t know if they ever would but that would be terrific!”
Victoria and David? “Sure!” Shall we put out a call to the Beckhams in the pages of Radio Times? “That would be great!”