Fasten your seatbelts: Stylist goes behind the scenes of Carpool Karaoke

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With almost a billion YouTube views, James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke is a global success. But just how easy is it to persuade some of the most famous people on earth to hitch a lift? Stylist goes behind the scenes to find out

Words: Olivia Foster

It’s 12.30pm on 21 December 2015 and James Corden, home from LA for the Christmas holidays, is sitting at the wheel of his car on a rainy side street in London, chatting on his phone. As he hangs up, the passenger door swings opens and Adele casually slides into the front seat. Pleasantries are exchanged before the pair start singing along to the radio (which just so happens to be playing the singer’s smash hit Hello). And so begins 15 minutes of pure TV joy; we know – we’ve all seen it. Adele and Corden singing along to Spice Girls is the most viewed online clip in the history of late night television, with a staggering 126 million views and counting. This car journey is, of course, the now all too familiar formula for Carpool Karaoke – the wildly popular segment from Corden’s The Late Late Show in the US.

And it’s core franchise, Carpool Karaoke has helped The Late Late Show gain 1.5 billion YouTube views since Corden first sang along with a celeb while driving in early 2015. That’s more than the population of China (or India). It’s 178 times the number of people who watched The X Factor final in 2015. It’s more than 61 times the number of people who tuned in for the Royal Wedding. So what exactly is the winning formula that makes this humble late-night TV segment such a huge success, attracting the likes of Michelle Obama and Gwen Stefani, and what really happens behind the scenes when you’re trying to cram the world’s most famous celebrities into a 4x4?

Onto a winner

Perhaps the most surprising element of Carpool Karaoke’s success is that the show defies all the usual idioms of American popular culture – specifically with its English host, James Corden. “It’s impossible not to love James Corden,”says TV critic Ian Hyland. “It doesn’t matter if you recognise him or not, it’s clear within a couple of minutes that he’s naturally a very funny man and this puts audiences at ease.”It’s this no-fuss, authentic, funny-man personality that appeals to US audiences, who are used to far slicker TV hosts. Plus, the man can sing. Seriously sing, hitting notes that impress even the most Grammy-laden artists.

It also helps that the segment’s formula is incredibly simple. Host Corden needs to get to work in a hurry so he enlists the help of his celebrity friends, whose company enables him to drive in one of Los Angeles’ many carpool lanes to the CBS studios. As the ride starts, so does the singing – a back catalogue of the guest’s hits and a few all-time favourites, all woven together with casual, Corden-led chat.

“The show works as a kind of antidote to all the glamour and polish of American TV,” says Hyland. “The celebs can’t keep their hair perfect – if James opens the window, that’s their blow-dry ruined. But that makes them seem ‘real’. It’s mutually beneficial too. You know there isn’t a publicist in the car feeding them their lines, and they get a change from the carousel of round-table interviews and press junkets where they’re asked the same question again and again. Plus, you can see James’s obvious excitement at interviewing them. The celebrities know that they’re not going to be stitched up. They can trust him.”

During filming, Corden and his guest(s) du jour drive on real roads at under 20mph, in a convoy of two cars in front and three behind carrying the production and camera crew who film the exterior shots. The exact routes are kept secret, the pick-up point often dictated by the star’s PR.

“It’s a wonderful way of doing an interview because there are no publicists, no make-up artists, no cameramen; it’s just two people sat alone in a car. The isolation and intimacy gets incredible results,” says the show’s executive producer Ben Winston.

Indeed, there isn’t a single normal camera in the vehicle. Instead, the segment is filmed on 10 tiny Go-Pros, no bigger than your knuckle, attached to the inside of the car. And there are strictly no retakes. Naturally that means the producer has less control than they might normally hold. While filming with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example, one moment that wasn’t shown on screen was a woman rushing out of her nearby home with an ill baby and lead singer Anthony Kiedis performing CPR on the child. In the more light-hearted outtakes from Stevie Wonder’s episode, he sings an improvised, and totally charming, song about veganism. “We just let it run,” says Winston. “We film for about an hour with the guest, then an editor and I will watch it and cut it down to roughly 15 minutes, which can be hard.”

Corden has admitted that the unscripted interviews are the most important part of Carpool Karaoke for him. And it’s easy to see why. It’s hard to imagine another scenario where an interviewer could grab Jennifer Lopez’s mobile and text Leonardo DiCaprio: “Hey baby. I’m kind of feeling like I need to cut loose. Any suggestions? Let me know, J.Lo (you know, from the block).” The actor’s brilliant reply, “You mean tonight, boo boo? Club wise?”, (unsurprisingly) made it instant TV gold.

“The songs are the glue that holds it together, but the truth is the interview is the meat of it,” explains Corden. “I’m very proud of the fact that so often after [the episodes] drop, people will say they have seen [celebrities] in a different light.”

Rocky beginnings

It’s this sort of candidness that has worked its magic on TV audiences and helped create colossal viral hits. But Carpool’s success wasn’t instant. Inspired by a Comic Relief skit Corden filmed with George Michael in 2011, along with his 2013 show When Corden Met Barlow (which featured James and Gary Barlow on a road trip singing some of Take That’s biggest hits), when the Carpool Karaoke franchise first started, The Late Late Show team struggled to get celebrities to understand the concept.

“If you imagine an artist – just think of any artist in the world – they said no to it,” Corden has revealed. “I’m talking, like, who are the dudes who did Cotton Eye Joe? We were in those sorts of territories and they were like, ‘I’m not doing that.’”When Winston eventually received confirmation that Adele’s appearance was going ahead, he genuinely believed his email had been hacked. Even after the execs finally signed on the dotted line, Corden didn’t really believe the show – or its sketches – would be a success. “I was so convinced [The Late Late Show] wouldn’t work out that we rented all our furniture for a year,” he has admitted.

Of all people, it was Mariah Carey who saved the day. Corden and Winston met her publicist by chance at a party held for their team two weeks before The Late Late Show launched in March 2015 and after proposing the idea to ‘Mimi’, in Winston’s words, “She got it”. With just 10 days to go until the show was due to debut, they filmed what would eventually be a five-minute segment with the megastar (views: 27 million; songs: Always Be My Baby, Vision Of Love, Thirsty and Fantasy). The ultimate turning point, however, was Stevie Wonder – and it wasn’t just his musical kudos that got people interested. Forty-eight hours after Wonder appeared on Carpool, a greatest hits album he had released in 2002 went to number one in the UK and Europe, and climbed the US charts too. The record labels all sat up after that.

Almost two years on, other smash hit guests have included One Direction (81 million views) and Justin Bieber (91 million views). More recent episodes have included Britney Spears (who is the only star so far to be accused of miming) and America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama. Uploaded to YouTube on 20 July, her episode amassed nearly 40 million views within the space of three weeks. So, just how many phone calls does it take to persuade the First Lady to sing on TV? “That one came from her office,” explains Winston, remembering the shock of receiving the call. “She’s very involved with an initiative called Let Girls Learn, which is about promoting education for women all over the world, and the charity had a song which she was involved in, too. After initially pitching herself as a ‘cameo’ for the show, she eventually agreed that we could come to the White House and do a full Carpool. The rest is history.”

Still, FLOTUS (who also sang Beyoncé’s Single Ladies and Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On) wasn’t any old passenger. For security reasons, the pair took a tour of the White House grounds. In fact, the whole thing was filmed with Corden driving in circles, with an extra security car trailing them. He was, however, given special dispensation to drive right up to the White House gates – another TV first. Visitors usually have to take public transport.

High notes

With a direct line to the White House and four Emmy nominations for The Late Late Show, Carpool’s success is clear. But the stratospheric audience stats aren’t just down to the celebrities. “The song choices are key,” explains psychotherapist Charlotte Dunsby-Ferguson. “Nostalgic songs evoke shared positivity. Whether it’s Jennifer Lopez belting out Love Don’t Cost A Thing or Gwen Stefani singing along to Don’t Speak, sharing memories is a real bonding experience – particularly when music is involved. It makes you release dopamine, the ‘feel good’ neurochemical. That makes you want to watch the video to the end then share it with friends, which only serves to up audience figures further.”

Together with executive producer Rob Crabbe, the team draws up a selection of tracks before sending a list of options over to guests ahead of filming for approval. “We pick them, usually from their greatest hits, and then they’ll do their new single too,” says Winston. Even the celebs revel in the sense of nostalgia.

“It’s actually quite a lovely thing for the [musical acts] to reminisce over; they get to hear their career in eight songs,” Corden has said.

Big businesses are paying heed to Carpool Karaoke’s appeal, too. Just 18 months into Corden’s five-year contract, a version of the Carpool Karaoke format has been bought out by music giant Apple for an undisclosed sum. Winston will continue to executive produce both versions of the show, but there will be a different host in the driving seat for the Apple Music version – a more in-depth 30-minute slot which will feature musicians, actors and sports people in the passenger seat. Still, it’s a deft move – whereas YouTube currently racks up the online hits for the show, the technology-brand will use its shareability to drive traffic to their eponymous Apple Music service instead.

“The fact that Apple has chosen to buy out the franchise is a reflection of just how clever and accessible the segment is,” says Hyland. “It’s the sort of ‘quick bite’ TV that’s popular now and can showcase old music to a new audience. It will be interesting to see how it pans out. Maybe one day Ant and Dec’s stunts on Saturday Night Takeaway will end up on there.” Nevertheless, it’s an unprecedented move for just a single segment of a show to be bought out – a true mark of Carpool’s inimitable appeal.

It’s been a long road to success, but where else would you see Jennifer Lopez reveal she’s been proposed to five times, Michelle Obama admit to making “a mean grilled cheese sandwich” and Rod Stewart come clean about his years of “drinking and shagging”. The key is authenticity. And Corden’s knack for putting people at ease.

But while Winston and Corden have hacked the formula for a viral sensation, they’re not quite done yet. They won’t be, they say, until they get Beyoncé. Which almost makes us hope that never happens.

Carpool's most charming moments

From Adele spilling her tea to James Corden’s impromptu shopping trip, it’s the unexpected moments we love

Jennifer Hudson belts out Corden's burger order

If there’s a way to visit a fast food drive-thru in style, Jennifer Hudson nailed it in her April 2015 appearance. As Corden pulls the pair into an Astro Burger to pick up breakfast ‘on his way to work’, Hudson serenades the unsuspecting girl taking their order. The result was the most soulful rendition of “can I get a cheeseburger?” you’re ever likely to hear.

Michelle Obama gets her freak on

The First Lady had us from the get-go when she showed off her near-perfect moves to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies. But we never expected what would come next. After Missy Elliott jumps in the back of the 4x4, the trio rap her early hit Get Ur Freak On – and FLOTUS doesn’t miss a beat, delivering a word-for-word rendition of the R’n’B track.

Adele plays a very British drinking game

Adele might be one of very few British guests to have appeared on Carpool Karaoke, but she made a lasting impression. The 10-time Grammy Award winner brought a mug of tea to drink during her drive around London with Corden, which she spilt on her brand new coat – prompting her to down the tea like a pint of lager, much to Corden’s (and our) amusement.

James Corden gets dressed... by Carrie Underwood

In between singing her own hits and a Wham! classic, country singer Carrie Underwood and Corden drop into a shop to kit him out cowboy-style. Cut to Underwood, Billboard magazine’s “Country music reigning Queen”, attempting to forcibly remove a tight cowboy boot from Corden’s calf – and not without difficulty.

Photography: Rex Features, Getty Images