Is it true you had to google who James Corden was when you first got the call about the job to be the executive producer of “The Late Late Show with James Corden?”
Yeah, 100 percent. They announced he was going to replace Craig Ferguson and I had no idea who the guy was. I was familiar with some of his credits, but I hadn’t seen him on Broadway and “Into The Woods” hadn’t come out. I knew “Gavin & Stacey” and “The Wrong Mans” was a thing, but I didn’t have any idea who he was.
What was it about the opportunity that made you take a chance and leave “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon?”
I did “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and then “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” I was very settled in life. “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” came out and was very successful right out of the gate. [My wife and I] committed, just moved to a new place and we were ready to be there for the next 20 years or so. We set up this idyllic little life with our two kids but then Corden came calling. I googled him and tried to figure out who he was. There is something about him. The thing that drew me to him first and the thing [that made me think] we had a chance was that he had written his best work. He had written “Gavin & Stacey,” that was his creation. The idea that he came from a writer’s mind first really attracted me. Here’s a guy who can win a Tony on Broadway, write his own material, is a household name in England and no one in America really knows who he is. I thought it was an opportunity to introduce someone who I knew would be very good, who America hadn’t heard of. It was a great place to start from.
How did that conversation go with your wife?
She had been in New York for 15 years and about two months before this came up she sat down on our Brooklyn brownstone and said, “I finally found where I belong in New York.” That was just hanging over my head. It was really a flirtation at first. I was just chatting with James and Ben Winston, who is my partner on the show. I was getting a feel for it and then the flirtation got a bit more serious. We started talking about what it would actually mean for us to move, and I dreaded the idea of moving to Los Angeles. We kind of came kicking and screaming, but the opportunity to start this thing… the wheel doesn’t turn in late night very often. Late night show hosts are there for 20-25 years so the opportunity just doesn’t come around very often to get to absolutely start one. I had the opportunity to be a part of it with Fallon and I helped start “Last Call with Carson Daly.” There is a great joy in starting these types of shows.
At what point did you realize you had something special with James Corden?
To borrow a sports analogy, if you’re talking about baseball ― which I know maybe isn’t the best analogy ― he’s a five-tool player. His acting is better than everybody else’s acting, his singing is better than everybody else’s singing and his dancing is remarkably great. The skills he didn’t have were interviewing people and standing on a mark and telling a joke. I knew that he would pick up those skills quickly. We threw another curveball at him because we bring all of the guests out at the same time. Instead of being able to focus and just talk to one person at a time he suddenly is having to pass the ball around and make segues from this person to that person. When he picked that up quickly, I knew that he was going to be great. Telling jokes in a stand-up setting with a crowd and a camera is not an easy thing to do. We thought at the beginning of the show we might not even do a monologue. We didn’t want to put him in that position, and we were trying to figure out ways we could kind of get around doing a monologue. Maybe he just comes out and he has big energy. It was actually when we were shooting a bit with Jay Leno and Jay said, “You have to be funny. You can’t rely on energy. You have to say something to an audience.” So that sort of stuck with James, Ben and me. We made him write some jokes and he did well.
I also heard that in the beginning it was hard to book guests and your team had to drive James around town to meet with publicists. What was going on in your mind when that was happening?
We sent James and Sheila Rogers, who is our talent booker and had been at Letterman forever. She has an incredibly good reputation. We sent the two of them around because no one wants to take a chance on a show. If you’re a publicist the idea of putting your client out there on a show being hosted by a guy no one has ever heard of… I know why you’d say, “No.” I would say, “No,” to that. We needed to show people who James was and if you put James Corden in a room he’s going to be the most charming person in the room. He is going to win everybody over. It didn’t really work. Everyone still said, “No,” but at least it planted a seed that there was a chance that somebody could say, “Yes.” Also, nobody was bringing [their guests] out at the same time. There is a culture of, “Who is the first guest? Who is the second guest? My client won’t go on second to that person,” and you have to get this first, second thing out of your head. There is no first guest, there is no second guest. There are just guests. That’s why I think our show will always owe a huge debt to Tom Hanks because he was the first guest on our show with Mila Kunis. Tom Hanks had never been the first guest on a first show before. He’s obviously the greatest guest a talk show could hope for. When he decided to do it then it was harder for anybody else to argue because it’s like, “Well, my client doesn’t want to come out,” [we can say], “Tom Hanks did it.” So once you can keep saying, “Tom Hanks did it,” then it helps it along to be able to get people to do it.
When were you most nervous about a show?
Every time a pregnant guest walks down the staircase my heart is just beating out of my chest. We have an unusual entrance [because] our guests come down stairs through the audience and then up onto the stage. I just faint every time that happens. [Also,] that first night you have no idea how you’re going to be received. Everything had been all of us together. We were prepping the show and in all of our meetings together. As we got closer and closer to 5 o’clock and the premiere of the episode everyone starts to fall away. [James] gets his microphone on, passes by my podium and Ben and I say, “Go get ’em, buddy,” he is all alone and now he is standing behind a curtain. You can feel the light through the curtain and you can hear the crowd outside of it. That very first moment I was incredibly nervous for him. I wasn’t that nervous for me because if he f*cked up it wasn’t my problem [laughs]. I was nervous for him. That was a nerve-wracking moment and once the curtain opens the first time ― especially for a performer like James ― the nerves sort of fall away.
We see the final product of “Carpool Karaoke,” but are there any stories you can share about something that went wrong behind the scenes?
I don’t know if a lot of people know about the Anthony Kiedis story when we were shooting with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We tried this thing where he got out of the car and did this dance thing. It didn’t really work that well. We never know if it works until we edit it. They were tired from dancing and were taking a break eating fruit and this woman came running out of her house screaming with an unconscious baby in her hands. She was panicked. Without a thought Anthony Kiedis, James, Flea and Chad all started running across the street to the lady. Anthony took the baby and just started rubbing the baby’s chest. Everyone was on their phones calling 911 and Anthony was just rubbing the baby’s chest and talking to the baby and the baby resuscitated. It was like, “Anthony Kiedis is magic?” It was an insane moment. Nothing we would ever put in the show or exploit. It was sort of buried. I don’t know if it came out in America, but Anthony mentioned it on a radio show in Europe. That was relatively intense for everybody. Anthony Kiedis is a hero!
Who are you dying to get on “Carpool Karaoke?”
We would love Beyoncé for “Carpool Karaoke.”
What’s the hold up?
She’s pregnant with twins! You gotta let her have her babies. That’s slowing us down a little bit [laughs]. “Carpool Karaoke” was never a thing that was easy to book. It was actually the only thing that we knew was a good idea. Ben, James and I all felt it was a good idea and would be good on television― if we could get it on television. It was very hard to get anybody to agree to do it. Everyone rejected it even after it had been on the air and had been successful with Mariah Carey. Now it has sort of drifted in what the idea of a dream list is because it has hit a nerve; it’s done very well. We’re in a different position now. Now people who have rejected us in the past would like to do it. We will still do it if it’s somebody James is a big fan of and it’s somebody that we think would make for a great “Carpool Karaoke,” but we don’t have a dream list anymore. There are certain people that are still out there that we would love to get in the car, but we don’t talk about it with the same urgency that we used to.
The show has 2.5 billion views and 10 million subscribers on YouTube. Was it your intention to break the mold for what a late night show was doing digitally?
No, never an intention. Certainly thrilled that it happened. We are the third TV show ever that hit 10 million and we did it in two years. It was definitely something you never set out to do and the 2.5 billion views is just a crazy number. “Carpool Karaoke” is obviously very influential in that, but then we have 150 other things that have more than a million hits on it. If you ever chase viral, you’ll never get viral. We never set out and thought, “Oh I know, this is the perfect recipe for a viral video.” We never thought about the show as a 12:37 a.m. show. That was never our approach for it. We want the show to be as digestible at 12:37 p.m. as it is at 12:37 a.m. If we are putting out good content and we are making things that can live well on the Internet then you can watch it while you are eating lunch at your desk. We were very interested in the digital side. That was always something we were passionate about because for the makers of the show it can’t be about ratings. That is not something that we control. I can’t control if NBC puts a football game on, how “Scorpion” is doing on a certain night or if a baseball game goes long. We can try to control the relevancy. All we ever care about is relevancy. We want our stuff and our show to show up in your Twitter feed. I want your moms to be posting on Facebook. I just want it to be out there for people to find it. The Internet is pure democracy. If something is good people will find it. I love that’s how our show gets consumed and then it adds up for 2.5 billion views and 10 million subscribers.
Was it easy to get everyone on the same page about dedicating resources to your digital presence?
I think that we did things in a different way than a network was necessarily used to. CBS is the most unbelievably supportive network for our show, from the top down Leslie Moonves, Glenn Geller, David Stapf and Nina Tassler who was a big champion of our show early on before she left CBS. They are unbelievably supportive of us, but they never had a digital sensation. To call us a sensation sounds so douchey [laughs], but they didn’t live in the digital world in the same way we wanted to live in the digital world. I think that we were pretty firm with what we wanted to do with the show. We wanted to embed a digital team within the show. CBS Interactive is a great, huge department, but we weren’t ready for someone to finish tweeting about “NCIS: New Orleans,” and then start tweeting about our show. We needed somebody to have the voice of our show. I think they were absolutely open to it and they’ve done nothing but say, “Yes,” to everything, but I think it was a little bit of a learning curve for everybody.
How many people are on your digital team?
Three, but then we have the huge network of CBS Interactive. It’s three people specifically in our offices who we see every day who are creating content and being the voice of the show. Then CBS Interactive is this great, beautiful, sprawling enterprise that can do a lot of the heavy lifting for us.
We have a lot of content creators in the room tonight. I know there isn’t a secret to having something go viral, but are there any tips or tricks that you can share with us?
We haven’t adhered to a lot of the rules of digital videos. We don’t make things that are three minutes long or say there is a limit on how long something can be [or think], “Well, with the current attention span and based on YouTube algorithms people don’t like anything that is longer than two minutes and 15 seconds long.” We try to be disciplined in that we don’t put out 56 minutes of Adele’s “Carpool Karaoke”— even though it would be an excellent 56 minutes. We know that if it’s good and we like watching it hopefully other people will like watching it, so we do longer videos. Longer videos sort of fly against what people say you are supposed to do online. We find that if the audience has a thirst for it and what you’re doing is entertaining, they’ll keep watching that entertaining thing. So advice wise, don’t think about it. Think about what is good. Don’t think about how long it is or how sexy the title has to be in order [to get clicks.] You can just do the things that you think are good.
Maven connects people to the places, things and people who matter most and “A Drink With” strives to make real connections with our interview guests. What is your team’s internal test to make sure a segment of the show is going to connect with viewers?
As far as connecting with an audience… when Ben, James and I first started talking about the show we didn’t have any ideas. We didn’t show up at a breakfast and say, “Alright, we are going to do ‘Carpool Karaoke,’ ‘Role Call,’ and ‘Drop the Mic.'” There was nothing like that. What we had was a similar emotional vocabulary for what we wanted the show to be. The words that always came up were inclusiveness and joyfulness. The way we designed our studio… everything was about making it inclusive for an audience. We wanted the audience to feel like they were in this 360-degree environment where they are part of the show. The camera goes all the way around the room every night. We always wanted the room itself to feel inclusive and then we hope some of that warmth goes to the people at home watching the show.
What qualities does someone need to stand out in the entertainment industry?
One thing that I will tell anybody― if I do informational interviews or if I’m talking to people that are trying to break in or trying to move up― is don’t be a d*ck. It sounds very simple, but you just never know where your connections are going to come from, who is going to get you your next job or which intern is going to have the next great idea for a sitcom. Entertainment is a full creative community and top down everybody in it is in it because they have a passion about either telling a story, being funny or having something they want to express, whether they are behind the camera or in front of the camera. Those ideas can come from anywhere and you never know who is going to take off or what the next success is going to be. Keep up good relationships, be open-minded to everybody you meet, understand that you might be asking the person getting you your coffee for a job one day. There is a level of ― as cliché and cheesy as it sounds ― kindness that is necessary.
Do you have a process for creating genuine moments within the framework of the show?
I think that our format lends itself towards surprise. We can’t plan a lot of the moments in “Carpool Karaoke” like the wrestling with Anthony Kiedis in the lawn. Those things absolutely come up in the moment. The fact that our show brings all of our guests out at the same time encourages spontaneity that you wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s probably a little mix of both. We certainly plan a ton of stuff; we also plan for spontaneity. We have this great team of writers and we’ll design pieces to go wrong. They will be written in a way in which the wheels are going to fall off the wagon by the end and the best hope is the audience is going to come along on it and think we actually f*cked up or they are going to be in on the joke and either way is great for us. We did a piece a couple of weeks ago with Kristen Bell where they were doing the song “Up Where We Belong,” and they were supposed to get risen up in the air. The way it was written ―[in terms of] who goes up and who goes down― was that it was a disaster and they could never meet each other in the air. The greatest compliment we’ve ever gotten is that The Huffington Post wrote a full article on this ‘terrible fiasco’ that happened on “Late Late Show” and we were loving that. We convinced a reputable editorial website that this was a mistake. Those are moments where the planned spontaneity is thrilling for us.
What’s the hardest part about your job? It seems really fun.
I think it’s filling an hour every night. One of the things I love about late night is you come in at 8:30 or 9 in the morning with a blank piece of paper and at 5 o’clock come hell or high water there will be an audience down there, the cameras will be on, the lights will be turned on and you’re doing a show. You have to fill that show. The level of creativity that is across the board — our writers, our producers, our PAs, our crew — that pours into that thing and at the end of the night you have a product. That product floats out there, people see it or don’t see it and then you’re on to the next one the next day. I like the fact that you are always refilling. You are always going.
What is the last piece of content that wasn’t from your show that disrupted your day or stopped you in your tracks?
There are things like that all of the time. Almost every day there is something we are jealous of that we thought was fantastic. I thought there was this great thing on Fallon that was such a clean, good idea. They give children the title of the movie that someone is coming on to promote. So, if Channing Tatum is coming on for “Magic Mike XXL” you give children the premise and then they write the script and Channing Tatum and Jimmy Fallon perform it. I thought that was just a perfect idea. We never want to copy anybody or come close to copying anybody. In the political environment now where everyone is working off the same material every day you never want to get in a position where you’re seeing someone else do the cold open that you’re shooting in 15 minutes. Those are the ones that actually stop us in our tracks and the rest of it is pure jealousy.
Is there a lot of competition between the late night shows? Do you still talk to your buddies in New York?
I talk to everybody. There is no competition. I do think that’s the thing that doesn’t exist in late night. Leno versus Letterman was just its own blood sport where they had their own background and were going after the same job. Also, the media likes that story. It’s a great, sexy story. Everybody kind of likes each other. James and I and Seth Meyers and his showrunner Mike Shoemaker went out to dinner in New York before we started coming out here to do this thing and James has been on Seth’s show. I still talk to everybody at Fallon. Kimmel and Corden are buddies. It’s a little too lovely. None of that tension seems to exist. Plus, I just think there is space for everybody. Between airing on networks and the Internet there is room everywhere for people’s stuff to get out there and be seen.
How many hours of sleep do you get?
When we first started the show the hours were terrible. The first two weeks of the show we had no idea if we were going to f*ck it up so we were doing it the night before to give ourselves time. We’d finish at 6:30 in the morning and then be back at the production meeting at 9:30 in the morning. Those days are long gone. Another reason I talk about the Internet is because I rarely see the show on television. I am long gone by 12:37 a.m. and then it’s just about whatever time my children wake up in the morning. They are back from Miami so that answer is 4:30 a.m. right now.
What would your “Carpool Karaoke” song be?
Oh my God. You are misreading this in-front-of-a-camera situation. I would never, ever do… I did karaoke one time in my life. I feel like it was when karaoke was invented. I messed up so badly in my song selection that it ruined me forever. I chose Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” which if you know there is like a 7-minute music interlude in that song. You sing for about 45 seconds and then you’re just on stage for 7 minutes waiting for the next chorus to come through and that ruined me for karaoke forever. I would never, ever do that.
What’s next for you and your team?
We are taking the show to London, which is a really big deal for us and for James. I think that when Corden left London he was a very big star in London, unknown in America and now our show is in 155 countries and he’s reported on in London. He’s sort of a British boy made good, so it’s going to be thrilling for us to get to take him home. We’re going to do our show in a 1,700 seat cathedral in Westminster, London in June. We are very excited about that.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Winston Churchill. Could be at any time of day as far as I can tell. Seems like he started with whiskey then some champagne. I think he’s fascinating. The sappy answer to that would be either of my grandfathers. I never met either of them. They both seem like great guys. Everyone in my family is from Alabama so tucking into some bourbon with my grandfathers would be nice.
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