James Corden: My major ambition is just to stay relevant, to be in the conversation

The Late Late Show host on the struggle to get stars to do carpool karaoke, why ratings dont matter to him and his admiration for Graham Norton

Spring 2015: in a desperate bid to book guests for his upcoming The Late Late Show, James Corden drives around the streets of LA knocking on publicists doors to introduce himself.

Summer 2016: Corden drives around the White House gardens with a singing/rapping Michelle Obama for the latest instalment of his online global phenomenon, Carpool Karaoke.

Its a rapid rise by anyones standards, not least for the man whose appointment as Craig Fergusons replacement on the CBS show met with a resounding Who? in the US.

Add in last weeks four Emmy nominations, the 1bn-plus views for the dedicated YouTube channel and the fact that the show has created the three most-viewed clips in the history of American late night television and Corden could be excused the odd air punch. But on the CBS studio lot where The Late Late Show is shot, celebration is minimal.

Its the morning after Chewbacca Mom Candace Payne appeared on the show and, again, Cordens clips are spanning borders and spawning headlines. Payne, a Texan mum, shot to fame after filming herself in a Star Wars mask, complete with infectious laugh, and Cordens subsequent sketch saw her driving him to work, accompanied, it turns out, by the films director JJ Abrams. Clocking up over 15m YouTube views, securing her was a coup for Corden who saw off more-established rivals among them Ellen DeGeneres.

With four shows every week, year round, hes already moved on to the evenings rap battle, or Drop the Mic with Anne Hathaway. But even if, as Corden says, you dont have time to dwell on your wins or mourn your losses (weve bombed a lot of times), surely its exhilarating to conceive bonkers ideas in the middle of the night and make them happen the next day?

Thats it. That is the show and thats the best and worst thing about it, he says, before using a recent parody of Beyoncs monologues in her visual album Lemonade as an example. We called it Lemonjames and we wrote it, shot it and cut it in four hours; you dont have time to dither about it, you go with your instinct and hope that its right. And then the next day I think there were 2,100 articles about us. Thats thrilling to be in the centre of it, but then its like, its gone now and theres another show thats it.

Its in stark contrast to his experience on Skys A League of Their Own, which has the luxury of more time, but also his previous experience crafting comedy.

There isnt a sense of completion as there was when we wrote The Wrong Mans or Gavin and Stacey. The moment when Mat [Baynton] or Ruth [Jones] and I would go end of episode 3, at least thats done and youd go [Corden lets out a huge sigh], lets start again tomorrow. That feeling isnt there so much now.

But perhaps Cordens refusal to bask in last nights glory, or any of his recent successes, suggests he has learnt lessons from a sometimes difficult past when he went from the dizzying heights of The History Boys, Gavin and Stacey, panel shows and awards hosting, to the depressing depths of the 2008 Baftas when he infamously complained his two awards should have been three. His widely-panned sketch show Horne and Corden, off-screen antics and a reputation for arrogance added to the backlash and his descent was as ugly as it was swift.

He remade himself with One Man, Two Guvnors, which transferred to Broadway and won him a Tony award. It was during the plays interval that CBS president Leslie Moonves called his entertainment boss Nina Tassler and said he wanted Corden on his network. (It would take Corden, who was happily developing scripts for HBO and lining up a play in New York, many months and three approaches to finally say yes.)

These days, Corden appears more self-deprecating than self-obsessed, but hes clearly been scarred by the experience. Asked about the noise surrounding him getting his talk show gig which combined much bemusement, considerable praise and a dose of cynicism he focuses only on the latter.

I think in terms of hit rates things that have done well and that havent I feel like Im sitting on the right side of that, but at same time, occasionally at home, there will be some people who – he pauses before explaining why he sometimes feels unfairly treated.

In truth, I dont really understand it because I dont feel if people were sitting down to interview Bradley Cooper theyd be like lets talk about [his flops] Aloha and Burnt, or if they were sitting down with Robert De Niro, lets talk about Dirty Grandpa and that feels sort of different with me. I dont really know why, I give it very little thought.

Corden and The Late Late Shows executive producer, Ben Winston, a fellow Brit and friend, were initally circumspect about their chances of success. With less than three months to create and launch a network show, fronted by a relative unknown, they doubted they would last more than two months.

Says Corden: Theres a great bit in that Jerry Seinfeld doc where someone asks him if being famous helps with doing stand-up and trying new material, and he says I get three minutes of good grace from an audience whereas someone else gets 30 seconds. We very much felt that we just had 30 seconds.

So we knew we had to put a stake in the ground early and go we are a show where people come and do stuff. In retrospect, I dont think we realised quite how valuable it was having Tom Hanks do that montage of his film career on our first show.

Cordens bid was to find a niche in the ferociously competitive talk-show arena by striving to be unpredictable. For Moonves, it was this promise of reinvention that sealed the deal.

Instead of adopting the formulaic US structure of host monologue, followed by consecutive guests and a music ending, Fulwell 73 Productions executive producer Winston wanted to shake things up by creating a 360 set; immersing the audience in the action; pre-recording internet-friendly elements; and, of course, the distinctively British trick, inspired by Graham Norton, of bringing guests out at the same time.

Some publicists would say, well my client wouldnt be happy to do that and it was wonderful to say, well your client already did on Grahams show and it was brilliant and thats the best Ive ever seen them, he says.

However, Corden acknowledges that while the technique feels more organic, it makes for a harder interview. Ive realised Graham is a maestro theres something brilliant about making something difficult look easy and I dont think Ive cracked that yet.

Indeed the talk element of Cordens talk show is the least remarkable part. Its segments like Drop the Mic that play to his strengths. This was another crucial aspect for Winston using Corden not just as a comedian, given he isnt a stand-up like NBC rivals Jimmy Fallon and Seth Myers, but as an actor, singer and dancer. He advised Moonves: If youve got James Corden, youve got to know how to use him.

Filmed in the style of a boxing match, with a fired-up crowd and plenty of dry ice, Corden mocking Hathaways bad British accent and movie flop, and Hathaway taking aim at his waistline and ratings, the battle was the highlight of that evenings show. Like Carpool Karaoke, the segments popularity means it is launching as a format in its own right.

It wasnt always plain sailing for Carpool and Winston says that the team struggled to find guests. Were musicians knocking down our doors to get in a car with James? No we had to beg them. We got nos from everyone for Carpool. People just thought it was a mad idea and they didnt want to do it.

Stevie Wonder was the turning point. Unlike most stars, he had nothing to promote at the time, but two days after his appearance, his 2002 Definitive Collection greatest hits album went to No 1 worldwide.

Success has come quickly, certainly in a digital sense, and the show has been picked up by Sky in the UK and Ireland for on-demand. However, there is little talk of ratings, which at an average of around 1.3m are respectable, if unimpressive, for its post-midnight time slot.

So, some 210 shows and 18 Carpool Karaokes later, are online hits the key? Im only driven by that, says Corden. I genuinely couldnt tell you how many people watch our show, because I feel like in this slot, were not really in the ratings business, were just in the relevance business. My major ambition is just to stay relevant. Thats it, to be in the conversation thats all that was ever asked of us really.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/17/james-corden-michelle-obama-carpool-karaoke

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