'Late Late Show' Producers on Not Overdoing 'Carpool Karaoke' and the Power of Viral

Ben Winston and Rob Crabbe also discuss how they make James Corden's outsider voice mesh with election comedy.
Courtesy of CBS
Selena Gomez on 'The Late Late Show with James Corden'

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with an assortment of the biggest names in late night about changes to the volatile variety talk category at the upcoming Emmys for a magazine story. Some longer Q&As from those interviews are going online.

Since The Hollywood Reporter spoke with The Late Late Show With James Corden executive producers Ben Winston and Rob Crabbe in May, the show's lucrative "Carpool Karaoke" empire has expanded to include Broadway stars, an extended McDonald's commercial featuring Selena Gomez and, soon, Michelle Obama. So it's possible that the standards by which they vow to protect the franchise are in flux, which isn't surprising given that Corden and his producers landed on a goose that lays viral eggs, the most powerful commodity in late-night television in specific and in 2016 media in general.

"I think that because it's such a great bit, I think you become more precious toward it, so we won't do 'Carpool' more than once every three weeks," said Winston. "That means we sometimes need to put off artists that we would love to have on, but we can't have them too often. Therefore, we've just always got to be very, very careful that we don't overdo it, because you want to protect what's important to you."

"Carpool Karaoke" is a big part of why Corden has become one of the most-buzzed-about stars in his genre, and how The Late Late Show has become a powerful force for CBS despite being a limitedly political show in a space and a year fueled by political commentary and mockery.

In this interview, Winston and Crabbe discuss how much Corden has been able to make jokes about the political cycle, how general viewership in late night has changed and the challenges of doing a show with these viral moments on a nightly basis.

This is going to be tied to the Emmys and looking at the category that you guys are in: Half of the nominees from last year's field either don't exist anymore or have changed hosts. I'm wondering if that's a sea change that you guys can sense from within, being part of this impressive turnover in late night.

Crabbe: Even as viewers and fans of late night, we are well aware of the major changes that happened and the fact that all of these new hosts have sort of hit at the same time, so it's certainly not lost on us.

Winston: It's a strange year. It is strange that these hosts, they stay the same for so many years. These stints have been so long whether it be Letterman or Jon Stewart and all of those greats. For in 12 months there to be, I don't know how many new hosts has there been. So many. Too many. It is a strange year. I guess we're aware of it because it's probably more important to do well in your first year now so that you establish yourself as a show that's going to be around for a while.

Crabbe: Everybody's competing to establish themselves in their first year since so many people are starting, so that makes it sort of its own challenge I think. Not just hosts swapping places or people retiring and new people taking the chairs — whole new shows have come up in the beginning of last year.

When everyone is trying to break into this marketplace and when everyone is trying to differentiate, does that feel like it's an environment that encourages risk-taking or does it actually discourage it to some degree because people are afraid of bombing, coming out the gate, and being done like that?

Winston: To be honest, you just concentrate on your own show. I think that there's so much to do in running a show that goes every night, that tries to do as ambitious things as we do, I think that it's quite hard to keep up with what everybody else is doing. I think you've just got to make sure what you're doing everyday, you're proud of. The one thing that we're always after is just relevancy. We want to be a show that people talk about the next day or share the next day and be part of that conversation. I think that's the thing that drives us more than looking over our shoulder and seeing what everybody else is doing and competing. I don't think it feels like that sort of environment where we're going up against others, I just think we have to just make a great show for us every night. Does that make sense?

Do you guys have time to watch anything else in late night? Anything else in your space?

Winston: We watch a bit. We watch a bit because we're also fans of the genre. I think that it's important for two reasons that we keep abreast of what's going on. It's important that A., we don't do the same stuff that other people have already done. It's always really important to us that what we're doing is original and different. If there's a news topic and we know that somebody's done it to death then we'll watch that and go, "What's our take on it and is there a new angle that we can bring on it or should we just move on?" I think also, B., just because we're fans of the genre that we both work in, we're aware of other shows and we enjoy watching other shows as well. Yeah I think we do, but it's not like we watch it insistently going, "There's our competition. What are they doing? How can we beat them?" It's more like we'll watch it the next day.

It's really interesting to see on people's Facebooks and Twitter feeds which of the clips that come up and which of the shows that come up. It gives us huge pride when it's our clips from our show. Whether it be remaking somebody's film career or "Carpool Karaoke" or a bespoke song that we've written the day before or a sketch with The West Wing or whatever it may be, it's always a real buzz when we see it's our clips that are being shared and viewed the next day. In that respect, we're aware of what everybody else is doing because we want to be the most relevant show that there is.

You mentioned the idea of competition and not necessarily comparing yourself to anybody, but you guys and Fallon I would say are probably the shows that have differentiated yourselves most clearly with the viral videos. Did you know when you guys started out that that had to be a key part of what was going to be setting you apart?

Crabbe: We were certainly aware that we wanted a big digital presence or we wanted to attempt to have a big digital presence. The thing with these shows, with traditional time slots and 12:37 a.m., is that we have very little control over our ratings but that thing that we always go back to that we feel like we can control is our relevancy. We want to make the best show we can at 12:37 a.m. and then if there's a piece of entertainment that's digestible, people can watch it at 12:37 p.m. when they're eating lunch. We wanted to make sure that we had a digital team built and that we were going to be able to get everything up and out in a timely fashion so that people don't have to be locked into a 12:37 a.m. time slot or trying to find it on their DVR the next morning when they're getting ready for work, that they'll be able to find it whenever they want to. For us, seeing big view counts on things, that's people actually seeking out, finding it, and watching it in their own time, which is really, really gratifying. We certainly wanted to have a presence online.

Winston: The other thing I'd say about it is that the reason why we love when we have a viral hit is because it's an even playing field. So much of television depends whether you're on network or whether you're cable, who's your lead-in, what were your primetime numbers like because that adds a knock-on figure to how you do that evening. What we love about when we do well online is everybody's equal. Everybody has a YouTube page, so it's less that us and Fallon go after viral hits. I don't think that's necessarily what we go for, I think we just try and make the best stuff we possibly can. We also try and make a show that would work at any time of the day. Like Rob said, any time of the day we hope that you can watch our show and enjoy it and therefore, our hope is that the best stuff rises to the top. One of the better ways of measuring that is with your YouTube numbers, and we've surpassed a billion hits in a year, and I feel like that's the thing that we're most satisfied by. People are watching our stuff and they're obviously enjoying it, and that level playing field of the internet is very exciting.

The other thing I'd say is I don't think it's "this day and age" that late-night shows are so different in that they're going after viral hits. I think that if Letterman in a bath of Rice Krispies happened today, that would be a huge viral hit. It just happens to be the time that we live in whereas maybe 15 years ago, if you wanted to see something that happened on one of the late-night shows, the only time you could see it was that night. Whereas, I think our audience is very aware that they can watch stuff whenever they like. I don't think it's late night changing, I just think it's the way we watch television is changing and maybe the better shows are benefiting from that.

Crabbe: Yeah and the internet is a pure meritocracy.

Is it a meritocracy or is it something else?

Crabbe: Well I think a meritocracy in the sense that people seek out the things that they most want to watch. If you have that thing that people want to watch, they're going to find it and the numbers go up so, you're getting appreciated for what you're doing rather than who happens to find you based on a primetime schedule or something that happens at 10:00 p.m. that night.

Winston: If I knew what a meritocracy was, I'd join in on the conversation.

I think it would be a debate about merit and what "merit" means, but we don't need to go there. You obviously had with "Carpool Karaoke" a total game changer discovery there. When you have something like that and you know that if you push that button you get a certain reaction from the audience, how do you resist pushing that button five times a week?

(Laughter.)

Winston: Firstly, I don't think you know that you've got something like that until it's out there and you realize what a monster it can become. I don't think any of us could have predicted when we came up with "Carpool Karaoke" that it would be the top two clips in the history of late-night television. I don't think that was something that was in our mindspace. I think that because it's such a great bit, I think you become more precious toward, it so we won't do "Carpool" more than once every three weeks. That means we sometime need to put off artists that we would love to have on, but we can't have them too often. Therefore, we've just always got to be very, very careful that we don't overdo it, because you want to protect what's important to you.

I assume CBS, when they see those numbers, they get very excited. How do you put them off?

Winston: No, we've never had any pressure from the network to do anything other than what we think is better for the show. Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing, doesn't it? If we were to do it too often, then I don't think it would be getting the numbers that we can get. I think that we all feel like it's something that we need to protect and look after now.

Crabbe: Yeah, and we have to be disciplined even within a "Carpool Karaoke" because there might be 53 amazing minutes with Adele but we still want to put out a piece 15 minutes on television.

Now the late-night conversation this past year has been shaped obviously so much by the election and that hasn't been exactly James' thing so much. How organic has the process been of figuring out how much or how little to have James joke about the election?

Crabbe: We're still seeking out that balance. We haven't been on for very, very long and it has been a crazy, crazy election cycle and so everybody's covering it. We dip our toes into it and we'll take on a political story here and there but it just depends. It becomes a little formulaic. Trump presents the headlines day in and day out and the jokes start to feel the same, so that determines how often we'll go into it.

Winston: We're also aware of the show that we're following. I think Stephen does so much on politics, and does it well. I don't know if somebody at home when they're in bed needs to see another guy, this time not even from the country that these issues are happening in, do similar jokes. I think that we try and do something maybe a bit different to what the new hosts that have come out are doing, which is more political based. I think you play to the strengths of the show that we've created.

This is obviously something that John Oliver has had to figure out, that Trevor Noah has had to figure out, the issue of how an "outsider" can discuss this. How do you guys see James' "outsider" voice interacting with American politics?

Winston: I think John Oliver's shown that it's not an issue, because I think that John Oliver's probably one of the best at it. I think that he's put that issue to bed, so I think we just try and make a funny show every night and if there's something political in that or if we notice something that we want to put in our mono that's from the current issues of the day, then I think we'll do it. We don't really have a rule that we make over how much politics we cover. I think we just do what's right and do what amuses us as producers and James as a host. But I do think that John Oliver has shown that somebody who wasn't born here can make jokes and skewer what's going on in the nation.

Crabbe: An outsider perspective is actually very valuable in that because James isn't supposed to have an inherent knowledge of how many members are in the House of Representatives. He can look at it from the outside and have his own fresh take on it because he doesn't have this long-standing knowledge of the American political system.

In the Emmy category that you guys are likely to be, your competition includes shows that air only one night a week, some that only do a half hour a week, some that have the looser limits of cable. From your point of view, what are the advantages and disadvantages of having to do this every single night, of having to do this on network TV, and having to do an hour of it?

Winston: That's a hard question for us to answer. I think that there is a big difference between making four or five hours a week to making 30 minutes a week, I just think there is. But the people who make 30 minutes a week do it really, really well and hopefully people will think that us, who make four or four-plus hours a week, also do it really well. I don't necessarily think it's for us to compare those, but I do think that it's a different skill set needed for each one of those shows to make that show great. That's my most political way I can answer that question.

OK, to clarify that though, what would you say the skill set is that you guys have that allows you to do this show, in the way you do it, as opposed to 30 minutes a week?

Winston: Forget the 30 minute a week thing, because that's not what I can answer, but what I can say is that what we do here well and what we're proud that we can do is, something can happen that day and we can turn around something bold and ambitious there and then. Beyonce dropped her video of Lemonade and within three or four hours, James had done a parody, full costumes, full set, new lyrics, and it's replaced our monologue. This week we've got Seth Rogen on and we've got a "Crosswalk: The Musical" where Seth Rogen goes and does a Lion King parody. We have a huge sketch with Anne Hathaway on Tuesday which we're going to turn around that day.

Every single day, we've got to be ready and waiting to do something hugely ambitious and something that people will be talking about. I think that that's a big factor in doing a daily show, that you've got to be able to turn it around — and if we do see something that amuses us or excites us, then we want to go big on it because we're a hugely ambitious show and we never want to settle for anything other than brilliant. It's important for us to do these big, high-end numbers or sketches or creations that we do on the show, and I think that's what making a good daily show you need, probably.

Crabbe: Yeah that's one of the values of time. We have more time that we need to fill so we get to fulfill our ambitions with it.

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