'Drop the Mic' Makes the Move From 'Late Late Show' Viral Video to TBS Series

Executive producers Ben Winston and Jensen Karp discuss why the segment is "stronger" as its own series and what makes the perfect celebrity guest.
Courtesy of Kelsey McNeal/Turner Entertainment Networks

At first, TBS' Drop the Mic looks like another late-night series spinoff in the vein of Spike's Lip Sync Battle (from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon) and Apple Music's Carpool Karaoke (via The Late Late Show With James Corden). However, to hear executive producers Ben Winston and Jensen Karp tell it, The Late Late Show was never intended as the endgame for the segment, which makes its series debut Tuesday on TBS.

The show's jump from pitch to premiere was a relatively short one. After they first met in 2016, Winston and Karp immediately began brainstorming the idea and decided to try it out first on the Late Late Show, skipping the formal TV pilot process. Anne Hathaway was set to appear that week and was game when they approached her about rap battling Corden. In addition to amassing millions of fans on YouTube (the video currently stands at more than 15 million views), the clip quickly grabbed famous fans who also wanted in.

"David Schwimmer was on the show 24 hours later and saw it and said, 'Can I do that too?' So then we had two 'Drop the Mic' segments within a week, both of which were getting millions of hits online," Late Late Show showrunner Winston recalls. "Two weeks later, we knew we had a show on our hands."

Like the original Late Late Show segment, the half-hour series sees celebrities rap battling for supremacy with the help of Karp, himself a former rapper who signed with Interscope Records at 19 before segueing into comedy writing. But instead of going up against Corden — although he will make special appearances — the celebrities now go up against each other. Each half-hour installment will feature two battles, with hosts Method Man and Hailey Baldwin stepping in for Corden.   

Ahead of Tuesday's launch, THR spoke with Winston and Karp about why TBS was the right fit for the series, what makes the perfect celebrity guest and just how mean those rhymes will get.

What made TBS the right fit?

Jensen Karp: I worked with [TBS and TNT SVP of unscripted series and specials] Michael Bloom on Rob Riggle's pilot that he did over there. I was watching what they were doing with Samantha Bee and a bunch of other people. When Ben asked me that day where I thought [it would go], my answer was TBS because I just knew they were getting edgier with Search Party. Certain things there just spoke to a really fun, alternative yet mainstream voice, and that was what Ben and I had always wanted for the show, which is to be edgy but also make an entertainment show. I didn't think there were many channels that would see it from all those angles, and I knew Turner would.

Ben Winston: Obviously there were a few people who wanted this show, and some sort of got it immediately. They understood it, they understood what could make it great. Their notes for it, their ideas for it were in line with what we felt. TBS is a very exciting place to be. The more the process has gone on, the more certain I am that we made the right choice to partner with them because they've hugely added to the show.

What lessons that you learned from launching Carpool Karaoke as its own series this summer were you able to apply to getting Drop the Mic off the ground?

Winston: The second it feels like a segment on a late-night show, then it should be just that. Carpool, we had to look at pairings that didn't involve James and partnerships and how you make a more long-form version of it. Drop the Mic is similar in that we had to work out how an eight-minute bit would be a 30-minute show and in truth, they could be longer really. We struggled to cut it down to the 22 minutes but then of course, if you take the idea at its premise, on the Late Late Show, it's a very limited idea because you always have to rap against James Corden and there's only a certain amount of things people can say about James Corden. Where at Carpool, it was the opposite problem. It was how to make Carpool without James because he's so good at it. I hope that in the 20 episodes we made, we proved that whether it be the Game of Thrones cast, or John Cena and Shaq, or Chelsea Handler and Trevor Noah, we showed that that can work.

Drop the Mic, actually not being on the Late Late Show, gave it a huge lease on life because suddenly you can have Usher going against Anthony Anderson. You can have the Veep cast going against each other. You can have Liam Payne going against Jason Derulo. Suddenly you're not in a way hindered by the fact that James has to be rapped against. That's why actually doing it as a breakaway show made Drop the Mic stronger.

Karp: We have called [James] fat way too many times. He's not even that heavy. We needed new people to battle.

Winston: Thinking about what Jason Derulo can say to Liam Payne or what Chrissy Metz from This Is Us can say to Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family — it gives you a huge range of comedy and fun.

What are some of the other major changes you made in expanding this from a segment to a full-fledged show, and why do you think those changes needed to be made?

Karp: The thing that I think about the most is our hosts, Method Man and Hailey Baldwin. They've delivered tenfold. Competing with James Corden as a host is an impossible task and they've been able to do it incredibly. Method Man, it's almost like he's been training to do this his whole life. He's so charismatic and fun and he understands the concept of the show and really gets in there, and he's a battle rap enthusiast himself in his life. He took it seriously and didn't want to go onto a show that was corny. Hailey Baldwin, when we first met her, we got it immediately and then we've been watching her career explode while we're filming this. They've both been so willing to learn how to be a host and study and rehearse. They've really been, to me, the best new thing to come out of our format.

How do you make sure that the essence of what made Drop the Mic a hit remains intact with this revolving talent changes and with different hosts?

Winston: I don't think you do, actually. That's a relevant question for Carpool, because Carpool is so simple in that it's an empty car with music so therefore, how do you keep the joy of it? This is very different. We have made a really exciting entertainment show with the seeds of the idea coming from the Late Late Show With James Corden. First, we have two amazing hosts in Meth and Hailey. Second, we have two separate battles every week that you're watching. … I don't think anyone's looking at it going, "Oh, I miss when they were going up against James Corden." I think it stands very much on its own as a really exciting show that is a fun comedy roast but maybe a little bit less nasty and with the musicality. It's quite an original show.

What has the process been of finding the right talent and figuring out those pairings thus far?

Winston: It's been tricky because you've got to convince somebody to step out of their comfort zone and rap, and also, be prepared to be a little bit self-deprecating of course because they have to accept somebody's going to rap against them. But actually, we found it to be a really great process. It's really fun matching people against each other. Halle Berry is in our premiere, she raps against James followed by Anthony Anderson versus Usher, and those are two incredibly strong, fun raps. It shows whether you're a TV star or a pop star or a film star or even a late-night host, it's a fun show for you to be on. Some people haven't always got it, some people have said, "I don't want to do that show, I can't rap." Ultimately, once they meet Jensen and [head writer] Eliza [Skinner] and learn to rap, it's been good.

Karp: For me, there's a whole other element to it, which is maybe it's someone you know from television but those people will take it extremely seriously. We have Randall Park versus James Van Der Beek, which to me is hilarious on paper but then when we got them both in there, Randall Park is an amazing rapper. He's been making music for a while and then James Van Der Beek took it seriously once he heard Randall.

Is there one ingredient that makes someone a good fit for the show?

Karp: For me, it's someone who's willing to have fun. Gina Rodriguez is another great example of someone who came on the show and fully committed. She also raps for fun as well. They come on there and they just engulf themselves in the training. It takes an hour or two total, and they jump in there and for a few hours that day, they battle rap.

Some of the preview clips for the show have been surprisingly harsh. Is there a line on how mean-spirited these raps can get or should get?

Karp: There's always a line. … I spoke with Mayim Bialik before we went on, we were going over lyrics and collaborating on what was going to be in the battle. She was like, "Why didn't you make fun of my nose? You've got to make fun of my nose."' So we made a nose joke. … It's weird because I can say something really mean to someone's face but for some reason when you rap it, it's just way cuter. I think that we run into certain things that we just wouldn't talk about anyway because we're decent human beings, but we've had very few things taken out of raps. Everyone comes here to play ball and have fun and make fun of themselves, and we've been lucky finding the people who get that.

But you're not concerned about the audience thinking these raps are too mean, like if they didn't know that Mayim told you to make fun of her nose before she went on stage?

Winston: It's a very fair question. I think that if you watch the show in context, it will never feel like that. I definitely don't want this show to be a mean-spirited show. It's quite the opposite. It's really fun and funny and joyful. I know on paper that sounds like, how could it be? If you watch it and see the reactions of people in the audience, it will never ever be mean. I also think we look after our guests and therefore if there's stuff that they're really keen on not being used, we'll work with them to make sure that the other person doesn't embarrass them. We never want anybody to feel anything other than happy when they walk away from the stage. So far we've shot 12 of 16 episodes, nobody's walked away unhappy just yet.

Karp: We had James Van Der Beek last week and we filmed Danielle Fishel last night. Both of them have been in the business since they were teenagers and both said very similar things, which is, "That was the most fun I've ever had on TV," which is crazy to hear from those two people. I think when you watch the show, you'll see the smiles and laughing. It's just such a fun, electric atmosphere that it takes that bite away from it. As the season progresses, you'll see it more and more.

Ben, you've now had segments that have become their own show so how much do you worry about finding the next "Carpool Karaoke" or the next "Drop the Mic"-type segment?

Winston: I don't worry about finding it because we've already got them and they stay on the Late Late Show to a certain extent. But we're always looking for what the next big thing is we can do, we're always looking to make our show better. Whether you like the Late Late Show With James Corden or not, one thing anybody would always say is we are so ambitious as a show, so we're always looking for what's next. We're always looking for how we can have fun on the show, and that's the case whether we were making these spinoffs or not.

Now that Drop the Mic is launching, how often do you see Late Late Show doing those segments?

Winston: We've been on air just under three years and we've only done "Drop the Mic" nine times so it's not something we do that often anyway. … Would we still do it on the Late Late Show if a guest came on and wanted to battle against James? Absolutely we would. You will still see it. We are still seeing "Carpool," and I think that we've shown that "Carpool" can still work on the Late Late Show as well as working with other people on the Apple show. As for Drop the Mic, I think that two will still work because James is always in the CBS one and can't always be in the TBS one, so I think TBS opens up a lot more.

Why do you think late shows like yours and the Tonight Show have become such fertile ground for their own spinoffs like Drop the Mic and Lip Sync Battle?

Winston: Because you're on so often, you're trying new stuff. There are very few shows on television, especially entertainment shows on television, that do 200 episodes a year. We don't want to be just a talk show, we want to be an entertainment variety show. And so therefore if you're pouring all of your creative attention with a brilliant writing staff and wonderful comedy producers into making stuff every night that's exciting, then it's not surprising when you do that many shows that you're going to find the bits that resonate with people in a digital age that they can share online on their Facebooks, on their Twitters, on their Instagrams, on their Snapchats. You can build fan bases now off bits on shows rather than even just the show itself. I think that's why, in this day and age, these things happen. In general, it's easy for the networks to see now what's working. I'm sure that 20 years ago, they had bits that would have made great spinoffs but of course these days, you can walk into a network like TBS or Apple, and you can say, "Look, here's 100 million views for this bit. You want to do a show?" There's proof that there's viewership and love for an item because we're making a show in the digital age.

Karp: For me, I would never have had this opportunity. I would have been in development and had a pilot and it takes forever for them to make decisions. It's a really fun place to try something, and you see that happening everywhere.

Drop the Mic premieres Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. on TBS.

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