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Five years into producing Carpool Karaoke: The Series, Eric Pankowski still gets butterflies before shooting each episode. “Because there’s no host, you just don’t know,” he explains.
When Eric Pankowski and co-creator Ben Winston started developing a spinoff of the recurring Late Late Show With James Corden segment in 2016, they never planned on breaking the mold. “Carpool Karaoke” was already a smash hit, racking up hundreds of millions of views on YouTube for Corden’s sing-alongs with megastars such as Adele, Elton John and Jennifer Lopez. But with Corden busy hosting his own show, someone else would have to take the wheel on Apple TV+’s Carpool Karaoke: The Series.
Ultimately, the showrunners chose a “daunting” but exciting alternative: “What [if there is] no host?” Pankowski recalls pitching. “What [if we] take the spirit of ‘Carpool’ — which is getting different celebrities in the car [and] getting them to drop their guard — and have fun with the fact that we can have all these crazy pairings in each episode?”
Each episode features two or more famous faces — not just the Grammy-winning musicians who cruise with Corden, but also athletes, comedians, models and actors. Guests can request to ride with a friend or a favorite artist, or they can roll the dice for an “opposites attract” scenario. The result is a slate that runs the gamut from predictable pairings, like Game of Thrones co-stars Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams, to some that are less intuitive (think Billy Eichner and Metallica). That way, “every episode becomes [like] a special,” Pankowski says. “If we have Alicia Keys and John Legend on the show, that’s a very different episode than Matthew McConaughey and Snoop Dogg.”
By no means are the guest stars passive passengers. From selecting their songs to deciding who will drive, the talent has a heavy hand in crafting their episode. “Because there is no host they can’t rely on anybody else to literally drive the car or figuratively drive the conversation,” Pankowski adds. “So every idea that happens on the show is because they wanted to do it.”
Behind the scenes, Pankowski and his team work hard to bring those ideas to life. That includes coordinating a date (“It can take a long time before all the stars align”), licensing the music, writing jokes and planning the route. On the day of a shoot, the producers bookend the stars’ car, forming a caravan so they know where to go. After Pankowski hands over the keys and loads up the playlist, the cameras rigged to the dashboard start rolling.
From there, the show is out of the producers’ hands — and Pankowski has learned to expect the unexpected. There was the time Chelsea Handler refused to follow the caravan and her carpool buddy, Blake Shelton, turned it into a recurring bit. And there was the time Seth MacFarlane rear-ended the car in front of him with Ariana Grande by his side. In these moments, the genius of Carpool shines bright: “It’s not hard to be fresh when you’re working from a palette of music [and talent] that is endless,” Pankowski says. “The joy and the magic of the show is that it changes every episode.”
Unlike the “very unnatural settings” of the talk shows where he got his start, Carpool Karaoke strives to create an environment that is as relaxing for its performers as possible. “There’s no producer in the car,” Pankowski explains. “Within seconds, the cameras fall away, the microphones fall away, and they just are who they are.”
The fact that the majority of the show takes place in a relatable setting helps to achieve “a level of authenticity that just doesn’t exist on television,” says Pankowski. “We’ve all been in the car and think we’re the best singer in the world, performing our favorite songs,” he adds. “There is something about this show that just levels the playing field [between] our audience and the talent that makes it immensely relatable and totally joyful.”
“Joy” is a word Pankowski uses often when discussing his job – and Carpool Karaoke’s singular commitment to spreading it is one of his proudest achievements. “It’s not about a gotcha moment [or] getting a YouTube clip of somebody looking silly,” he says. “It is just about celebrating the joy of music, the talent of the people that are in the car with us, and the fun that they have together.”
By the end of a long day of shooting, the butterflies are gone and Pankowski leaves the set with a smile on his face. “To land on a show like this and to be on it from the beginning? It’s winning the lottery as a producer.”
Top Star Pairings for Carpool Karaoke Spinoff
The Muppets & Jason Sudeikis sing Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”
“The puppeteers behind the Muppets are just the most talented people I’ve ever met,” says Pankowski. “And Sudeikis was right there with them.”
Maya Rudolph & Haim sing Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”
“All of them are incredible singers, and they all were such big fans of Madonna, so seeing their joy and their passion doing that song … That’s way up there,” says the showrunner.
Alicia Keys & John Legend sing Keys’ “No One”
“It was kind of one of those moments where you’re like, ‘Wow, this is what the show is. And if this is what the show is, thank you, Ben and James, for hiring me,’ ” says Pankowski.
The Cyrus family sings Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic”
“It was the first one where we did a family together, so it was a different dynamic for us. And it was just amazing to see that incredibly talented family cut loose to one of their favorite songs,” says the showrunner.
Snoop Dogg & Matthew McConaughey sing Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”
“Two people you wouldn’t expect to be together, singing a song that you would not expect them to be singing together. That episode was like a buddy road trip.”
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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