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James Corden takes the ‘and then what’ approach to keep his ‘Carpool Karaoke’ fresh

It’s the peanut butter and chocolate of the Internet. “Carpool Karaoke” is the tasty combination of musical luminaries singing along to their own hits and a talk-show chat with the winningly unpretentious James Corden. The bit — with Corden driving around town with a guest — has charmed millions of viewers and helped put “The Late Late Show With James Corden” into Emmy contention. The show was nominated for variety talk series, directing (Tim Mancinelli), interactive program, and variety special for its one-off, “The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Prime Time Special.” Not bad for just 16 months on the air, with a British host that few in the U.S. had even heard of.

About 18 carpools have aired so far, with a roster that includes Sia, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, One Direction and Stevie Wonder. The latest starred Michelle Obama jamming with Missy Elliott. While the talk show has an average audience of about 1.25 million, the show’s website has almost 7 million subscribers, and the “Carpool” videos 1.5 billion video views. Adele’s carpool has been the biggest draw so far, with 120 million views. Apple Music just announced a “Carpool Karaoke” spinoff of 16 episodes, to be presented by a host to be announced.

Corden and executive producer Ben Winston came up with Carpool’s precursor in 2011, with a sketch for England’s Comic Relief fundraiser that featured Corden and George Michael driving and singing together.

How did that turn into ‘Carpool Karaoke’?

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When you’re creating a show like this one, the biggest question you’re asking is, what are the tent-poles that define our show? When you think about David Letterman you think about Top Ten Lists, Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks; with Jimmy Fallon you think of Thank You Notes and Lip Sync Battles, so you’re searching for those things. We started thinking about the location of the show, in L.A., and people talk about the traffic all the time, and the carpool lane, and we were like, “Carpool Karaoke, that sounds like an idea.”

The thing I’m really proud of is the nature of the interview in the segments. The songs are the glue that binds it together, but it’s the intimacy of the interview that manages to show people in a manner that you’d never ever see them, that you can’t ever find in our studio with 200 people there watching.

How do you choose which singers are on?

There’s two prerequisites really: They have to have a lot of hits, and I have to be a fan.

Do you rehearse any of it beforehand?

No. How can you? They know what songs to expect, but they’re all their own songs, so they should know them. But no, we just get in a car, we drive around for an hour and a half, two hours. I drive. There’s a car in front, sometimes two, and two cars behind, so you’re basically in a convoy where you’re never going more than 15 miles an hour.

How did your latest one come about, with Michelle Obama and Missy Elliott?

They’d done a song for Let Girls Learn, and they were thinking, what’s the best way to get this song out there? And we were like, great! But that’s another sign of the way we approach the show really, which is like, on so many levels you would go, well we’ve got the first lady, and that absolutely is and would be enough. But the trick with a show like this is once you have an idea, to go, ‘OK, and then what? Well, Missy Elliott’s on the song, so I wonder if she’d pop up in the back seat, like A$AP Rocky did in that Rod Stewart one, and then we could do “Get Your Freak On.” Does the first lady know “Get Your Freak On”? She loves it, excellent. Is Missy Elliott available that day? Great.’ And that’s how we approach the show really.

That ‘and then what’ gave you a Tony super-team with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jane Krakowski, Audra McDonald and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. (Corden hosted this year’s Tonys.)

We were essentially making a commercial for the Tony Awards because traditionally, the Tony Awards never rates through the roof, because it doesn’t have the world’s media banging the drum that it’s on Sunday night. But in actual fact, it is a far more interesting show to watch than any other awards show on TV, where you’re essentially watching groups of millionaires give each other gold statues. But here’s a show where you’re going to see the best of Broadway doing a big show, and we were like, well, we have a platform, why don’t we bang the drum about it and see if we can drive people toward watching it this Sunday? Honestly, I thought 5 or 6 million people would watch that “Carpool” [Tonys promo] and that would have been great. It went out on the Monday, and by Wednesday it had been watched by more people than last year’s Tony Awards.

calendar@latimes.com

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