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'Carpool Karaoke' Is the Viral Celebrity Machine America Deserves

The hit segment is the perfect contradiction with which to both poke fun at and celebrate Hollywood fame.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

When the first lady of the United States hopped in the passenger seat of James Corden's car for the latest installment of "Carpool Karaoke" last week, a few things became clear. First, that this episode would go down in history as the apogee in a series glutted with high points. Missy Elliott materializing in the backseat to join FLOTUS and Corden in rapping "Get Ur Freak On" surely presented an even more special kind of perfection than say, Sir Elton John in a lion headdress bellowing out "Circle of Life," or Jennifer Hudson singing her drive-thru order, or Corden—in a rare moment of quiet—tearing up to Stevie Wonder crooning, "I just called / to say / James loves you" on the phone to his wife.


More significantly, the FLOTUS episode confirmed a parallel between a late-night talk-show segment and the most historic presidency of the 21st century. What both the Obamas and Corden know is that the best levity, the kind that makes millions of people respond with a yelled inner YES, is that which erupts out of great seriousness, collapsing the gap between power and the public. One thing that has made the Obama administration so appealing and the one thing that makes the format of "Carpool Karaoke" so winning is the special joy that silliness brings when the backdrop is serious. In Corden's case, that seriousness is the magnitude of star power. His guests—Grammy award-winning, platinum-selling, PR-directed, culture-shaping monoliths and phenoms—are better used to performing in sold-out stadiums rather than the front seat of his Range Rover. So to find them belting out their own hits, while belted up and stuck in traffic beside some affably laddy bloke from England, is a special kind of delicious. Its popularity has been so viral—the Adele episode, for example, has more than 119 million views on YouTube—that it was bound to be monetized: Yesterday, Apple Music bought the rights to the series for an undisclosed sum.

Corden tends to begin each episode by having a bit of a moan about the LA traffic—shaking his head, blowing his cheeks out, all weary mundanity at the wheel—before thanking the person to his right for helping him get to work. At which point the camera cuts to someone so famous that his or her very casual presence there is hilarious.


With FLOTUS in the front, there's a nicely accidental moment of solemnity-skewering with Hillary Clinton as its object. As Corden fantasizes about ordering late-night munchies in the White House, FLOTUS jokes, "That's the 3 AM phone call you'll be prepared for, right?" She may not have intended it, but Obama's line recalls Clinton's notoriously doomy 2008 TV ad, the one with the stentorian voiceover redolent of a disaster-movie trailer asking, "It's 3 AM and your children are safe and asleep—who do you want answering the phone?" Both Obama and her husband have the kind of spontaneity and humor that eludes Clinton, in all her professional excellence. Their willingness to do both in moments of unscripted joy have yielded a presidency deemed "viral" from the start. It's the first lady's ability to give hugs and entertain Muppets (actual ones, not just those in the House of Representatives), to have, in short, the confidence with which to be silly, that makes a speech as serious as this week's DNC address so powerful.

With "Carpool Karaoke," Corden has found the perfect, well, vehicle, with which to both poke fun at and celebrate Hollywood fame, allowing the segment to sparkle with a contradiction.

Sometimes, the structures surrounding Hollywood stardom can seem just as complex, exhausting, and self-serious as the American legislature itself. When Corden took over The Late Late Show from Craig Ferguson in March of last year, he was barely known to American audiences—audiences whose late-night hosts tend to treat their guests with a dull and gushing reverence, duly plugging whichever project the star is on to promote. Corden, however, has a quality of guilelessness—eager and puppyish in his fandom.

With "Carpool Karaoke," which first aired in March last year with Mariah Carey, the cheerful host has found the perfect, well, vehicle, with which to both poke fun at and celebrate Hollywood fame, allowing the segment to sparkle with a contradiction. On one hand, it punctures the ludicrousness of any one person being known to several million other people. There's something beautifully leveling about being a car passenger. As in, even J-Lo loses her earrings down the side of the seat and even Adele has to down a mug of tea so as not to spill it. And even Chris Martin on his way to play the Super Bowl (hitchhiking there, so the conceit goes) has to stop for snacks. On the other hand, the smallness of the car enlarges the sense of each guest's talent. Karaoke, a pomposity-puncturing form, actually elevates the stardom of someone singing his or her own hits with DGAF gusto.

All of this is helped along by Corden's evident fandom. Often, he appears as gleeful as you that this slightly pudgy bloke from Hillingdon is sitting next to say, Jennifer Lopez. Trying to pick the most delicious moment in the series is dangerous: It's easy to lose hours watching the extant 24 clips on repeat. But the moment Corden nicks Lopez's phone to text the most famous person he can find in her contacts is certifiably golden. Leonardo DiCaprio must have sat up a little straighter when he saw this message arrive: "Hey baby, I'm kind of feeling like I need to cut loose. Any suggestions?" Corden signed it off, "Let me know, J.Lo. (you know, from the block)." When DiCaprio replies, the hysterical joy—ours, Corden's, J-Lo's, because we're all in this together now, the megastar, the joker, and you and me—is so exquisite as to be almost painful. He texts back, "You mean tonight, boo-boo, clubwise?" and Corden howls so hard he looks as if he might pee himself. Because what could be more serious than a man who spent months freezing on tundras and eating raw bison liver just to prove he was serious enough for an Oscar.

A more appealing kind of seriousness—certainly a more viral kind—is that which knows the real thing is only weightier when you leaven it with the absurd.

Follow Hermione Hoby on Twitter.