LOS ANGELES — Tooling around the same neighborhood at less than 20 miles per hour may not sound like much of a joy ride — unless Elton John is sitting shotgun.
The legendary rocker is the latest marquee name to occupy the passenger seat on “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” a program that has exploded on the Internet, thanks largely to “Carpool Karaoke,” a recurring segment in which popular artists harmonize with the affable host with the radio blasting and a seat belt strapped across their chests.
Corden’s show, which chauffeurs John around during a special episode on Super Bowl Sunday, hasn’t made much of a dent in the ratings since its debut last March, lagging far behind the other four late-night programs with an average of 1.26 million viewers. “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” its head-to-head competitor, clocks in at around 1.65 million.
But the numbers get much more impressive on social media whenever Corden gets behind the wheel with a big name.
A nearly 15-minute cruise with Adele last month drew 42 million YouTube views in its first five days, a record for any late-night clip since 2013. An earlier outing with Justin Bieber has passed the 50 million mark.
“There’s something unique in seeing someone sing their hits in the very same environment we sing them ourselves,” said Corden shortly after taping his show from a studio above the set of “The Price Is Right.” “I never thought in our first three episodes we would find a bit that would completely define our show.”
Jimmy Fallon continues to dominate the YouTube ranks with his own singalong, ranging from Neil Young impressions to renditions of popular tunes orchestrated with office supplies. His popularity online has driven down the average age of late-night viewers and raised the bar for the rest of the pack.
Credit Mariah Carey for getting Corden off to a fast start.
The pop diva was willing to commit to the new talk show before it had even aired, but couldn’t make it to a live taping due to commitments in Las Vegas. Corden and executive producer Ben Winston immediately thought of recycling a bit they had done four years earlier with George Michael for a charity special in England.
Carey agreed. The five-minute segment, in which Carey affectionately flicks Corden’s neck as he tries not to drive off the road, appeared during premiere week along with a skit that had Tom Hanks pant his way through his most memorable movie scenes and a game of hide ’n’ seek with Beck and Jeff Goldblum from a stranger’s house.
“Within the first six shows, we had said, ‘We’re here to have fun,’ ” said Winston, whose primary role during “Karaoke” is to whisper comments into Corden’s earpiece from one of the three vehicles surrounding the main car. The entourage and snail pace may not make the cut on “Top Gear,” but they keep the risk of a high-profile fender bender to a minimum.
Since Carey’s test drive, more than a dozen recording artists have climbed aboard, including Carrie Underwood, One Direction and Rod Stewart.
John was a fan from the very beginning, Winston said, but avoided observing past passengers, so that his rock around the block would feel natural.
“After he was done, Elton said it was a bit like being in the ‘Big Brother’ house,” Winston said. “For the first five minutes you think, ‘Oh, I’m being filmed,’ and then you forget because you can’t see the cameras and James is so charming. You just settle in and have a great time.”
Rolling in the deep
Adele had such a blast that she ignored her publicist’s strict instructions to limit the taping to an hour.
“After 2 ½ hours she was still driving around,” Winston said. “She was like, ‘I’m fine. I’ve never been happier.’ ”
Corden’s company isn’t the only attraction. After Stevie Wonder’s appearance in September, one of his greatest-hits collections zoomed to No. 1 on iTunes in the United Kingdom and made its way into the Top 10 in the United States. Pretty impressive for an album that was released in 2002.
It’s amazing what stepping outside the sterile trappings of a talk-show set can do for business — and image.
Bieber’s most prominent leg of his rehabilitation tour, in which he munched on McDonald’s fries and joked about going topless for Calvin Klein, was so successful that he signed up for a second ride.
Stars also get points for their willingness to revisit fan favorites rather than push their latest singles, as Jackson Browne seemed obligated to do during his appearance last month on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Sure, “The Long Way Around” is a nice enough ballad, but a rendition of “Take it Easy,” which he co-wrote with the recently deceased Glenn Frey, would have been late-night gold.
On “Karaoke,” anything goes. Adele didn’t hesitate to join Corden on “Someone Like You” and later sang along to the Spice Girls and Nicki Minaj. Last week, Chris Martin paid tribute to David Bowie.
Does that mean John might try his hand at “Hotline Bling” as a Super Bowl treat?
Stay tuned. And don’t forget to wear your seat belt.