After eight years and some 1,200 episodes of The Late Late Show, James Corden is signing off.
The Brit, who launched his iteration of the CBS late night show as a virtual unknown among U.S. viewers in 2015, has announced that he’ll be returning to the U.K. with his wife and three children. The decision to end this professional chapter was neither brash nor kept secret; in fact, at exactly this time last year, Corden sat his 170-person staff down and said that he had a year of the show left in him. From that day forward, his showrunners, late night vet Rob Crabbe and longtime Corden collaborator Ben Winston, have been dead set on making the final season the show’s biggest and most star-studded yet.
Crabbe and Winston took a quick break ahead of Thursday’s finale, however, to hop on a Zoom with The Hollywood Reporter to reflect on what was, what could have been and what comes next — for them and for the Late Late Show’s 28 million YouTube subscribers.
As we speak now, you’re roughly 36 hours out from the end; how are you both feeling?
Rob Crabbe: I mean, it’s sad that it’s ending but we’ve also had an incredibly fulfilling time doing it. James has always been completely up-front about the fact that he wasn’t going to be a lifer in this job, and he graciously gave us tons and tons and tons of warning. But we’ve built a family here and we’re used to seeing each other every day, so I’m not quite sure what the emotional state will be next week. That’ll be telling. Right now, we’re so busy racing to the finish line and then I think it’ll hit us…
Judging by your backgrounds, it looks like you, Rob, have cleaned out your entire office, save for a lamp and a printer, and are ready to go, and Ben is very much not …
Crabbe: I didn’t want to deal with [packing up my office] on Friday right after we finish, and so I did it, but now it just feels depressing.
Ben Winston: I see it as I’m a hoarder and he’s feng shui minimalist. Or he just loves lamps and printers.
Crabbe: That’s my aesthetic. (Laughs.)
Winston: Nah, [Winston’s company] Fulwell’s head office is here, so I’m staying. But I’ll add to what Rob had said, and tell you, it’s a weird feeling. It’s partly sadness because we love making this television show. We love every day coming at it with a blank piece of paper and going, “What can we do today?” Like, whose movie career can we re-create? Who can we sing in a car with? Who can we rap battle against? And that burst of creativity is something that we are hugely going to miss. But I think if you told us eight years ago when we first chatted with you that we’d still be here, we’d never believe it. Deep down, we thought we were probably going to last three months. So, the fact that James has achieved what he’s achieved, and that we have something like 14 billion views online and 29 million subscribers [to our YouTube channel], that he’s won 12 Emmys, that we have three spinoff shows, that we’re in more countries than I think any of the other late night shows, is all beyond our wildest dreams. And so there is a real sense of pride in that and excitement that we are going out at a time when we are still relevant enough to get Adele and Tom Cruise and Harry Styles and Will Ferrell in our finale. And it feels good that we are always going to be proud of the show that we’ve made — and that’s to James’ great credit because Rob and I would’ve ridden this till the wheels came off.
At any point in the last year, did you try to convince him to push back his exit?
Winston: I think the conversation was to convince him to keep going up until now. There was a time after about five years where he went, “This has been amazing, but …” He was in [the Ryan Murphy film] The Prom at the time and he was doing other things and I think it was tempting for him to go full into acting. But we were obviously very keen that he keep going here, and then he was too. And like Rob said, I love the way that he [ultimately] did it. It was April the 28th, 2022, and he sat everybody down and obviously Rob and I had spoken to him in the weeks [leading up to that], so we knew, but he had all 170 people and he sat them down and he said, “Look, this has been the greatest time of my life, but I want to be honest with everyone: In a year’s time, I’m going to leave this show and I want to give you a year to get your head around that and be able to plan.” And what a luxury that was. It also unleashed him a little bit for this last year because it was like, “I got one more year and I’m going to throw the kitchen sink at it and we’re going to have the greatest time ever.” And so it wasn’t about, “Oh, maybe I should be in that movie or maybe I should go and do that show.” Instead, he was like, “No, this year is for this.” And it’s been brilliant.
It’s ironic that here we are, eight years later, and James is the one heading back to the U.K., and you, Ben, are the one staying put in the U.S. When we first spoke, eight years ago, your plan did not entail staying here very long …
Winston: I know! I did a nine-month lease. (Laughs.) The idea was that Rob and I would work together, we’d set up the show and I would do it with him for six months and then I’d leave him to it. I think in my deal I had something like, I’d come back once every six weeks for three days for a year. And now here I am, I have two American children, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, and Fulwell, our company, is doing well here and we like it. But yeah, it is bizarre that James is the one going back to the U.K. and I’m the one who’s staying because I was the one who was like, “We shouldn’t be leaving London,” and he was all, “Let’s go on an adventure.”
I’m sure you’ve been doing a lot of reflecting in recent weeks and months. What are the moments that you still can’t believe you pulled off?
Crabbe: Well, there are things like getting invited to the White House by Michelle Obama to do a “Carpool Karaoke,” which is pretty shocking, or getting invited by the Biden administration to go back to the White House for James to work as his assistant. And then there’s other stuff that are just little personal highlights — comedy bits in the studio that don’t get as much attention, like one where James and Kristen Wiig are singing “Hallelujah,” but she didn’t know how to pronounce “hallelujah.” Or we did a sketch with Jamie Dornan, where it turned out that James was like a train obsessive, and it was 50 Shades of Trains. And then there’s also the stuff like jumping out of a plane with Tom Cruise that will always stand out.
Winston: I think looking at Michelle Obama as she throws a dodgeball at Benedict Cumberbatch and Harry Styles was definitely one of those moments where I was like, “How did we get here?!” But I think the stuff that keeps my heart pumping are those moments where you see how great the team is because you come up with something on the day. I remember the day that Trump had COVID and he went on a ride in the car and he had a driver and security and they were all in the car with him and it was so shocking because, at that time, COVID was so lethal. I remember there were about three or four hours to go before we taped and somebody said, “Why don’t we do a parody song?” Do you remember who it was, Rob, so we give credit where it’s due? We parodied “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney.
Crabbe: It was Lawrence Dai.
Winston: Yes! And so James sang a song called, “Maybe I’m Immune,” which was written in three hours. And it’s worth watching that back because it’s such a beautiful song and it’s so poignantly done and then it has footage of Trump during it. (Laughs.) And I remember being in the edit suite in the basement and the show has to get fed by 9: 35 p.m. because it’s on then in New York, so we’re literally cutting it down to the wire, and your heart is pumping and it’s those days that are really exciting. And then selfishly, when there’s a movie star you love, like Matt Damon coming and doing a sketch about James being his body double and stunt double and he throws him off a roof. Or when Arsenal Football Club, which is my absolute love — I’ve been going to Arsenal games since I was 4 — is coming to L.A. for a preseason trip and because the show’s doing well, you can call up Arsenal Football Club and say, “Hey, how about we do a sketch with you?” And they’re like, “My God, that would be amazing to be on The Late Late Show.” And I’m just hanging out with all these Arsenal players, which was insane, and which meant nothing to our American team. They were like, “Why are we doing this?” Rob definitely didn’t come out on that Sunday afternoon.
Crabbe: I did not recognize one person. (Laughs.)
Anything on your bucket list that you didn’t get to do?
Crabbe: It would’ve been nice to have Beyoncé in the car.
What happened there?
Crabbe: Schedules just never quite aligned but that would’ve been a fun one. Personally, I would’ve liked to have had Bruce Springsteen in the car.
Winston: Well, he gave us a date, but it was during the summer that we couldn’t do.
Wait, so you stiffed The Boss?!
Winston: No, no, no. (Laughs.) I can’t even remember what happened …
Crabbe: It was nothing dramatic, just a scheduling issue.
Winston: I think with Beyoncé, she does things in such a different way. Like, she doesn’t do promo, really. She doesn’t need to. Think about her last album, that monster hit album, name one promo. She didn’t even do a music video. So, we always knew it was gonna be hard to get her singing in a car, but we would’ve loved it. It’s all good though. I know she’s a fan of the show and she’s always been really lovely and responsive and we’d been close a couple of times, but it wasn’t meant to be. This is going to sound arrogant, and I don’t mean it to, but when we look back, we’ve done so many things that have been beyond of our wildest dreams — even in our finale week, what happens with Adele in the car, what we do with Tom Cruise on The Lion King, and we have a sketch that we’re not telling anybody about, which I think will really shock people, and then we have Harry Styles and Will Ferrell having fun with us. And so I think if you’re going to take all of that, which is a dream come true, and you’re going to go, “Ah, it’s a real shame we didn’t get, like, Leonardo DiCaprio to do ‘Role Call,’” then you’re in the wrong business.
Ben, before an @Midnight reboot was revealed, you had said publicly that you wanted to produce the follow-up, but it wasn’t up to you. “I’ve just got to hope that our pitch is better than another pitch.” So, I have to know, what was your pitch?
Winston: I think we had a really good pitch. I don’t think it was cost-effective for the network.
Times have changed …
Winston: Times have changed. I’ll answer it with a bigger answer because I do think it’s linked and I’m going to toot James’ horn for a second, but I have a point. When James came here, he was an utter unknown. He started from nowhere. He didn’t have that, like, “He’s off SNL, so let’s give him a month or two,” or “He used to be on The Daily Show, so let’s give him a month or two.” We had to come out absolutely fighting to convince people of how great he could be immediately. And we did. I mean, it was wild how much we did in those first few weeks. “Role Call” was night one, “Carpool [Karaoke]” was night two, I think “Crosswalk [The Musical]” was night three. It was bonkers, really. I think now, in the environment that we are in, it’s going to be very difficult to find someone who can do what James has done — to find somebody who has that ability, somebody who isn’t the most expensive star in the world because no one knows who they are, to come here and generate the income that he has, whether it be with spinoffs or merch or international sales or product placement or all of the things that we’ve done to make The Late Late Show work. I think to do that again is near impossible. I think he’s a unicorn. So, therefore, you have choices. You either need to get a massive star, which is an expensive thing to do.
And nobody seems willing to do that anymore …
Winston: Right, or you need to break an unknown. And if you’re trying to break an unknown, you need to take a $15 million to $20 million swing just on marketing, building the set, getting the team together, giving that person a year’s wage, and that is a huge expense. And in two weeks, it might not have worked and then you’re dead because it hasn’t worked in those two weeks, and you don’t have the cachet of your previous fame to make sure you stay on air so that you can eventually get it right. What happened with James is almost like a once-in-a-lifetime thing where his ability and genius led to the success that we’ve had. So, was it worth CBS keeping The Late Late Show on air with James? Yes, because it was something that could keep generating income in various ways. But is it worth trying to do what James did again, which I think is near impossible? Probably not. And so maybe instead you go for something that is on the slightly cheaper side, where there’s less pressure on it to do well and it doesn’t necessarily need to get the numbers or the online ratings or the spinoffs to pay for itself. And so, yeah, I can understand why CBS has gone with a format, and I think it will be successful in that time slot. I get it. And the conversations that we had were really friendly; it was less about us pitching and getting turned down, because we still have a CBS first-look deal for another two or three years and we all decided that our time would be better spent doing other shows with them.
Rob, you’ve spent the bulk of your career in late night. What’s next for you?
Crabbe: A nap! It’s been a pretty dizzying eight years because we never really took our foot off the gas after we started, and so I am looking forward to meeting my family. (Laughs.)
Hopefully they are excited to meet you too …
Crabbe: Yeah. (Laughs.) My wife has no idea what it’s going to be like having me around this much. But yeah, I’m going to take a little break and then start thinking about it. I’d love to do more late night. I’ve always enjoyed doing it. I’ve done four or five of these shows, so we’ll see what comes down the path.
I’m curious, what happens to the show’s YouTube channel, which has nearly 30 million subscribers? Does that just go away?
Winston: It’s a great question, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. We need to get to the bottom of it. It’s a CBS and Fulwell conversation, and we [started to talk] about it about a week or two ago. It’s not going to go away instantly. We’re going to work out what we do with all of that because those clips are going to become more and more precious over time. Even just looking back at some of the stuff that we’ve done with people who maybe are no longer here or who have risen in stardom since the interview. We were looking last night, and Billie Eilish’s first-ever TV performance was on The Late Late Show. She was a total unknown and she came on and performed and, on air, James was like, “You’re going to be the biggest thing in the world.” Next thing you know, she’s doing a “Carpool” with us. Or I was laughing the other week with Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello — whether they’re back together or not, I don’t know — but the first time that people saw them on TV together was on our show. They did a song, they weren’t together, and James sits in the middle and he goes, “Why aren’t you two together? You’re both great. You should be a thing.” And that clip is from, like, 2015 or 2016, and it’s wild to rewatch.
Winston: And then last night on the show, we revisited a bit that we did on our 18th-ever episode. James, remember, was a total unknown in America and we filmed it before we even went on air, so he ran around the streets of L.A. grabbing guys and saying, “Are you single?” And he found one who said he was, and then James was like, “We’re gonna find you a date.” And we walked around L.A. with them going up to people saying, “Would you go on a date with this guy?” And he found this girl. Anyway, it was an average bit. We never did it again. That was show 18 and here we are, 1,200 shows later. But [the couple] came back on the show last night, eight years later, because they’ve been married for three years and we gave them the wedding reception they never had [because of the pandemic]. And Expedia has very sweetly given them a bonkers honeymoon to anywhere in the world and Norah Jones, who is their favorite star, performed for them. It was a really, really beautiful moment and it’s just crazy because we think our lives have changed from this show but these people’s lives have changed too.
Had you kept in touch with the couple?
Crabbe: We’ve sort of kept in touch with them and tracked them a little bit. One of our producers followed them on social media, and when they got engaged, it was hysterical around here because we couldn’t believe it. I mean, it never stopped blowing our minds and, like, for Corden, the idea that he randomly introduced two people on the street that then fell in love and got married and could procreate is beyond the legacy of, like, a “Carpool.”
Winston: And what’s crazy is that we only did it once. It’s insane. And it was really like Rob says, one of the producers followed them [on social media] and I remember like six years ago, they’d run into our office going, “Oh, my God, you remember that couple? They’ve moved in together!” And then a year later, “Oh, my God, they’ve got a dog.” Then, “Oh, my God, they’re engaged.” And then during COVID, it was like, “They’ve gotten married!” And three years later, here we are.
Crabbe: I cleaned my desk out and I had a photo of their proposal because someone printed it out. I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s that couple.”
I know you have to go — there’s a final show to produce. But I’m curious, what’s the plan once you wrap?
Crabbe: We’re going to have a wrap party tomorrow night with the staff and crew. It’s going to be a tearful party or a joyful party. [Definitely] a drunken party.