It began with a toothbrush. During a late-March episode of The Late Late Show With James Corden, the host reached for his coffee mug only to find an Oral-B protruding from it. “What’s this? What has happened here?” he asked in a comically high voice. Bandleader Reggie Watts denied putting it there and nobody in the crew could say how it got there, until pop heartthrob Shawn Mendes walked out and owned up to it, to deafening screams in the audience.
“I must have just left it after soundcheck,” he said. “You know, after music, dental hygiene is my number-one priority.” He smiles toothily at the audience. Once people caught on that it was a sketch, Corden and Mendes used it as a platform to announce the singer’s four-night residency on the program this week. Mendes, who went on to debut his new single “In My Blood” later in the episode, was “moving in.”
“It was definitely a big get for us to have him premiere his first single for the first time on our show,” Late Late Show producer Diana Miller tells Rolling Stone the next day. “The residency was a group decision with James and our executive producers. Ultimately, James is like, ‘I love Shawn Mendes, and I want the show to be a place of new music and youth in general,’ so doing it was a no brainer. James had the idea the day before of how the [announcement] would play out. He just talked out an idea that was similar to what we did, like, ‘I love it when you’re here. Will you stick around?'”
Since Corden’s Late Late Show premiered in 2015, Miller has worked on booking the musical guests for the program. She works with the writers and other producers when the artists do skits, like “Flinch” – in which Mendes and the night’s other guests tried not to spill a drink while the host catapulted fruit at them – or got silly with Corden in his signature “Carpool Karaoke” franchise. It’s a demanding job (when Miller spoke to Rolling Stone in late March, she was already booking June) but it’s one she’s been able to adapt to ever since she got her start.
Miller began her career in 2001 as a talent booker for Last Call With Carson Daly, a job she scored just after graduating college when a publicist friend referred her for an assistant position. She started out by booking comedians but moved over to music when the opportunity arose. “I remember my first list of ideas and they looked at me, like, ‘What do you think? Do you feel good about it?’ and that contributed to what I try to do for our team [at The Late Late Show], which is a sense of accountability,” she says. “It’s the ability not only to trust my own instincts but to develop them.” After leaving Carson, she freelanced for a few years at MTV and NPR and decided she missed talent booking, so when she heard Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show was coming to an end, she got a meeting with the head of late night at CBS, who hired her.
“It was really hard getting it off the ground officially because nobody knew who James was,” she recalls. “I remember him coming into my office with his idea for ‘Carpool Karaoke,’ and I didn’t understand it. And he was like, ‘Why won’t anyone do this?’ I mean, it was a big risk to put all the guests on the couch at the same time. Ultimately, it was a great decision and it differentiated us from other shows.” The program has since found its footing and regularly pulls in numbers just behind NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers.
With Mendes’ residency running this week, Miller spoke with us about her everyday responsibilities and how the challenges she faces have changed since she started out. “It can be stressful, but it’s fun,” she says. “I just feel very fortunate to work on a show that I really like and I think is really good.”
What does a day in the life of a music booker consist of?
When you work in late night, you have to feed the beast. Every day you’re putting on a new show, and you don’t have much time to think. You’ve got the show that night and you also need to plan for shows down the line.
Monday through Thursday, we have a production meeting at 10:30 and then, from there, my job is a lot of preproduction. Then the bands are arriving and sound-checking, so I’m constantly balancing a lot of e-mails and phone calls and doing a lot of a research. I try to get as much information as I can independently – looking at a tour schedule, keeping up to date with what’s going on in the world and getting face-to-face time with the people I work with. It’s very different every day. It’s a lot of running around. I mean I often joke with our team, like, “Who the hell is on the show today?” [Laughs]. By the time I get there, my head is in June and planning and then I’m like, “What day is today?” and switching back and forth.”
What is your standard stress level?
It depends. I remember in my early days, I was literally going to throw up at any moment from the pressure. But experience has changed things. There’s always going to be weeks where the pressure is really on, and you’ve got to find and deliver a great artist. So that’s when it’s pretty off the charts. But I like being busy, because that’s when it feels less stressful – like a feeling that there’s action that I can take as opposed to waiting for something. It’s the most stressful when it’s a situation you can’t control.
Yesterday, when Shawn Mendes was on, it was particularly busy and there were just 50 things happening at the same time that were equally demanding of my full attention. As much as I’m like, “Uh, stop,” you get into the flow where you don’t have time to think. Then today, I woke up and it’s a day off and I’m like, “What was I so stressed about yesterday?”
What do you look for when you’re picking the artists for the show?
I’m very conscious of the music needing to translate to television. And I know the way it’s seen online is equally important. This isn’t radio. Our viewers aren’t listening to music in the car by themselves. It’s visual and needs to be entertaining, so I love anything visual. Our production team is incredible and goes above and beyond when it comes to presenting the artist.
How much has your job changed with viral video becoming a major force in the last decade or so?
Majorly [laughs]. We broadcast at 12:30 and that’s when we quote-unquote “launch our content.” Because the show started in the post-Internet world, we were able to embrace it right out of the gate. Our producers and James are really focused on coming out with nuggets of clips and producing our show in a way that would translate to the Internet. It’s definitely been a huge asset, too, because now the opportunity of having an artist like Shawn Mendes is not just about broadcast numbers.
Most of my job has always been about the broadcast. Now it’s not only YouTube views but it’s also media attention and it’s what people are talking about and looking at the next day, what’s being covered. So that’s a huge opportunity and something I think we do really well. It’s one of our biggest strengths, and I think that’s another reason why artists do the show. Something like “Carpool Karaoke” is essentially, like, a viral bit.
Has it changed how you look at artists?
Yes. I remember in the early days of Carson one of our producers would ask, “How many MySpace viewers or fans do artists have?” And I was like, “What is that?” All of a sudden, we had data. But beyond that, I like to see what people are responding to by way of our YouTube page. It’s such a useful tool, and it’s something we definitely pay attention to.
Does James Corden give you suggestions about whom to book?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Not often, but I love it when he’ll be like, “Book this person.” I remember one time, it was, like, 11 o’clock at night, and he was like, “Book Rich Chigga,” who was then going as Rich Brian. I don’t even need to ask him why or clarify. I just did it because I know and found out later that, like, Ed Sheeran told him about this guy. I don’t caution it because he’s so right. But I know what he likes at this point. I can see it in his face now after an artist performs if he likes it and what he doesn’t. He doesn’t micromanage, but he loves music.
How did booking Shawn Mendes’ March appearance and the June residency come together?
He is somebody who has done the show a couple of times and we just love him, and hopefully he loves us [laughs]. In my mind, it came together sort of organically because of that. James and our executive producers had an opportunity to hear the new record [Shawn Mendes] and really explore all sides of it. The residency was a group decision.
We were initially going to do the performance [in March] because we knew he would be coming back and we wanted to save a lot of the fun stuff for when he comes back in June, but we were like, ‘Shawn Mendes is here. Let’s do something fun.’ So we did “Flinch” with him, which is such a funny game.
There is a funny story behind “Flinch.” Before we did it the first time, we’d tested it all day long and not a single person could not flinch. But we had Don Cheadle, William H. Macy and Matt LeBlanc on and those three actors did not flinch. We were like, “How is this possible?” But we stuck with it, and now we’ve played it with BTS, Fifth Harmony, Harry Styles and Victoria Beckham and it’s just so silly and fun.
Is it easy to get artists to sign onto something like “Flinch”?
Yeah. Typically artists want to do comedy. Usually when I’m booking an artist months or weeks out, the writers will look at me crazy if I say, “We need ideas for something that’s not happening for three months,” so I try to manage expectations, but I’ll suggest something like, “Let’s do a ‘Riff Off’ with Demi Lovato,” and it’s easier. But the talent has said no. Sometimes I’ll hear, “She wants to focus on her performance and save her voice,” and that’s OK, too.
How hard do you have to sell artists on especially silly ideas?
It’s great because you have to explain it. With Lady Gaga, we pitched her on all these ideas and she was like, “Are you kidding? What are you talking about?” And once she understood the opportunity, what I call the “James being silly” beat, they embrace it. If you watch the Gaga one, the ideas was that James was just going to wear a lot of her looks and she was going to not even acknowledge that he was wearing a meat dress. The initial reaction was, “No, we don’t want to do that. We’ve already done the meat dress.” But when you see it in the context of James doing it, it’s a different ask, and it ended up being a really funny part of it. With Harry Styles, we did some costume changes. And with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, James just takes off his shirt. Like, who are you, James Corden? [Laughs]. It’s hysterical.
How much of your job is “Carpool Karaoke”?
It’s a significant part of it, because I always work on the Apple Music series.
Has it become easier now that it’s become a hit?
Definitely. There are always going to be certain artists we want, like the Beyoncés, Taylor Swifts and Drakes of the world, but that goes back to logistics. James puts a lot of time into learning the songs he has to do. But yeah, there’s a lot more interest on the artist side than when we started.
What are your favorite moments from “Carpool Karaoke”?
They’re always so funny. The Red Hot Chili Peppers was an episode that James genuinely enjoyed. We were in the middle of this bit where they’re outside having a dance-off and buying fruit from a little street vendor on this random residential street in L.A., and this woman yelled out in distress. We were all still in the car but you could hear this person yelling, and James and the band rushed out to the rescue. Anthony [Kiedis] ended up telling the story, but we didn’t use it in the piece.
And it’s just fun seeing what James comes up with as far as comedy goes with the bits. He just sees the comedy in certain songs in a way I wouldn’t expect. The team I work with on the Apple series has fun coming up with ideas. So we’ll talk about how we had Sia balance eggs. Or we’d say with Ed Sheeran, it would be interesting to go to him like, “We would like you to shove 50 malt balls in your mouth and see how many of them fit.” The context of “Carpool” is bizarre but, once you’ve seen it, you understand it.
It sounds like a particularly fun challenge to get people interested in doing wacky things.
A lot of my job is communicating and providing context to really silly ideas. I spend a lot of time negotiating those little bits and the cover songs. Honestly, when it comes to that kind of stuff, we just don’t use anything that’s not funny.
My favorite thing is when we show an audience a “Carpool.” I’ll often wait and not watch it because I’d rather watch it with the audience and hear them laugh and enjoy it. It’s the reward for all of the effort that goes into it.