Thanks to the success of shows like Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, which grew out of a segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, audiences are preparing for solo series based around the most viral part of networks’ late-night shows.
The Late Late Show host James Corden has done this with two of his most popular segments: “Carpool Karaoke” and “Drop the Mic.” The former will hit Apple Music on August 8 while the latter will air on TBS starting October 26 and features co-hosts Method Man and Hailey Baldwin.
At TBS’ Television Critics Association press day on Thursday, Corden and others involved in the series reflected upon how a legendary street showdown made its way to basic cable.
“It was an idea that started on The Late Late Show with James, and he came to us with this thought of having a rap battle against ourselves… it was one of those things that blew up,” says series executive producer Ben Winston.
He says they’ve shot seven episodes so far and have nine left. And the guest stars are handling the pressure pretty well.
Jensen Karp, another executive producer, says some guests, like Randall Park and Vanessa Hudgens, “can spit” already and don’t need much training. Wayne Brady free-styled his performance. Others, like This is Us star Chrissy Metz, come in with ideas and collaborated with rap battle experts and writers.
“As far as getting them in the mindset of ‘this is a rap battle,’ we do this in a very credible way,” Karp says. “No one’s going out there and saying ‘my name is Vanessa and I’m here to say….’”
He says he wants fans of rap to appreciate that it’s not corny and is an actual rap battle. He concedes, however, that guest stars get nervous when they realize they have to rap in front of a legend like Method Man.
Corden jokes that his dream battle would be Judi Dench versus Maggie Smith; just “dame on dame going at it and saying everything they’ve dreamed of saying for the last 30 years.”
“For me, the tradition into TV… it’s all entertainment,” the Wu Tang Clan member says. “I don’t think there’s any line drawn that I can’t cross and still do me. I mean, Snoop Dogg does everything. I don’t even think you can classify him as a rapper anymore.”
(In fact, Snoop had been on stage earlier that day to promote his new TBS game show, Joker’s Wild).
“That show is so much than just a battle,” says Method Man, referencing that show’s game, “Pick up and Kill It.” “Plus, for us it’s a fish-out-of-water show. A lot of the guests that Nick brings on are musically inclined. With the guests that we bring on, not all of them are musicians. We have actors, hell, we’ll even put an astronaut on there if he has the guts to get up there and spit.”
“I don’t think it is a mean-spirited thing in the sense of, if you watch a roast on television,” Corden says. “That’s just a bunch of hits and barbs while someone just sits and takes it. The beauty of this is the atmosphere in the room and [the] attitude of our hosts is absolute joy and fun. If you come at it with joy and fun and give someone an opportunity to respond, then you never ever feel [like that], and I think it will get less and less like that as the show grows.”
In fact, says Karp, guest Mayim Bialik argued that the writers are going too soft on her.
Plus, Baldwin argues, the guests know what kind of shows they’re coming onto.
“I think it has a lot to do with conditioning, because they condition themselves to be in the ring, and you can’t make a whole album worth of battle raps,” Method Man says. “As far as mainstream guys, like myself, we tend to think of the song first and book first.”
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Esquire, Elle, Complex, Vulture, Marie Claire, Toronto Star and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and very photogenic cat.