Here’s the story of how a once promising young banker used his Auburn finance degree to create a pop culture phenomenon and win three Emmys and counting, exactly as planned.
It starts in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
It was 1992, Pat Dye’s last year at the helm. Wins were scarce. Sanctions loomed. But Oct. 31 was still a football Saturday in Auburn. That’s all it took.
“Everybody in my family went to Auburn—parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents,” Rob Crabbe, 42, says. “Everybody went to Auburn. And because of that, I wasn’t going to go to Auburn.”
Crabbe grew up in Virginia. Family trips to Alabama—mom and dad both grew up in Birmingham—had him convinced he’d like to spend college in the Deep South…as long as it wasn’t at Crabbe U.
He thought he’d decided on Emory. He had a healthy appetite for pop culture; Atlanta would be a buffet. Then he went for a visit. Turns out the city that was about to have the busiest airport in the world didn’t exactly have the southern charm he’d imagined.
“My dad asked me to humor him, and Auburn was playing Arkansas the weekend I was at Emory, so we drove over for the game,” Crabbe says. “It was just incredible.”
Final score: Auburn 24-Arkansas 24—a tie, sure, but an exciting tie. James Bostic ran for 211 yards, the best single-game performance from an Auburn running back since the days of Bo Jackson. Adding to the magic? Bo was actually there; they retired his jersey at halftime.
“I’d been to Auburn a bunch as a kid, but I hadn’t looked at it through the prism of actually going to school there,” Crabbe says. “So going on an SEC football weekend, I just loved it. The campus was beautiful, and I just kind of saw it through new eyes.”
He packed his bags for the Plains, pledged FIJI, and suited up for Auburn’s club lacrosse team. During the day it was class, studying, and “Law and Order” reruns. On Thursday night, it was “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” and “E.R.” Friday nights meant frat parties.
In 1997, he graduated with a degree in finance. Not media studies, not theater—finance.
The rest is late night history.
IT WASN’T JUST BECAUSE he had to pick something. It wasn’t just a Plan B. Sure, he knew it was something he could fall back on. But from the moment he stepped into Lowder with the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly or Premiere or Movieline in his backpack, Crabbe was convinced a finance degree would actually be the secret to his success, not in stocks—in show business.
“I just thought having a sense of numbers and budgets would come in handy,” Crabbe says. “I thought I’d graduate from Auburn, go out to L.A., try it out. Because…if I went straight into a finance job, I never would have scratched this itch of working in entertainment.”
He still jumped through the business school hoops. Summer internships at NASDAQ. All that stuff.
“I was a promising young banker,” he laughs. “I was even on the Alabama Young Bankers Association Scholarship. I got my name on a plaque in the business school and everything.”
On paper, he was headed straight to Wall Street.
Instead, the promising young banker cranked up the Notorious B.I.G., turned left, and followed his dream.
The company he’d interned for thought they had the wrong number.
“They actually called me about a job when I was driving out to Los Angeles with all my stuff in the car, and they couldn’t understand why I was going out to try entertainment when I had an opportunity at NASDAQ,” Crabbe says. “I remember him saying ‘when you finish this Jack Kerouac thing you’re on, give us a call.’”
Calling it a “Jack Kerouac thing” wasn’t that far off. He was 22, on the road to Los Angeles, with no contacts, no prospects, no bed. He finally found a floor to crash on while he looked for a job.
Thankfully, the three women in charge of what in 1997 NBC was calling “electronic publicity” liked how he talked.
“They point blank told me that they hired me because of my southern accent and they liked the idea of a southern guy answering their phones.”
It wasn’t exactly a dream job. But in the Must See TV days, just sweeping NBC’s floors would have seemed like the bigtime.
“At the time, NBC had nothing but hit shows,” Crabbe says. “My job would be to go to the set of ‘Friends’ and make sure Jennifer Aniston did her interview with ‘Entertainment Tonight’—stuff like that.”
For a while, the only number-crunching Crabbe did was at the craft services tables on set, counting how many M&M’s he could eat. Then, about two years later, it happened.
The line producer for CBS’ “Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn” needed an assistant. Line producers handle budgets.
Where’d you go to school? What was your major?
AFTER THREE YEARS OF TRYING to scratch the itch, Crabbe finally reached it. A year into assisting Kilborn’s line producer, he was hired internally to be one of the “Late, Late Show” researchers, which meant coming in at 7 a.m. to do something he’d mastered in college—pour over entertainment industry magazines. And that meant a chance, however small, for creative contributions.
If Crabbe saw something interesting in Variety or Hollywood Reporter, he’d run it up the “Late, Late” flagpole. Maybe it’d make it on the show.
“I would submit for Five Questions, which was that iteration of the show’s signature bit,” Crabbe says. “Occasionally I would get one on, and that was thrilling. [Foo Fighters frontman] Dave Grohl once fired me on air. He contested a piece of my research that Craig Kilborn used in his interview, and had me brought out and fired on air. It was good natured and I chatted with him (Grohl) and his mom for about an hour after the show, but in the moment I thought I might actually be getting fired.”
If he had been, things probably would have been fine. Because, according to Variety, Carson Daly was hiring.
“I read that Carson Daly, who was this massive star of (MTV’s) ‘TRL,’ was going to start a late night show in on NBC in New York that was going to be long-form interviews with musicians.”
Crabbe loved the music side of things, so “Last Call with Carson Daly” sounded almost too good to be true. He applied and got it—a job with “producer” in the title. He was an associate producer not just on a late-night show built around music, but one he’d actually help create from scratch.
“It was just fun to be in New York City making a show in the hallowed halls of 30 Rock,” Crabbe says. “It was like an extension
of college. I was the oldest person on the staff and I was 26. It was just like giving the kids the keys to the castle, and also Carson was just massive in New York at the time, and it was just fun to be in your mid-20s, out on the town.”
Over the next five years, Crabbe became a New Yorker. When Daly decided to take the show to L.A., he knew he couldn’t go back, even if it meant being temporarily unemployed. After four months filling in at Letterman for an executive producer on maternity leave, he was officially a freelancer. He worked on some pilots for MTV. They never took off. Neither did “My Kind of Town,” a primetime game show-reality TV hybrid ABC thought would be their big summer show of 2005. It was cancelled after three episodes. “It was,” Crabbe says, “a nightmare of a show.”
After that, it was more freelancing. The whole “web presence” thing was really becoming important to people. He handled an online campaign for General Motors and some other companies. Other than that, the finance major in him remembers that stretch as “pretty lean times.”
Thanks to his work with Daly, he eventually landed a freelance writing gig for MTV competitor Fuse, which turned into Supervising Producer of Music Programming. He was back to doing live studio shows. Things were good again.
In 2009, when Jimmy Fallon got the nod to take over NBC’s ‘Late Night,’ they got a lot better.
“I knew Jimmy socially from when I was doing ‘Last Call’ because we shared an office with ‘SNL,’” Crabbe says.
He’d also become good friends with Michael Shoemaker, at the time an ‘SNL’ producer second only to Lorne Michaels.
“I’d sort of forced him to be my mentor when I was at ‘Last Call.’ I’d always scheduled meetings with him and chatted with him, and he was going to be the showrunner for Jimmy Fallon.”
Which meant Crabbe could be segment producer, helping create another show from scratch. In late night, that’s pretty rare. For Crabbe, it had now happened twice.
In 2014, it happened again.
A year earlier, Crabbe and Co. transitioned Fallon’s surprisingly successful ‘Late Night’ format to late night’s Mount Olympus. He got bumped from segment producer to supervising producer, earned some Emmy nominations, and helped turn “The Tonight Show” into a ratings juggernaut among 18- to 49-year-olds. Professionally, he was almost on top of the world.
Then some immensely talented guy he’d never heard of named James Corden came calling with an opportunity to create a show that, even if it was back in L.A.—even if it meant leaving “The Tonight Show”—he couldn’t pass up.
Robbe Crabbe has entertained you and probably half the people you know.
DO YOU GO ON THE INTERNET? Have you clicked on one of those videos of Adele or Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus singing along to their own songs on the radio while that British dude drives them around? If so, Rob Crabbe has entertained you, and probably half the people you know.
Carpool Karaoke is by far the most popular bit on the increasingly popular “Late, Late Show with James Corden,” thanks, in part, to the show’s former line producer’s assistant turned researcher turned—15 years later—Executive Producer Rob Crabbe.
The simple concept entered the cultural lexicon almost immediately after the show premiered in March 2015. Every video goes viral. In just over a year, “The Late, Late Show’s” YouTube channel topped a billion views; now it’s pushing 4 billion. In addition to spawning a 16-episode series available to Apple Music subscribers, Carpool Karaoke got its own CBS primetime special in 2016 and another in 2017.
Rob Crabbe, former promising young banker, won an Emmy for both of them. He also got an Emmy for the “Late, Late Show” winning Outstanding Interactive Program in its very first year.
He keeps those at home. He keeps the Critics Choice Award for Best Talk Show and the Producer of the Year Award from the Producer’s Guild (from his ‘Tonight Show’ days) in his office, which is about 12 feet away from where he started his first job in late night, helping the man who handled the budgets.
Now he’s the man who handles the budgets. He handles everything. Thank you Raymond J. Harbert College of Business.
“Yeah, it’s kind of like running a mid-size company,” Crabbe says. “There’s probably 140 or 150 people who work here, and we (he and producing partner Ben Winston) oversee every aspect of the show. All the creative of the show. My day and James Corden’s day are pretty lined up. We’re in meetings together most of the day. Meeting with writers, going through bits, doing monologue jokes. And then structuring what it’s going to be each night, what it’s going to be each week. Making sure the field teams are taken care of, making sure the crew is all set, managing our budget. Just every sort of aspect of putting the show together on a nightly basis.”
It keeps him busy, but don’t worry.
“I have all my Auburn alerts set on my phone,” he says.
“I haven’t forgotten.”
He has Auburn hats. His two kids (pictured below)—seven-year-old Henry, and five-year-old Lila—have Auburn clothes. His grill has an Auburn cover.
“I throw it (Auburn) around a lot,” he says. “I still watch every football game.”
He did not, however, watch Auburn’s 52-20 win over Arkansas in October, almost 25 years to the day after the Auburn-Arkansas game that made his college decision for him. He couldn’t. He was flying home from vacationing in Vienna. Not exactly a Jack Kerouac thing.
“You should call that NASDAQ guy back and ask him to invest some of your money,” I tell him. He laughs.
“Yeah, I know,” he says. “I wonder what ol’ Jerry is up to…”