According to Kevin Hart, “your clothes are a clear virsitation of who you are.” That’s the closest I could translate from his interview on First We Feast’s Hot Ones in 2016, after host Sean Evans asks him how he approaches fashion in his comedy shows. By this point, Hart has just eaten his ninth chicken wing, this one coated in Mad Dog 357 hot sauce, which clocks in at about 357,000 Scoville units. His eyes have turned glassy, and his quick, snappy demeanor has shifted as though his blood has been replaced with molasses. He thinks his tongue has stopped working.
This is exactly how Hot Ones — “the show with hot questions and even hotter wings” — is supposed to work. If you’ve never seen the hit YouTube show, now in its 17th season, the premise is deceptively simple. All celebrities have to do is eat 10 hot wings, each doused in a progressively hotter sauce, while Evans eats along with them and asks them questions. The result, typically, is celebrities losing their minds, sweating, crying, coughing, chugging milk, cursing out their agents, and barely able to hear the last few questions Evans asks.
At the time of his appearance on Hot Ones in October 2016, Hart was promoting the standup tour What Now?, which went on to gross $100 million worldwide. In the previous year and a half, he’d starred in Get Hard with Will Ferrell and Central Intelligence with Dwayne Johnson, whom he teamed up with again for 2017’s remake of Jumanji, which was probably filming around the same time that he made his Hot Ones appearance. Already on the A-list, Hart could have gone on any traditional talk show or spoken directly to his fans through social media to promote his projects. So why did he — or any of the A-list, Oscar-nominated, or generally thriving celebrities with their pick of media opportunities — feel the need to subject himself to a YouTube show that, three episodes later, caused comedian Bobby Lee to shit his pants on camera?
Since its creation by Complex Media in 2015, Hot Ones has turned from a semi-prank show cracking jokes in a semi-populated corner of the internet to a heavy hitter on the talk-show circuit, and more than most celebrity entertainment, it’s actually entertaining. It’s where viral celebrity moments are made, from Idris Elba choking and crying to Lorde iconically and calmly eating all her wings like she’s popping something as mild as marshmallows. It’s also where celebrities face a sort of forced vulnerability, opening up about personal or private subjects they might not otherwise, all thanks to Evans’s thoughtful questions and the capsaicin-induced mania. By throwing wings into the mix, Hot Ones became the talk show for the 21st century.
Sean Evans has told the show’s origin story multiple times: One day in 2015, First We Feast general manager Chris Schonberger asked him, “What do you think of a show where we interview celebrities while making them eat violently hot chicken wings?” The phrase “violently hot chicken wings” is what sold Evans, but this was at a time when much of digital media was beginning a “pivot to video,” as the Verge wrote in 2019. “Goosed largely by Facebook’s exaggerated video metrics, news publishers had begun to change their editorial strategies to boost their user engagement, which they could then use to sell advertisers on higher ad rates.” Digital publishers were throwing every idea into video and seeing what would stick.
At the time, Schonberger was trying to build up the First We Feast brand, and Evans was working as an anchor at Complex News. The two didn’t know each other that well, but Schonberger says he had a sense Evans was the man for his weird idea. Speaking to Eater, Schonberger describes Evans as having a Midwestern sensibility that makes him “extremely relatable, but also had this undercurrent of sense of humor… he was very good at creating space for humor.” He also was doing a lot of stunt journalism at the time — trying the Rock’s diet, playing sports against professionals, and often putting his body on the line. Hot wings would be up his alley. (Though it almost didn’t end up that way. Schonberger says the last line in his pitch email about Hot Ones was “I could do the interview, or Sean Evans.”)
More than his willingness to punish himself physically, Evans shared with Schonberger a curiosity about the celebrity-interview format. The two were fans of interviewers who maintained a bit of aloofness during their interviews—Evans of Howard Stern and David Letterman, and Schonberger of, as well as British presenters Alexa Chung and Simon Amstell. They weren’t trying to impress their guests, and they weren’t afraid to ask questions that might rattle them. But “the main thing was the hook,” says Schonberger. “We were like, ‘Celebrity interviews are boring. How do we not make them not boring?’ Here’s a disruptive element.”
The powers that be at Complex largely stayed out of their way, according to Evans, or at least responded positively to pushback from Evans and Schonberger. Still, the impetus behind a pivot to video — producing short clips to grab the attention of scrollers on Facebook — can be seen in Hot Ones’ first episode, which is just over five minutes long. But its early days are different from the fiery behemoth it would ultimately become. Initially, the wings were served on a round tray, complete with celery sticks and ranch dressing. There was no talk or display of the hot sauces and little drama. The second episode is different, and it’s clear Evans and Schonberger fought for the videos to be longer against the prevailing logic of media experts at the time. But it still took a while to gain momentum. “I used to joke to Chris, like, ‘I’m eating a lot of scorching-hot chicken wings, and no one cares. I don’t know how tenable this is,” says Evans.
The 16th episode (Episode 8 of the show’s second season) featured comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele promoting their feature-length film Keanu. The two brought their signature energies to the wing eating, with Key screaming about what felt like an MMA fight happening in his sinuses and Peele staring into the distance as if he were astral projecting. “Why are you asking the deepest, most referential shit?” demanded Peele after the fourth wing out of five and Key yelling, “I’m having a stroke!”
“[Key and Peele] had a real big breakthrough moment… We woke up the next day, and there’s millions of views on the video, and we’re like, ‘Whoa, what happened?,’” says Evans. And it wasn’t just that episode. Evans says that with Key and Peele, every other episode had huge jumps in its viewership, too: “It’s like this thing was just hidden away, and once someone discovers it, they’re interested in the show and they’re watching it the whole way through. They binge the catalog after they see it.”
The Key and Peele episode is the one that hooked Brett Baker, a Hot Ones superfan and, to date, as he says, “the only person to be on Hot Ones who doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.” Baker immediately adored the concept. “I loved the idea of what the hot wings do… it kind of throws people off their game instead of giving the canned answers that they’re going to give to every other talk show,” he says. Watching late-night too often felt like watching staged conversations, but on Hot Ones there was still an element of surprise.
It wasn’t even the comedy duo sweating and swearing that got Baker’s attention. “The thing that hooked me was Sean Evans,” he tells Eater. Baker, who works in broadcast journalism, was struck by the host’s composed demeanor and dedication to the interview. “He’s still a young guy, but he’s holding his own with two of the bigger, brighter names in Hollywood and comedy, and he’s got them kind of on the ropes… he’s getting some good, deep-dive questions in.”
Evans’s charm is undeniable. It’s thrilling to watch him keep his cool, moving from question to question as his guests beg for mercy. He lets their behavior lead his tone, but he never tries to match their energy. His straight-man persona is what makes the show palatable to people of all ages and backgrounds. You don’t have to be a YouTuber or understand the week’s memes to watch him. When I showed a few episodes to my family, they were all awed by his demeanor. They kept wanting to watch more, asking over and over, “How does he do it?”
More than the wings, it’s the “deep, referential shit” being asked that pulled in viewers. In an interview on the Drew Barrymore Show, Evans says that he, Schonberger, and his younger brother, Gavin, dive into every guest, scouring their social media accounts, their old interviews, and even analyzing their body language to see what kinds of questions will light someone up. This is all to create, Evans says, a space that is “an extension of the guest’s personality. It’s not The Sean Evans Show or The Wings Show. It allows the guest to fill that space naturally.”
He also tells Eater: “There’s a humanizing experience in the whole show, which is taking celebrity, this thing that, by definition, is unobtainable, and then taking that person down to a level that we all understand, which is dying on hot sauce. It ends up being this humanizing experience that I think is unique to its format.”
After the Key and Peele episode, Hot Ones was positioned for ascension and started booking bigger and bigger stars, rounding out the second season with guests like Hart, Tony Hawk, Rachael Ray, and Tom Colicchio. “The Kevin Hart episode is one that … I mean, he was huge,” says Baker. “And as I understand … he really wanted to do it, and so they brought the crew and everybody out to him.” Evans adds, “Hot Ones being embraced by the industry on a higher level, on a more serious level and what we’ve turned into — I think that inflection point was the Charlize Theron episode.” It was one thing to have a slew of comedians and athletes already somewhat in Complex’s orbit, but hosting an Oscar-winning actress took it to a new level of success.
The more episodes there were, the more guests wanted to come on and be seen talking hot sauce and chomping on chicken wings — or, increasingly, their vegetarian counterparts; Evans says the best wings he ever ate were the vegan wings from Temple of Seitan in London, which they got for Russell Brand’s and Ricky Gervais’s episodes. By now, the enthusiasm the guests have for the show is palpable. Schonberger says celebrities come in mentioning Gordon Ramsay’s episode or saying their kids are fans or that they just thought it looked fun and wanted to give it a go. “Dave Grohl said it was SNL that he dreamt of, Letterman that he dreamt of, and now his bucket list was Hot Ones. That was very validating for Dave Grohl to say that,” says Schonberger. “But it also helps you achieve that type of interview because they’re coming to play.”
A combination of the wings, the guests, and Evans has turned Hot Ones into a talk show with an extraordinarily dedicated fandom. That energy is what allows it to compete not just with the traditional late-night circuit but with the rest of streaming, linear TV and a celebrity’s own social media presence. Shortly after Baker started watching, he began making Hot Ones rankings on Twitter, writing short reviews of each show and guest. Soon the drop of Baker’s reviews was almost as anticipated as the episodes themselves among fans. Fans also regularly post themselves doing their own challenges, reviewing hot sauces and pranking their friends.
“We have people that watch, they’re engaged, they watch all the way through,” says Evans, which is no small feat when episodes are regularly over 20 minutes long. That means celebrities can know whatever they want to say is being heard, whether that’s promoting a blockbuster movie or a passion project, and people won’t be zoning out. “You get more out of your time doing Hot Ones than, I would say, any other show out there right now,” says Evans.
On December 11, 2017, Hot Ones removed its interview with chef Mario Batali, which had been up for fewer than three weeks. That day, Eater NY first reported on a slew of sexual misconduct allegations made against Batali by former employees. After the allegations were made public, Batali stepped away from the day-to-day operations of his restaurants, and in 2019 he sold all his restaurant holdings and has remained largely out of the public eye ever since. A rep from Hot Ones confirms Batali’s interview is the only video the show has removed from YouTube and its site.
However, Batali is far from the only Hot Ones guest to have controversies and allegations of misconduct arise. In 2018, Kevin Hart withdrew from hosting the Oscars after Benjamin Lee, an editor at the Guardian, and others pointed out a slew of homophobic tweets the comedian had made mostly between 2009 and 2011. Chris D’Elia, James Franco, Neil deGrasse Tyson, T.J. Miller, and others have all been accused of various forms of sexual misconduct or assault. The allegations gained public attention after these guests appeared on the show, though some scathing evidence, like Hart’s tweets and comments and Franco’s messages to a teen girl, had long been out there had someone looked for it.
Because celebrities are people and many people do bad things, a celebrity-focused talk show must learn how to navigate such controversies as they surface. And talk shows have served as spaces where celebrities go to specifically address their scandals or, more rarely, be confronted by them. But Hot Ones can avoid such questions because, as an internet-based show still considered less culturally relevant than something on network television, it doesn’t have to play by those rules, and so the vibes can always stay weird and positive. When asked about whether the show explicitly won’t bring up certain topics, Evans says, “What we do is we talk to movie stars about movies. We talk to athletes about their sport. We talk to musicians about their records.” The mission is not to catch people at their worst moments but to find out what they want to talk about.
Which, according to Schonberger, is a matter of good entertainment as much as anything else. A good interview happens when someone wants to talk. “If a celebrity doesn’t want to talk about something,” and that could be a movie or a relationship or an offensive statement made in the past, “there seems to be this almost masochistic compulsion in entertainment media to focus on that thing at the expense of all sorts of value that could be brought to an audience,” says Schonberger. “I think part of our approach to Hot Ones is, ‘What’s positive and exciting about this person that we can share with the world and give them a platform to get excited about?’”
Evans is uninterested in forcing people into mea culpas or surprising them with controversy. “There’s probably a part of me that sees good in people. I’m a second-chance person,” he says. “People are complicated. People are imperfect. So, I try not to, not just in the interview but in my life, define people by their mistakes.” The show is also apolitical, which according to superfan Baker, is how it should be, much for the same reasons Schonberger says. Asking people about their politics, or having politicians as guests, makes for “divisive” television, which is not what people turn to Hot Ones to see. “That’s not the show that I think they want to do,” says Baker, “and it doesn’t matter who it is, on one side or the other, there’s going to be half the room that doesn’t want to hear it or see it.”
First We Feast, now hitting its 10th anniversary, has taken the Hot Ones branding beyond the show, into anywhere fans demand it. It debuted its own hot sauce in 2016, on an episode with Joey Fatone, and now sells a variety of sauces and sauce packs through Heatonist. Since 2020, they’ve launched frozen boneless wings, a Truth or Dab card game, and Hot Ones Jr., which may be the first-ever hot sauce for kids. But after 17 seasons, Hot Ones has evolved into something neither Schonberger nor Evans quite expected at the beginning. Schonberger characterizes the first episode as 80 percent trying to be disruptive and 20 percent trying to be a good interview. “I think now we’re trying to be 90 percent Terry Gross, 10 percent Jackass.” And given that they’re at a point where they have no problem getting some of the most famous celebrities on the show (though they say their white whale is Keanu Reeves), the goal instead is to make the career-spanning interviews deeper and deeper. Inside the Actor’s Studio through the lens of hot wings.
Evans finds that as they go on, guests come in with some degree of veneration for the institution. “That’s what I’m starting to feel right now, and feel somewhat consistently, is that people are like, ‘All right, I’m here to do the Hot Ones interview,’” says Evans. “That’s been the most valuable by-product of all of this from where I sit.” The wings may force vulnerability, but the guests don’t need to be forced; they arrive, to a certain degree, open and wanting to talk.
Hot Ones may thrive because Evans is a compelling, competent, and entertaining host who asks guests unique questions, but it also thrives because guests, and the audience, can trust that they’re in a safe, albeit spicy, space. Which is ultimately the promise all celebrity-driven talk shows provide — You answer our questions and give your name to our brand, and in return we will be nice and won’t try to ruin your career. This is the dance that’s been performed ever since the rise of the modern celebrity. Whatever value each party provides, they rely on each other to survive, and as such there are limitations as to what each party can do.
Hot Ones took a step toward reckoning with the darker ways celebrities wield their power by removing Batali’s interview, ensuring no memes making him appear likable and relatable were made of his performance. But celebrity-driven media has rarely been about speaking truth to power, and ultimately Hot Ones has stayed out of conversations about power and influence. This isn’t an issue for Hot Ones to solve. Instead, it is the sauce in which it and all of celebrity-centered media is doused. Guests don’t have to reckon with their missteps, and viewers don’t have to reconcile that their faves are problematic. The hot wings get close to shattering a celebrity’s controlled veneer, but not so close as to ruin it completely. If anything, Hot Ones is a vacation from the discourse, both for the viewer and the guest, and by being that, it’s become something everyone can enjoy.
Hot Ones initially positioned itself as the anti-talk show, the one where, by the power of Evans’s research and a bottle of Da Bomb sauce, you’d see what a celebrity was really like behind the press junket. Now, it has turned into the best of the genre, with all that implies. Everyone does understand dying on hot sauce. Maybe that’s as close to scratching at the veneer of celebrity as we’ll get.
Marylu E. Herrera is a Chicago-based artist with a focus on print media and collage.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
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