Back in August, I was watching a taped episode of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” when towards the end of the show, instead of bringing out a musical guest, Colbert sat down at a small standalone table and ate four increasingly spicy chicken wings while answering questions from a smooth-talking interviewer named Sean Evans.
This was the first time I had ever learned about “Hot Ones,” a popular YouTube show where Evans interviews various celebrities as they eat hotter and hotter chicken wings.
In each “Hot Ones” episode, you’ll see some of your favourite celebrities try to overcome blazing hot wings. In the case of Colbert, he made jokes – “My fillings are on fire right now” – drank a ton of milk, and paced around the stage in front of his live studio audience. The four-minute interview was fun, but more importantly, it felt authentic.
A full-length “Hot Ones” episode on YouTube lasts about 20 to 25 minutes and follows the same recipe: the host (Sean Evans), a special guest (usually a celebrity), and two sets of 10 generously-sauced hot wings, each one hotter than the last. One question is asked per wing, but even if the guest doesn’t make it to the finish line (most of them do), Evans will ask all of his prepared questions.
The show has been around for nearly two years and “Hot Ones” has landed some incredible guests in that span, including comedian Kevin Hart, NBA superstar Kevin Durant, actors James Franco and Bryan Cranston, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and many others.
Some interesting stats about the show:
• As of November 29, 2017, there are 110 total episodes of “Hot Ones.”
• 85 of the 110 “Hot Ones” episodes have over 1 million views on YouTube; 8 episodes have over 5 million views.
• The top 59 videos on the First We Feast YouTube channel are all “Hot Ones” episodes.
• The most popular “Hot Ones” episode features Kevin Hart. It has over 10 million views.
“Hot Ones” is just one show from Complex Networks’ First We Feast team, which produces videos that study the intersection of food and pop culture, but “Hot Ones” is far and away the team’s most popular hit. The show is particularly popular among the internet community on Reddit – there’s even a “Hot Ones” subreddit with nearly 12,000 subscribers.
To learn more about the inner workings of YouTube’s hottest show, I got on the phone with “Hot Ones” host and Chicago native Sean Evans to talk about his life, “Hot Ones,” and its ongoing evolution.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Dave Smith: Tell me about how you went from freelancing at Complex to getting a full-time job at Complex. You went down to New Orleans for a job – what happened there?
Sean Evans: It was just to do some interviews. I was living in Chicago at the time, I was working freelance with Complex so I was down there to do some interviews with 2Chainz and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dwight Howard and Damian Lillard and a bunch of rappers and athletes and celebrities that were down there for NBA All-Star Weekend.
That trip just so happened to be scheduled at the same exact time Complex was trying to get its YouTube channel off the ground.
I think they were doing some video content but they saw I had all these crazy interviews lined up, so they were like, “Hey, do you think it’s cool if we put these things on camera?” I was like, “please put them on camera!” Because I had such a pathetic, boring life at the time, to me, having a 2Chainz on-camera YouTube interview was like the coolest thing ever.
So [Complex] came in with the cameras, they popped the tripods down, and apparently they liked the finished product enough to offer me a job. Thirty days later, I sold all my s—, I quit my job in Chicago, then I was in New York the next month. It was kind of crazy.
Smith: Was journalism and interviewing always your passion?
Evans: I was a broadcast journalism major at the University of Illinois, so there’s always part of you that thinks you could, or hopes you could, but it’s not like you can just walk in and get a TV job.
In fact, my professor at the time, John Paul, he thought I would be a great weatherman. He’s like, “you’re so glib,” and I could ad-lib a little bit on green screen. He was like, “you’re tailor-made to be a weatherman.” That’s kind of where my focus was, but then you graduate, you get a job at an agency or somewhere writing press releases, and then before you know it, five years of your life’s gone by and you’re like “whoa whoa whoa, what the hell happened?”
There’s that great Steve Jobs quote about not being able to connect the dots looking forward, just looking back, and so it was just a series of coincidences and taking advantage of every opportunity and then eventually, like a Plinko ball, I just ended up in this spot.
Smith: You are a very eloquent speaker – where does that come from? Do you have experience public speaking or something?
Evans: People who are from Chicago are just funnier than people who aren’t from Chicago. I know I think a little bit differently and talk a little bit differently, but you know, when people say those things, I say, “all my friends are exactly like that.” I think people from Chicago just have a way of talking that’s a little bit different.
No comedy background, it’s not like I was in the Second City theatre or anything like that. I don’t know, I guess I’m a little bit glib, maybe my professor was right.
Smith: Part of the appeal of “Hot Ones” is how incredibly prepared you are for your interviews. What’s your research process like?
Evans: When it comes to the interview questions, how we game plan it, it’s just what it looks like. We read and watch every single thing that we can.
I do this with (First We Feast editor-in-chief) Chris Schonberger, who’s a creator and producer of this show, and we basically divide and conquer. He’ll send me a big long list of all the podcasts, profiles and features he’s going to listen to and read. I’ll usually binge-watch every possible YouTube video – if it’s a musician I’ll listen to their music, if it’s somebody who wrote a book I’ll read their book.
I think it’s by virtue of really caring that we set ourselves apart because there’s so much in media that’s just making the doughnuts dance, and we knew if we could differentiate, which just means rolling your sleeves up and getting after it, we knew we’d have a real viable property.
Smith: Who are your favourite interviewers?
Evans: I think the best of all time, you have to go with Howard Stern. He was a major influence on me. I would make tapes of his radio show and just play them on the playground – even in elementary school and junior high, I was always obsessed.
I was a big fan of David Letterman. One of my earliest memories: My dad used to love Letterman, and he’d watch it at night or he’d binge-watch it on the weekends because he’d tape it. And I’d sit next to him and make him explain the joke to me every time the audience laughed, which I’m sure was highly annoying for my dad, but maybe in some messed-up way, maybe I’m trying to make people laugh like Letterman used to make my dad laugh. Like if I were to go into therapy and do some deep-dive on what’s kind of fuelling this thing, this is probably like the messed-up screw that’s loose, you know?
But I think it’s Howard Stern – legend. David Letterman. Adam Corolla and Jimmy Kimmel. Charlie Rose. James Lipton. [Interviewer and musician] Nardwuar. All of these people who can connect with their subject and then bring out something that’s human, knock them right out of their PR-driven holding pattern. That was always what I liked to see, what I liked to listen to, what always put me on the edge of my seat, so I know that’s important.
Smith: OK so Sean, I really hate to put you on the spot, but at this point in the interview I need to ask you a few personal questions. In honour of what you do on your show “Hot Ones,” I did my own Instagram deep-dive on you, Sean Evans, so I have a few questions about some things I’ve seen in your Instagram feed. Is that ok?
Evans: Yes, go for it. I love it.
Smith: Great. So I’m looking at a picture here from February 14, 2014. It’s you with longer hair holding up two tickets to the NBA All-Star game. Your caption there is: “Hey. Happy Valentine’s Day, ladies.” What’s the story there?
Evans: That was just me with a nice haircut, feeling myself. I wasn’t always a bald look. That is the very New Orleans trip that kind of launched this whole thing. I think that was in the courtyard of the W Hotel, and that was my weekend when I was doing all of these interviews on camera, my first-ever on-camera interviews on a professional level. So that’s just me showing off a nice haircut, and I think that was on Valentine’s Day. I had a plus-one to the Dunk Contest so to all the ladies out there who were following me at the time, that was just a Bat signal.
Smith: Did anyone come with you to the All-Star Game?
Evans: I had a good weekend. I had a great weekend that weekend.
Smith: All right, last one for you Sean. This photo from 2014 is you and Chrissy Teigen. She’s licking your head here – I’m going to assume you two got along. What was that interaction like?
Evans: I think that was my second or third day in New York. When Complex hired me, originally I wasn’t at First We Feast, I was just like a hired hand for Complex. They’d send me out to different events or they’d have people visiting the office and I’d do interviews with athletes, musicians, whoever. So they sent me out to some on-location thing with Chrissy Teigen. We do the interview and after it wrapped, I’m waiting like they were going to do some kind of picture of us together, and then I just feel a tongue up the side of my face. I was a little bit startled by it, but then, it’s Chrissy Teigen, which put me at ease – and does make for a pretty good picture. If I recall that picture correctly, I look a little frightened by it, a little scared. She put me on my heels for sure.
Smith: I’m sure. Well thank you for indulging me on that Instagram deep-dive, but I want to get back to “Hot Ones.” How many people are on the team, and what is the general process like from choosing the guest to the point when filming begins?
Evans: It’s a relatively small team going week to week, and we have a big long list of people we target. Like in the office I’m in right now, we have a white board and it’s got all the names of people who we’ve reached out to.
It’s not easy to, week over week at 11 a.m. on Thursday, get a fully-produced “Hot Ones.” With a team that small, it is just everyone working their asses off every week. There’s no magic to it at all, it’s just pure elbow grease. People lighting their hair on fire every week and putting it out in a garbage can full of ice cubes, week over week over week over week, for basically two straight years. It’s been insane.
When it comes to picking a guest, there are a lot moving parts to it. But the good thing about comments sections, for as much s— as they get, is that you have a real-life focus group with you at all times. If you pay attention to your audience, it’s a cat that will let you know where it likes to get pet. So we have an idea of who our audience wants to see.
Of course, my life now I’m basically like a wedding DJ taking requests 24/7. Every time somebody stops me on the street, they tell me who they want to see on the show. I open up Twitter, they tell me who they want to see on the show. Everyone is always just hitting me with the guests they want to see. But there has to be a part of you, that Vince McMahon thing where you know what the people want more than the people know what they want.
Smith: I want to know about the process for coating the wings. Each “Hot Ones” has 10 different wing sauces, with each one hotter than the last. Do you sauce the wings the same for every guest?
Evans: Yes, it’s the same all the way through. I’m not totally involved in this because I’m usually sitting in the seat, but I’ve seen it in action. They will have like 20 plastic bowls out, and all the bowls will be filled with the different hot sauces, so two sets of 10 bowls for each sauce. And then Chris Schonberger, or our producer Dominique, they will toss the wings in that bowl so you’ll get full coverage on the wings, so that our guests can’t find a corner or a side where there’s not sauce on it.
So you get that full coverage, and then they’re put on the board, and they’re sent out – and of course, on that final wing you get a little extra last dab.
Smith: Follow-up question: Do you guys do anything, especially during the process of coating the wings, to make sure guests don’t get really sick, especially for [the final sauce] The Last Dab?
Evans: You know, the bowl isn’t going to be as generous a pour on Da Bomb, as say, on Valentina. That said, we ignore disclaimers left and right on “Hot Ones.” I think some of these bottles say, “Just a drop!” “Dilute with water!” We don’t do any of that stuff. On some level it does have to toe the line in order to keep its edge and bring people in and really smack a guest in the mouth, which is something that obviously our fans like to see and it’s a wave that we’ve ridden. So on some level it’s downshifted a bit, but probably not as much as it should be.
Smith: Who has been your favourite guest so far?
Evans: I like different episodes for different reasons. The N.O.R.E. episode is an episode that just catches the track. It’s sort of a buddy-cop film all the way through, and when that happens it’s just kind of magic.
I think there’s a whole category of interviews I appreciate because they’re just such dense, perfect blocks of content in my opinion: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Henry Rollins, Steve-O,Ricky Gervais,Russell Brand. Those are interviews that, to me, all the way through, just hum. They hit the right notes. Exactly how the episode was in our heads, was exactly the way it came out.
There’s just episodes that I love. There’s the Key & Peele episode, which I think helped launch us. There’s the DJ Khaled episode where the energy is just so bad that it’s amazing. The YG episode – to me, YG always has these horrible, horrible interviews, but on “Hot Ones,” he’s amazing.
So when we can take people that usually don’t play nice with the media – Kevin Durant, for example – and make an episode where you see a different side of them, those are ones I’m proud of, too. They all just check different boxes to me.
Smith: Follow up to that: Which guest surprised you the most?
Evans: That’s a good question. The reason I think we don’t really miss is because all of that research. You end up doing some kind of real armchair pop psychology on your guest. You almost know them before they ever sit down. You almost have their personality pegged, or the things we know play well to our audience. I think that’s the key most of these [episodes] haven’t bricked or gone really bad, because we always know on some level what to expect.
But you know who did kind of surprise me? And this is no shock, because he’s a very funny guy and he’s a great dude: Jim Gaffigan. For his comedy and reputation and his brand, the fact he didn’t get through 10 wings is still one of the most mind-boggling, baffling things. That’s the thing I was furthest away from the target. I would have put everything I had on Jim Gaffigan getting through 10 wings, and he didn’t get through 10 wings. We were shocked by that. But that’s why you play the game, and that’s why you shoot the show. You never know.
Smith: Looking at the lifetime of your show, can you pinpoint when things started getting really huge?
Evans: Yeah we talk about the tentpole episodes all the time. To me, there are a couple that had us breaking through the ceiling. The first one is Machine Gun Kelly, which I think is the second episode ever. I remember while it was happening, he was getting up, he’s walking around the room, he’s screaming, he’s so uncomfortable, but it’s theatrical and amazing on this black-background nothing set. It was just explosive energy. And when that was going on, that’s when I knew this show is different. This show is special. This show is something the world needs now.
The episode that really was the first huge, viral, many-many-millions-of-views episode was the Key & Peele episode, which we knew was awesome, but the show wasn’t always so popular. I remember when we’d wake up and we’d be lucky to have 25,000-30,000 views in a day, but the Key & Peele episode was the first millions and millions of views sort of “viral” video. That’s when I knew we were onto something.
The Kevin Hart episode was a breakthrough as well. That was huge, A-list talent, in his moment. Really, once you have a foundation like that, to me, there’s not a person who’s totally untouchable or unreachable. Not everyone’s going to agree to eat chicken wings, that’s obviously an enormous catch to our show, that’s an enormous ask. It’s not easy to get anyone to do your show, but on “Hot Ones,” you have to eat scorching-hot chicken wings. So it’s always going to be a challenge to book, in my opinion, no matter how popular it is in the zeitgeist. But once you start getting those bigger apples to fall, you lay a foundation where I don’t think there’s anyone who’s outside of our reach, or our ability to get them and have them eat some wings.
Smith: What’s the future for the show?
Evans: To us, you want to be careful. I think often times, people get restless about that sort of thing. And I think “Hot Ones” is a show that’s evolved over time.
We’re always more interested about putting more trophies in the case. We want to make more hot sauces. To us, the craftsmanship and getting an idea off the ground and putting it into flight, whether it’s an episode that’s just an idea then all the sudden is real and on YouTube, or it’s a hot sauce that’s just an idea then all the sudden you’re holding a bottle in your hand. We want to keep doing that. Maybe it’s a book; we’ve always wanted to write the book. We’ve always wanted to branch out from the show just a little bit more.
To us, we’re an interview show, and that’s the oldest construct in the history of media. We don’t feel like we’re some sort of gimmick; what we feel like we’ve done is taken the interview and turned it on its head. To us, we want to keep it simple on some level, keep it so it’s not 10 million moving plates, keep it so we’re connected to our audience. But on a bigger sort of “what’s next,” it’s just more interviews. More tangible things our fans can really connect with. Because in this day and age, where so many people are screaming for your attention and eyeballs, it is important that there’s hot sauce and things fans can hold.
That’s really where our heads are at. It’s just about making everything bigger, making fans more connected. We just dropped a live episode with Wale today – sometimes I’m not sure if the live format is the thing, I don’t know what’s next, but maybe there is some sort of tour. Maybe there is some way we come into your town and eat wings with you. That’s really what we’re thinking about. It’s a show for the people, so every time I think about evolving or what’s going to make it bigger, it’s just about making that connection to the person who’s watching me in their cubicle, or on their laptop, or on their phone when they’re going to their jobs or whatever, or binge-watching at night. Whoever that person is, watching and laughing, I want to make sure they feel connected to the show.
So that’s always what we’re thinking about: The tent, all the people who are in it, how we keep that tent as big as it is, or bigger, and how we keep everyone in that tent happy.
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