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In the hot seat

Behind Hot Ones’ ambitions to be the future of late-night TV

Stone Cold Steve Austin is the biggest man I’ve ever seen in real life. Everything about the retired pro- wrestler screams huge. From where I’m sitting, over by the milk, his shoulders appear to have their own gravitational field underneath his form-fitting black shirt; his biceps recall boulders, or perhaps one of the Rocky Mountains with its top smoothed over; his hands, surprisingly nimble, are like the buckets on backhoes. Massive. But Austin seems nervous. Something has the big man shaken.

Across the table from him sits a slim, more regular-sized guy, clad in the uniform of the cool, contemporary creative — black windbreaker bomber, black shirt, black jeans, grayish Common Projects sneakers, gold Rolex. He’s tinier than Austin, though similarly bald. But Sean Evans is unflappable. And now he’s projecting reassurance as he asks about Austin’s tolerance for spice. “Man, in my environment back in the day, I was the toughest SOB in the history of the WWE,” Austin replies. “Here in front of you? I might be the biggest sissy you’ve ever had on the show.”

In front of the two men are ten righteously sauced wings laid out artfully on two wooden cutting boards. Austin’s task is simple: all he has to do is finish the wings and answer a few questions from Evans while he’s doing it. Although, it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. Each wing is covered in hot sauce, and as they progress, the spiciness escalates. This is the formula for Hot Ones, a YouTube series with millions of devoted viewers, who show up every Thursday at 11AM for a fresh episode starring a fresh face. “It’s the show with hot questions and even hotter wings,” says Evans, as he has at the beginning of every episode for nine seasons over the last four years.

Hot Ones has attracted a surprisingly large number of celebrities as guests, listers all the way from A to F, and has made Evans a well-known dude in his own right. But not because of his talent for downing hellaciously spicy wings; people know Evans because he’s a sympathetic and consistently surprising interviewer — slightly more Terry Gross than Nardwuar The Human Serviette. Which is to say he’s done (exhaustive) research on who’s across the table from him, but that he’s equally good at putting his guests at ease.

Over the course of Austin’s hour at the table, Evans coaxes the big man into spicier and spicier wings; Austin gets all the way to the end of the challenge, and yes, he does dab. (More on that later.) A couple weeks later, when the episode hits YouTube, I notice the final product isn’t much different than what I’d seen by the milk. It’s a polished interview, sure. But Evans manages to turn his larger-than-life hero Stone Cold Steve Austin — aka The Texas Rattlesnake, aka Stone Cold The Bionic Redneck, aka “Stunning” Steve Austin — into Steven Anderson, a human man. It’s the reason Hot Ones has become one of the most popular video series on the internet. Which, these days, might also make it the future of late-night television.

The Context

Making this show — the one that’s the bellwether of an industry Americans have loved since Ed Sullivan debuted in 1948 — is, however, unmistakably grueling. “The Hot Ones thing doesn’t stop,” says Evans, immediately after the shoot. “We churn out fucking... how many Hot Ones-related videos a year? Like pretty close to every week,” he continues. “At this point, I think I’m just like a farm animal. I’m just a junkyard dog. Like my lips are on fire, my throat, my stomach’s bubbling a little bit, but I know that I have an interview now, then I gotta go to an edit and then I got to go home and do Steph Curry research and then I got to set my alarm and then just do it all over again.”

Evans finishes, crescendoing. He does not, however, seem upset. “I wouldn’t trade it, you know.”

The business of making videos is like the business of making any other high-volume food product; the processing machines can’t stop, because the public’s hunger is never satisfied. Hot Ones was born during a tumultuous time for digital media: the year 2015. Prior to that, the business of news had gone through a series of catastrophes — Craig Newmark had killed classifieds, the lifeblood of newspaper funding; the pre-paywall transition from print to digital had largely been completed, which meant subscription numbers were dropping in both arenas; and Google and Facebook had captured and cannibalized the digital advertising market, which would soon overtake its traditional counterparts. In 2015, however, the news industry had begun its disastrous pivot to video in earnest. 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 upstarts like Vice (where, full disclosure, I used to work) and Mic were hiring tons of young people to create the content to feed a perceived collective hunger.

Complex was one of those companies; they’d grown large by bringing news and entertainment blogs to the masses, but by 2016 their strategy was shifting. (Complex would shutter its print magazine the next year, after a respectable 14-year run.) The company’s food and online culture vertical, First We Feast, had launched under Chris Schonberger four years earlier, and it hosted the mishmash of short posts, videos, and viral snark that was characteristic of that time in media. It was then, on the 35th floor of the old Complex office on 50th street, that Hot Ones began.

At the time, Evans was a newish employee. He’d recently moved from Chicago, where he grew up, and where he worked in the tourism industry, to New York to work at Complex after a brief assignment in New Orleans interviewing people for the company’s nascent online video presence. He’d been friendly with Schonberger — a ‘say what’s up in the hall’ sort of thing — but one day, that changed. According to Evans, Schonberger just came out with it. Like, just straight-out asked him, “What do you think of a show where we interview celebrities while making them eat violently hot chicken wings?”

“And the way it hit my ear, it was just so funny,” Evans says. So they sat in a small room and hammered the thing out. “I had never made a video in my life,” Schonberger says. He’s tall and handrail thin, with a perpetually messy desk — bottles of hot sauce, sent by fans, are scattered everywhere. At the same time Schonberger was dreaming up Hot Ones, other people in the food world were doing things like chef profiles, or the sort of top-down, hands-and-pans cooking videos that BuzzFeed’s Tasty popularized, which was then immediately cannibalized by competitors and jumped the proverbial shark. “Hot Ones was really like a total Hail Mary,” Schonberger says. “We needed to go way more toward the entertainment side of this and just try something totally new.”

For more concrete inspiration — because you can’t just make a show by repeating the phrase “violently hot chicken wings,” even if it is a good one — Schonberger looked to his past, to Alexa Chung, the English multihyphenate model and TV presenter. In the mid-aughts, Chung was the host of Popworld, a cheeky (and occasionally awkward) television show that interviewed musical celebrities — Schonberger’s mom’s family is all from England, and he’d watch the show there during visits. “They were almost making fun of the guests,” he says. In other words, the idea was to break the format of the celebrity interview in a way that people cared about, which, again, violently hot chicken wings.

In college, Schonberger was known around campus as the hot sauce guy, because his dad would regularly ship him new, weird sauces. “Other people were getting shipments of new bed linens or Gatorades or useful things for being in college and he would just send Bailiff Brutality Salsa.” Schonberger recalls being “super shy” in college, and the sauces were a good ice breaker; he’d show up to dorms where people were gaming and offer them some. “Everyone would eat it and laugh,” he says, which is how the sauces made it into the show he and Evans were planning. “I was like, that seems funny. Let’s try it.”

After the show was greenlit and Evans and Schonberger began to nail down the idea, they ran into some opposition from the top — the people in charge wanted to follow the prevailing content winds and make something short and sweet, which wasn’t what either of them had been considering. At the time, the two felt underappreciated, undervalued, and underpaid; they decided to follow their guts, because why not? The people at the top said they needed Hot Ones to be five and a half minutes long, tops. That lasted all of one episode, and by the beginning of the second season, the show’s episodes had grown longer. “I’d be like, ‘Fuck you, we’re making it 22,’” says Evans. “And this show never could have succeeded without that fire.”

The Process

Between episodes is when the real work begins. Though the show is relatively true to its taping, it’s the editing that makes the guests sparkle — and the music and graphics help, too. It’s a show about hot sauce and hot wings that isn’t really about either of those things at all. And it isn’t a spectacle, either, in the way you might assume a show about eating insanely spicy food on camera could be. The original plan was to ratchet up the spiciness of the questions as the wings got hotter, but Evans and Schonberger quickly abandoned that approach because they discovered it’s hard to talk when your mouth is on fire. Instead, counterintuitively, the juiciest questions come first.

“Since they’re not dying on spice early on, we need to give the things that we think people are going to be most interested in,” says Evans. The other stuff, the stuff they “think have the most brick potential,” goes at the end. “Brick” being, of course, a basketball term; deployed there, it means a flop. When you combine a normal flop with extremely hot sauce and cameras, you might get an instantly viral meltdown. Think: Idris Elba, eyes welling up, choking on spice as a reaction image. Or: Paul Rudd, saying “Hey. Look at us.” And then, at the end, there’s the dab — the hottest sauce of all, made with a proprietary pepper hotter than a Carolina Reaper, with (a notionally optional) extra dabbled onto the wing.

Aside from its longevity, what sets Hot Ones apart from the rest of the food media the series grew up with is the thought that goes into crafting each episode, from research to production. Choosing guests for Hot Ones is an art; it’s hunting whales, in the microtransactional sense, to manufacture more fans. “Sometimes we talk about the big apples. Like we’ll say Stone Cold, that’s a big apple. Idris Elba, that’s a big apple, because when you shake that from the tree, it kind of knocks some other things out.” They sometimes pester guests over a period of months or years to get them on the show. (In Gordon Ramsay’s case, for example, it took the chef’s children becoming fans of Hot Ones and bothering him about it before he made an appearance.)

Once a guest is booked, the three-person research team goes to work. “There’s a lot of armchair psychology that goes into the show,” says Schonberger. In practice, that means Evans’ brother — Gavin, who lives in Chicago — will compile a dossier. “He’ll basically read like every article there is, every profile, every Reddit AMA, like reading everything that he can find and create,” says Schonberger, noting that they can run to something like 30 pages long. “It’s almost like we’ve created our own Wikipedia template that’s suited to the show.”

Sean, on the other hand, does the videos. He’ll consume 12-24 hours of clips, looking for breadcrumbs. In the case of Stone Cold Steve Austin, that was Evans figuring out that the wrestler loved talking about Broken Skull Ranch, his home — a place that’s important to Austin, but something that not everyone asks him about. Schonberger does some of the podcasts, which means he listens to everything he can get his hands on. It’s the same idea as with the videos, except people are usually less guarded on podcast appearances than they are during video shoots. Then they compare notes, and Evans and Schonberger come up with ten topics to hit during the interview.

“When Hot Ones is done right, every wing is like a different part of that person’s personality,” says Evans. This, it seems, is how it’s always been, even when nobody knew anything about Hot Ones.

That began to change around the eighth episode of the second season, which starred the comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. In 2016, the year the duo released their first feature film, Keanu, about rescuing a stolen kitten. (It was also a year before Get Out blew up America.) “The show was not a big huge view monster early on,” Evans says. “Key and Peele was the first thing that was like, ‘Boom, number one trending, front page of Reddit.’ We put it up one day and we wake up the next day and it’s got 5 million views.” (It actually hit 1 million views within the first three days of going live, which is basically the same thing.) That was huge, because it meant that people would go back and watch the other videos in the Hot Ones catalog. A rising view count lifts all boats.

Those big apples aren’t always able to come to the team. About half the shoots take place in New York City, 40 percent are in LA, and the remaining 10 percent are random places around the world. The Idris Elba shoot, for example, took place in London because that’s where Elba was promoting Hobbs and Shaw. The constants, however, remain. One consequence of Hot Ones starting during the era of cheap web videos is that they had a tiny budget to develop the show (typical for 2015 web video), which is why the set is one table and ten wings on a black background — and it makes it cheap to move wherever a guest is. The wings are generally sourced where the shoots take place by production manager Domonique Burroughs, who travels with Evans to shoots. (In New York, the wings come from My Belly’s Playlist on 35th street.) In addition to doing normal producer stuff, like helping set up shoots and working with the guest’s team, Burroughs also sauces the wings, something she’s been doing since season 2.

Her technique, which she learned from Schonberger, is this: she pours hot sauce into one plastic bowl, places a wing inside, and puts another bowl on top to form a clamshell, which is then shaken vigorously. (To correct a common misconception: they did not change their saucing technique at all after the Gordon Ramsay episode. He couldn’t change how they prepare their wings, but he did put to rest complaints the show got from guests about the wings being slightly cold.)

Burroughs told me that her favorite part of being on the Hot Ones set is seeing the guests react to the wings. “You never really know what reaction you’re going to get,” Burroughs says. “You never know what you’re going to get from somebody who’s literally eating the spiciest things that they’ve ever had in their life.” Burroughs herself hasn’t gone past sauce five because she doesn’t like spicy foods. She’s the person, in other words, who asks each guest a variation of the same question: Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?

The Sauce

This brings us to the sauce. There are 10 each season, chosen by Schonberger and Noah Chaimberg, founder of the hot sauce boutique Heatonist. They test 20 to 30 sauces on spoons first, each chosen by Chaimberg, and then after many rounds of taste-testing, he whittles the list down to 10 or 15. (Sometimes Chaimberg tweaks the recipes with the makers.) Then, Schonberger and Chaimberg meet again to do the final test. It’s an exhaustive process; each meeting takes between one and two hours, and there are many meetings. “We’re sitting there, crying, taking notes,” Chaimberg says. The Hot Ones-branded sauces, which are sold exclusively through Heatonist and partially developed by Chaimberg and his team, sell like gangbusters: The Last Dab became the fastest-selling hot sauce in history, Chaimberg says, after it moved more than 10,000 bottles on its first full day on sale. (In our interview, Schonberger told me the hot sauces make around $15 million a year in revenue, but after publication, the company said he misspoke; in fact, a company representative said, the sauces made $7 million in 2018.) That’s given Hot Ones a steady flow of money that doesn’t rely on ads or sponsored posts to make the budgets work, which makes the show wildly different — and steadier — than its peers.

To choose the season 10 sauce lineup, Chaimberg and Schonberger holed up in a glass-walled conference room at Complex’s New York office, eating wings and sobbing; they try to up the heat every season. “We almost went too far,” Chaimberg says. So they pulled back, because they didn’t want Evans to hate them.

And he would. Evans isn’t particularly familiar with any of the sauces on the lineup until his first taping every season. (If you’re curious, those first three or so episodes of a season are the ones where he’s really dying from the heat because he hasn’t gotten used to the new spices yet.) Chaimberg is one of New York’s hot sauce impresarios, a guy who started slinging sauces out of a pushcart. Today, the operation has 20 employees, two retail stores, and countless pilgrims who journey from around the world to buy out his stock.

Chaimberg himself helps create some of the sauces that Hot Ones brands. He developed the taste profile for The Classic after finding the first hot sauce recipe ever written down anywhere: a classic recipe that was just peppers, vinegar, and turmeric. They added a little garlic, and opted for fresh chile de árbol — unusual because it’s generally dried — for the pepper, unspecified in the recipe. The Last Dab, another one he helped make, is enthralling. It’s made with a proprietary pepper called “Pepper X” — Chaimberg’s name, which stuck — which is apparently hotter than the current world leader, the Carolina Reaper. Pepper X was developed by one Smokin’ Ed Currie, a mad pepper scientist way out in South Carolina who runs PuckerButt Pepper Company, which is a purveyor of peppers for sauces around the world.

Currie got involved with Chaimberg and the Hot Ones crew after a friend asked him to provide some peppers for the NYC Hot Sauce Expo. They turned out to be for Schonberger and the show, and they became fast friends. At the next year’s expo, Chaimberg asked Currie to develop sauces specifically for Hot Ones. Currie was mostly growing weed when he began experimenting with crossbreeding peppers, but after he got sober, way back in the ’90s, he transitioned to peppers full time. Today, PuckerButt ships all over the world.

While hot sauce only takes “a couple hours” to make, developing a pepper takes anywhere from eight to twelve years — and you don’t know if the pepper is stable, genetically speaking, until around year four or five. “Right now, I think we’re growing 246 varieties, of which 132 are crosses that are in that eight- to 12-year period,” says Currie, who also told me that all of his peppers make it into a commercial form unless the medical community thinks they could be useful. “So, maybe 10 to 20 crosses a year I’m trying, and out of those, maybe five to seven work.”

He’s been watching the hot sauce community grow for a while now. During our conversation, he reminds me that it wasn’t until somewhat recently that hot sauce overtook ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard as the number one condiment. People are aware of hot sauce beyond what’s in the grocery store now; we know more than Sriracha, or Frank’s, or Tabasco.

“Our segment is actually the fastest-growing segment in the food service industry and, honestly, as long as people keep coming out with new ideas, not trying to repeat something someone else is doing, there’s nothing but growth,” he says. And while it’s hard to say just how much a YouTube show might have contributed to that growth, it’s easy to see they’ve been at its forefront: pushing new, small-batch sauces to millions of people who might not have heard of them before. Currie says the best part, for him, is the opportunity to develop new sauces. “Developing something from scratch and bringing it to fruition and then having it show up on the show, it’s like watching a baby being birthed, you know what I mean?”

He watches every episode of Hot Ones with his kids. “They’re six and seven. Some of the language is inappropriate but they love the show, and they call Sean ‘Uncle Sean’ even though they’ve never met him,” Currie says. “They just know that I go to New York to do something with Uncle Sean and Uncle Noah.” And it does have the feeling of a family affair: organic and loving, homey and somehow ramshackle.

The Future

Stone Cold Steve Austin, that mountain range of a human man, finishes the challenge with Evans’ gentle encouragement egging him on. He dabs, and then he promotes his podcast and television show, which he’d have been able to do even if he hadn’t finished the challenge. He walks out of the studio a little less than an hour later, and I can only imagine he felt changed afterward. Or maybe not; maybe the wings and sauces were like a pebble dropped into the smooth lake of Austin’s massive soft intestine, causing only a brief ripple of discomfort before being forgotten forever.

Regardless, it was good television. Hot Ones remains the best thing to watch when you’re not sure what you feel like watching; it rewards passive consumption just as much as it rewards active love. “I know what it’s like to be in your apartment kind of bored, smoking weed, looking for something to watch,” he says. “And I guess I’ve always wanted to fill that void.” Which is the hole late-night television plugs — when you’re up at an odd hour on a weeknight and everything fun is closed, a good variety show can fill that restless gap in your heart, or your schedule. It’s something to consume because it’s there, and it’s better than whatever else you might otherwise be doing. That’s the nature of web video, too, and one of the reasons YouTube exists: when there’s nothing left to do, you have to set your browser to autoplay. Millions of people do this, enough that it’s made the public care about an interview show that’s not Terry Gross’, which is a hard thing to do. It is the future. It is for you. It is on, right now, if you want it.

And that’s part of the genius of Hot Ones: it’s for you, but it’s also for everyone. You can leave it playing in the background and feel nourished after three hours. At least Evans thinks so. He says the highest compliment anyone can pay him is when a parent says the show bridges a generational divide — when they say they can watch it with their kids. “I remember me and my brother would watch Beavis and Butthead or South Park, but we’d be all secret about it because we didn’t want our dad to know,” he says. “And then before I know it, I’m in fourth grade and me, my brother, and my dad are watching South Park together.” The idea that it’s not necessarily kid-friendly, but good enough to show to kids anyway is something Evans treasures. That’s a remarkable achievement for any show, let alone one that’s only been around for four years and airs only on YouTube and Facebook.

It’s changed Schonberger’s and Evans’ lives, too. They don’t have to ask permission to do anything they want to, not really, not anymore. “Some of the wins, too, are for me, like when it started becoming viable as a business and the fact that we could sell out this hot sauce in 90 seconds,” Schonberger says. “Lego would approach us to make a promo for their movie with Tiffany Haddish.” For Evans, the show has started to make him famous, with all that entails. “I get treated a hell of a lot nicer now. And I have a Rolex and shit,” he says. He gets stopped on the street now. Gordon Ramsay comps him at restaurants.

“I don’t get any of that. But it does get… It’s easier,” says Schonberger. “There’s some trickle-down clout going on.”

Which means inevitably more famous guests, hotter sauces, and more wings. The fans, says Evans, are clamoring for Keanu Reeves. While there’s no word on a Keanu feature, I personally have no doubt that it could happen. Because more than anything, Evans and Schonberger are persistent; they understand that it takes time for people to get it, even though the formula is pretty simple. Because before the fans wanted Keanu, they wanted Gordon Ramsay. They wanted Stone Cold Steve Austin. And those big apples all fell not far from the tree, right into Evans’ and Schonberger’s laps. It takes a smart person to come up with a show about hot wings. But it takes a demented kind of brilliance to convince Gordon Ramsay to try them.

That willingness to go for the improbable is the secret sauce, as it were, that makes the show work. That said, Evans thinks it’s simpler. “I’ll say that it’s the best interview show, but it’s because there’s so many bad interview shows,” Evans says. “By comparison we look fucking excellent.”

Correction: After publishing, a Hot Ones representative got in touch to say Schonberger misspoke about the revenue from the hot sauces. They do $7 million in revenue a year.

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