Late-night talk-show interviews are the bane of my existence.
They’re shiny puff pieces, teeing up scripted, softball questions that the stars rehearse to knock out of the park, perpetuating and thus reinforcing the desired image of their meticulously-constructed personas. It’s just as much of a performance as what they’re inevitably promoting.
But what happens when they can’t control their performance, when they lose power and agency over not only the proceedings, but even themselves as well? These are just some of the questions forcibly posed by Hot Ones, a YouTube internet series, courtesy of First We Feast, that’s a culinary and artistic concoction mixing satire, parody, pain, and hilarity, all together deconstructing the arbitrary superficiality of the celebrity-pandering form.
Its very concept seems to be a self-aware variation on the sort of gimmick that Jimmy Fallon-esque brands are constantly told they need to go viral. At first, the set-up looks familiar: Sean Evans, the host, sits across from a celebrity each week, asking them 10 questions. The catch: between each one, both parties eat a hot wing. The real catch: every wing is doused in a different hot sauce, one progressively hotter than the last. What begins as a pleasant accompaniment to the slog of PR blitzes becomes a palate-scorching experience. No matter the spice preferences of the rich and famous, the higher registers of pain induce no pleasure. These birds aren’t flavorful; they’re fucking fatal.
Such blazing food has a tendency to act as a sort of psychedelic for the consumers; the effect is a crossfade of sorts. So in addition to the unavoidable schadenfreude of watching the high and mighty squirm, the 20-minute episodes can be interpreted as a psychological experiment regarding how the subject responds when he or she is thrown so far outside their reliable comfort zone. They’re usually in charge of such press appearances, dictating every moment to make themselves look exactly how they want.
Hot Ones forbids anyone to rest on their seasoned laurels, quite literally burning through their trained facades. The initial wings are walks in the park, allowing the audience to see their normal approach to such questions. But the gradual descent into the flames of reality sear through these artificial masks to reveal some of the real personality underneath (isn’t that why people watch interviews in the first place, to learn more about the facts behind their artistic fiction?). Ensuring they can’t just regurgitate the same mindless answers, Evans and his crackpot team of deep researchers craft truly compelling queries, requiring introspection and insights on the part of the sufferer, probing much farther than the usual shallowness they’ve come to expect, and perhaps even prefer.
The ingeniously depraved creators also tap into — some could say manipulate, and even exploit, all in the name of good fun, of course — the competitiveness that’s a consistent trait of those who’ve survived the treacherous ascent up the social ladder (particularly the athletes, for obvious reasons). Evans eats every wing with his guests, yet he has the composure of a statue. How does the talent respond when they’re not the most calm and collected person in the frame, their natural habitat?
When some have questioned whether his wings are just as scarring as theirs, he offers to switch at any time. Water and milk — or any other external relief — is provided, but Evans notes that some previous victims have persevered through the whole ordeal without relying on such respite. The final act includes dabbing even more of the sauce atop the last wing. Evans insists it’s optional, but he does note that most of those who’ve come before haven’t shirked from the test. There’s no penalty for calling it quits early, except the shame of knowing they came up shorter than their illustrious peers (among this crowd, few allow themselves to stoop so low).
The only reward for extinguishing all the wings? 30 seconds to look into the camera and plug whatever project they’re currently trying to hawk. You know, the same sort of promotion that regular interviews grant free of misery. This little cherry on top just hammers home the ridiculousness of this whole tradition. What’s the worth of it all? Are straightforward Q+As any less odd than putting yourself through this trial by fire? Or is everything just for the sake of entertainment in the entertainment industry, no matter the cost?
Contemplating these subtextual underpinnings makes each interview a compelling watch, no matter your familiarity with the interviewee. As such, I can’t tell you whom to start with. Luckily, the show’s been around for three years, averaging millions of viewers every go-around, so you have plenty of catching up to do.
But be warned: You may never look at the mind-numbing spectacles of late-night tête-à-têtes in the same way again.