And now for an addendum to my initial musings on Hot Ones, necessary because, after watching its standout new episodes, I think I finally discovered at least one more of its secret sauces that makes this unlikely shebang so dynamically explosive.
As previously covered, this web series brilliantly reinvents the punishingly-stuffy form of the 21st celebrity interview format, searing through its scripted formula. Conversely, the aforementioned secret sauce is actually a return to the genre’s roots: Hot Ones deemphasizes the importance of the starry interview subjects; instead, the star, once again, becomes the show itself.
Late-night talk shows have always been minusculely-veiled excuses for promotional shilling; SURELY the major networks never ask their employees to plug the work of other employees, and Disney — which owns ABC, which airs Jimmy Kimmel Live! (the preponderance of such exclamations perfectly reflects the subtlety of the form) — ABSOLUTELY DAREN’T pull its own behind-the-scenes strings in the name of commercially-lucrative corporate synergy. At their sometimes-entertaining cores, these glorified variety hours are nothing more than feckless PR spin.
In their heyday, according to common reports, the nation turned their dials just as much for the host as for who he was hosting (yes, it was, sadly, but expectedly, almost always a he; but shout out to Joan Rivers, may she be rolling over others in their respective graves in laughter). People watched predominantly for Johnny Carson. Nowadays, though most of us have our preferred host to fall asleep to, we’re by no means riveted to their antics. If an interesting guest plops down across the table from him (yes, somehow, the late-night game is still testosterone-dominant), we’ll probably stop and watch (at least, for those of us who haven’t cut the chord yet). Otherwise, it’s on to the next piece of today’s unlimited content.
Of course they still have their fans, but younger generations are, for the most part, turned off by the rigid confines of the form’s formula. Podcasts quench our hunger for enlightening interviews — their unrestricted length feigns a more naturalistic window into the interviewee’s carefully-constructed personas — and we’ll catch up with anything that might go viral the following morning. Accessing celebrities — which was once the bread-and-butter mana bestowed only by such talk shows — has never been easier.
But burning through their pervasive facades IS rare, and THAT’S what Hot Ones’ legions of followers comes to witness. Forcing the rich and famous to painfully gouge is in no way subtle — which Hot Ones is proudly aware of; it’s always in the joke — but the brilliance resides in its nuanced subtext. And unlike past incarnations of the form, the host isn’t the constant that sows audience fidelity; that distinction goes to the structure itself. Which is to say, the wings.
20th century boob tubers tuned in to see Johnny Carson talk to stars. 21st century YouTubers click in to see how those stars react to the excruciating challenge. The bigger names will obviously draw more clicks, but these 20-minute videos consistently attract millions of eyeballs per episode, no matter the guest, which means the spectacle of what’s on-screen is more important than who’s on-screen. It’s both a return to form, AND an inventive new form for the form’s future.