Why 'Hot Ones' Should Be Your Internet Obsession

The web series that gets A-listers like Charlize Theron, Michael B. Jordan and Taraji P. Henson to eat spicy hot wings has become a YouTube sensation.
Courtesy of YouTube/First We Feast

The fifth season of Hot Ones, YouTube's best and only hot-wings-themed talk show, is (pun sadly intended) on fire. This show was already addictive back when guests like DJ Khaled, Rachel Ray, and Eddie Huang were star guests. But there have now been 105 episodes, and the show, which began in 2015 and debuts new episodes every Thursday at 11 a.m. ET, has become even more endearingly ridiculous as its production values have grown.

Now the show's guests include Charlize Theron, Taraji P. Henson, and Michael B. Jordan. There's also even more sponsored content — like the prefatory "Mountain Dew Kick Off Moment" that precedes Jordan's episode — and hotter sauces. There is no better time to get into this compulsively watchable, and lovably goofy show. 

But what makes Hot Ones so addictive, you might ask? Sit down, reader, let me talk at you awhile.

Hot Ones' premise is blessedly simple: show host/on-camera interviewer/hot sauce expert Sean Evans grills celebrity interviewees while they eat 10 chicken wings dipped in increasingly hotter sauces. Evans, who has the constitution of a prize fighter, is an ideal host. He's ingratiating, self-deprecating — and very competitive. He asks personality-quiz-style questions to guests ranging from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Charlie Day. And they eat hot wings together, almost all of which are ranked perilously high on the Scoville scale, a scientific-sounding metric of, uh, spicy food's general intensity?  

Now, here's where things start to get amazing. The range of hot sauces used in Hot Ones' first season is tame compared to what it is right now. In 2015, the weakest sauce was Texas Pete Hot Sauce, which has a Scoville rating of 750 … heat units. Sounds pretty impressive, until you realize that the hottest sauce in that batch was Mad Dog's 357(!!!) Hot Sauce, which is rated at 357,000 Scoville units. Again, that's an appropriately bombastic-looking rating, especially if you're a newbie to the hot-sauce-loving subculture (as I imagine many of the show's current fans are). 

But hang on a tick! Season five's weakest hot sauce is Humble House's Ancho & Morita Sauce, which ranks at 750 Scovilles. And the current hottest sauce? The Last Dab, a freakishly hot sauce made by First We Feast, the show's main sponsor. The Last Dab clocks in at approximately 2 million Scoville units. Remember the Guatemalan Insanity Pepper that makes Homer hallucinate in that one episode of The Simpsons? That's basically the effect that this hot sauce has on most contestants.

I say "contestants" rather than "guests" because at this point, it should be clear that Hot Ones is more like a game show than a chat show. It's like if you took the chummy, frat-guy mentality of Jimmy Fallon's post-interview segments — the sketches where he plays games like Slapjack and Charades with his guests — and you amped up the testosterone factor by a significant margin. In this context, it doesn't seem coincidental that there haven't been many female guests. Hot Ones is basically a dick-measuring contest, one whose ideal audience has always been guys in flannel with face-devouring beards who love craft beer and are super-stoked to see Slayer's final tour in Holmdel, New Jersey this summer. This is a hard-looking show for sensitive men, in other words (This author included! See you in Holmdel this June!).

To be fair: my "sensitive" comment has more to do with the way Evans downplays his hot-wing-eating skills while the show's editors, directors, and camera crew amp up the intensity of contestants' relative discomfort. Every reaction shot is goosed by crash zooms, sound and music effects, and on-camera optical tricks like double exposures and split screens. Contestants inevitably realize that they're playing a game that Evans has won many times before. And at this epiphanic moment, they know that the best they can do is eat all ten wings, and try not to embarrass themselves too much. 

Evans periodically reminds viewers that he knows he's in control of his show by shrugging off his expertise. This kind of aw-shucks strategy is kind of brilliant: you sincerely tell your guest that what you do isn't that special — and then you demolish them at that very thing, without mercy or hesitation. Then you ask your guests how they're doing once they're visibly starting to struggle. Often while laughing amiably. After all, this is a friendly game...that often mocks losers and quitters. 

Therein lies the secret of Hot Ones' success: it adds drama to the by-now staid talk-show format, and uses reality competition show tactics to give viewers the simple pleasure of watching celebrities melt into puddles of sweat as they try to answer increasingly inane questions. Who inspires you most? I can't breathe! What's this Instagram photo about? Is there any more water? Word association! Coolio just passed out! DJ Khaled has stopped eating! Hannibal Burress has busted out the activated charcoal! And more, and more! You will love Hot Ones if you've ever watched The Late Late Show and wished that host Tom Snyder would dominate his contestants with spicy foods in a manner befitting a WWE cage match (I know not of this "James Kor-don" of whom you speak).

But all of this sounds so theoretical. What's it like to watch an episode of Hot Ones? I'm glad you asked, hypothetical reader. Don't move. Hang on. Just a minute.

Ok. Here, for your entertainment, are recaps of three great season five episodes, all of which highlight the show's essential charms and recent improvements.

Episode #104. Special guest: Charlize Theron. Original air date: March 8, 2018. Project being promoted: Gringo, now in theaters.

This episode is pretty endearing for a couple of reasons, chief among them being how fawning and star-struck Evans gets around the accomplished South African leading lady. Again: Hot Ones hasn't had too many female guests. This is partly because the show seems to have been designed with a certain target demographic in mind...and women aren't a huge part of that. Look, I love Hot Ones to bits, but inclusive it ain't: here have only been 12 female contestants over the course of 105 episodes. Thankfully, the show's creators seem to be addressing that disparity, albeit slowly. After all, we're five episodes into season five, and we've already had three lady guests. That's 25 percent more women! 

Theron's episode is a baby step in the right direction. Even if it also proves that Evans can sometimes come off like a very sore winner. It begins with Evans listing Theron's range of credentials, from winning the best actress Oscar for Monster (2003) to waving the green flag at this February's Daytona 500 race. Immediately, Evans helps Theron establish herself as a woman who can hang with the boys. She's strong but feminine, as we hear when Evans asks Theron which is tougher, ballet or action choreography. She can curse in Afrikans, like when she teaches Evans how to say, in her words, "'your mother's private bits,' but not that nice." She coyly adds: "I might be saying that later."

Then Evans asks Theron to do more Fallon-esque parlor games with him, including "Explain That 'Gram," a regular feature where Evans does a "deep dive" on his guests' IG accounts, and asks for "context" about a couple of photos. He goes relatively easy on Theron, and highlights basic stuff, like a photo of her playing golf with Will Smith. Theron doesn't even recognize this one: "Is that Ashley Judd??" And around this time, Evans uses one of his most oft-repeated phrases: he jokes that he's "[lulling Theron] into a false sense of security." He's joking — but he really isn't.

Sure enough, Theron starts sweating right after she tries a chicken wing dipped in Da Bomb Beyond Insanity hot sauce. This is the third hottest sauce for season five, and it's got a Scoville rating of 135,600 units. 

As Da Bomb starts to take effect, Theron fans herself while trying to explain why she hate this particular hot sauce: "I like spice, but that's like somebody being an asshole. That's just a dick move." Evans realizes that at this moment, he's formed a painful bond with Theron, one that you can only forge by eating spicy food with a major celebrity. He is not phased. In fact, he is enjoying this newfound camaraderie, even if Theron is complaining about how "breathing hurts:" "Like, when you're breathing, it activates it." But the damage is not only already done, but rather intensified considerably by the show's creators, who add dramatic music to the scene, and even a distorted audio clip of Theron repeating the Afrikaans phrase "Jou Ma se poes" (I don't really have to translate this one, do I?). Her lips never move, so the show's creators jokingly speak for Theron. It's funny, in a very juvenile kind of way.

Still, Theron tries to shake off the (momentary) pain she's apparently in by saying that the next sauce they try, Mad Dog 357 (Scoville rating: one million units) is better, but only because it tastes better. She tries to illustrate this point by jokingly talking up the complex flavor. She even half-seriously mentions the sauce's various "tones." Evans plays along and pretends to air-conduct an orchestra. But look at his face! This isn't just the face of somebody who knows he's bonded with a big-time celebrity. This is a man who knows he's dominating a big-time celebrity at his favorite game.

At this point, Theron is as close to an on-camera meltdown as she's going to get. Which is impressive since she blushes deeply, but never appears to sweat on camera. "You have a glow," Evans tells her shortly before he tells viewers that Theron hates the way the media trivializes artists by focusing on gossip instead of "the work." Making this remark in this specific context is kind of hysterical. When was the last time you watched a game show where contestants revealed so much of their personalities just by letting the host talk them up? 

Theron is a great sport because she matches Evans's half-joking tone beat for beat, even when he asks her what her UFC exit music would be (ABBA's "Fernando"). She even plays along with Evans when he, after they eat wings soaked in The Last Dab sauce, asks her to take a Rorschach test. She bemusedly identifies several blots. "Penis." "My breakfast." "Clown." She's good at this game, good enough to not give Evans a full-blown freak-out. But then Evans does what he does best, and playfully brings the show back to him by showing off an illustration of himself. Her playful response is perfect.

Episode #102. Special guest: Michael B. Jordan. Original air date: Feb. 22, 2018. Project being promoted: Black Panther, now in theaters.

Ok, this episode is great on a number of levels. Jordan is, as Evans points out "a very competitive guy." But he wears that part of himself lightly (in interviews, anyway), and plays Evans's game with even more grace than Evans. Sometimes Jordan lets out a little cry, or shows minor signs of discomfort. But for the most part, he's as composed and shockingly humble as Hot Ones guests come. This is really the best way to beat Evans: give the audience what they want — signs of physical discomfort — but never so much that you look weak. If Hot Ones were a professional competition, Jordan would be Bobby Fischer.

Just look at the way that Evans tries to draw Jordan out. As with Theron, Evans talks up his guest's manly credentials, including what he calls Jordan's "almost maniacal-like commitment to success." He then shows a video clip of Jordan taking a punch during a Creed rehearsal. Evans stresses that this video got one million views on Instagram. But Jordan shifts gears, and talks up the boxer that, in the video, lays him out. This dude, according to Jordan's estimate, was only punching using 40 percent of his maximum strength! 

Then they talk about rap lyrics that are about ambition and drive, two qualities that Evans singles out in Jordan. And soon after that, Jordan tries a piece of chicken coated with Karma Sauce's Extreme Karma hot sauce (Scoville rating: 56,000 units). Here's where Evans draws first blood, riiiight before he asks Jordan how far he can throw a football (60 yards), as well as talking up Jordan's "commitment to the gym," and even his "cheat days." Adonis Creed is really in shape! But he eats too! Mmm, that perfect blend of "please like me" compliments and "I understand you" solicitation. Love it.

Soon after this, Jordan tries the Da Bomb sauce, the same one that kicked off Theron's personal vision quest. Right around here, Jordan reaches for a glass of almond milk. But he doesn't drink since he already committed to clearing his plate before drinking anything (they usually offer water or milk). This is a foolish move on Jordan's part since, as Evans even says, there have only been two or three contestants who have gotten through the show without drinking something in order to clean their palette. And while it takes a moment for Jordan's wings to kick in, they do that. 

Still: Jordan's committed. He's got a Rodan-worthy look of concentration on his face. He's thinking about Evans' latest question (something about being approached by rabid The Wire fans?). And here's where Evans flexes on Jordan in a way that heel wrestlers dream of, and it's even more of a brutal power play than Theron's Afrikaans hallucination. At this point, Evans drinks a glass of milk. And he catches himself immediately, as if to say Oops, guess I just did the one thing you most wanted to do right now but can't bring yourself to because of your macho pride! And even Jordan breaks in a very small way when he responds "Ok, that feels bad." But Evans isn't done! He half-apologizes, half-rubs-it-in by shrugging and saying:

Things only get worse for Jordan from here. He winces while Evans plows through some of his dumbest questions. This episode proves a theory of mine: Evans's questions get stupider as the heat gets kicked up several notches. To wit: Evans asks Jordan to play a round of "This Or That" right after he picks a favorite anime, book, and video game (One Punch Man,The Alchemist and Call of Duty). But Jordan's on the ropes. He even says so aloud: "It's hard to look at you and care what you're fuckin' talkin' about." But still, he takes all of his pain on the chin. He thinks about drinking some milk again, but talks himself down: "Milk doesn't help!" Evans calmly agrees, saying that there's no catch-all solution for cooling down after eating a hot wing. 

Still, despite all this, Jordan comes out on top. He's smiling, and joking things off. This is no small feat since, again: he didn't drink anything until he finished! Evans has had on multiple guests who have cracked under far less stress (cough DJ Khaled cough). But look at Jordan's face! This episode is an all-timer because Jordan has such a great under-dog character arc.

Episode #97. Special guest: Taraji P. Henson. Original air date: Jan. 18, 2018. Project being promoted: Proud Mary, soon to be on VOD.

Henson's episode is fantastic on a number of levels. For starters, she doesn't make it all the way through. This is a good reason to watch since Hot Ones fans, like NASCAR afficinados, love a good blow-up. But there are so many amazing aspects of Henson's episode, all of which holistically make up for the fact that Henson didn't do much press for Proud Mary (spoiler alert: the film is sadly rather bad). 

Firstly: Henson is far more bubbly and excited than most of Evans's other guests. This is possibly because she goes in knowing that she can quit any time. "I'm gonna tap out," she jokes early on. "I'm tellin' you here." Now, Evans usually reminds his guests that he "[doesn't] make you do anything." But of course that only makes contestants want to compete even more (and I'd bet money that Evans knows this). 

Henson also appears to be drunk. That's not a negative judgment: I'd do the same if I were promoting Proud Mary on Hot Ones (Speaking of which: hey, Sean! Find me on Twitter at simonsaybrams!). But Henson does appear to be tipsy. And she jokes about how the show's camera crew are probably "not sober." And...hang on, I'm getting ahead of myself.

So: Henson answers all of Evans's questions with good humor. She gives advice to various up-and-coming rappers. She asks for a cocktail. Then she tries Adoboloco Haiwaiian Hot Sauce's Hamajang Kiawe Smoked Ghost Pepper sauce. And it's so hot that Henson has to stick her tongue into a glass of milk. At this point, she appears too intoxicated to care. She's making jokes, and even refers to the way that her character in Talk to Me used to drink a vodka-and-milk-based drink called a Polar Bear. Remember: this hot sauce is only (ha!) 32,000 Scoville units, and is therefore only the fifth of ten wings on Henson's plate. She's only half-way through, but she's (understandably) sweating.

The contest and questions continue. Evans asks about Instagram photos with Cookie Monster and President Barack Obama, and even a hilarious high school #ThrowbackThursday pic. Henson's hitting the milk pretty hard, but she's answering all of Evans's questions. Then, suddenly: she calls a time-out! She tries to compose herself while her security guy Dave comes on camera. Somebody hands her a plastic cup full of Crown Royal whisky and some crushed ice. Which leads a now loopy Henson to give a shout out to musician Jill Scott, who, as Henson notes, wrote a song about Crown Royal

But soon after this, Henson taps out, joining the show's "Hall of Shame" alongside other quitters like Michael Rapaport and Ricky Gervais. You'd think this might be where the show tapers off, quality-wise. But no: this is where it gets really good. 

So Henson keeps drinking her drink while Dave eats wings on her behalf. Evans jokes that this is an unprecedented turn of events since, well, no other guest has ever done this before. "Sometimes on Hot Ones, you need extra muscle," Evans laughs helplessly as Dave proceeds to, in Evans's own words, "clean" every wing presented to him. This is a walk in the park for Dave. 

Now, Dave never slows down, which makes the contest element of the episode hard to bump up without some extra help in the post-production department. So viewers are treated to a hallucinatory montage where we see Henson talking Evans's ear off about everything and nothing while Dave keeps his head down and eats chicken. It's a hilarious bit on a number of levels, chief among them that Henson pulled a WarGames, and beat Evans's game by simply not playing. Just look at the lack of expression on Dave's face as Henson's disembodied head flies around him. Then, once Dave reaches the end of Evans's gauntlet without breaking a sweat — his dry hat is proof! —Henson gets to plug her film. Funnily enough, she's speechless. "Tell everybody" she yells. "Tell Buddha! Tell Gandhi!" Hot Ones may never be able to top this episode, but its fifth season is off to a roaring start.