When it comes to pure, harmless entertainment, there’s nothing better than watching a celebrity completely lose it.
This is the premise—nay, the hope—of the YouTube talk show–game show hybrid series Hot Ones. In an ordinary episode, a celebrity takes on the challenge of consuming 10 chicken (or vegan) wings covered in hot sauces, each spicier than the one before. In between wings, they’re peppered with questions about career and life—but as the wings become hotter, the guests struggle to focus on anything but their overpowering physical and mental responses to the spiciness. By the time the guest consumes their final wing, they’ve usually been reduced to a sweating, sniffling, defeated mess.
Nine seasons and 162 episodes in, Hot Ones has seen quite a range of reactions and outcomes, but a great place to start is Episode 16, “Key & Peele Lose Their Minds Eating Spicy Wings.” At the time of the episode’s release in April 2016, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele had already wrapped up their popular Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele and were promoting Keanu, a film written by Peele and starring them both. (This was before Peele released his directorial feature debut, Get Out.) The episode starts out pretty much like any other celebrity talk show interview: The guest tells a funny anecdote—in this case, about Key’s appearance at an Obama White House Correspondents’ Dinner—and dishes about the project at hand. But just 3:15 into the interview, two wings in, the Hot Ones monster begins to show its face.
As Key is beginning to dive into another story, Peele whispers on the side to host Sean Evans, “It’s hot, man.” Key tries to continue with his anecdote but, chewing loudly, keeps getting distracted by the task at hand. “This is not a joke,” he says as Peele becomes dazed and glassy-eyed, staring off into the middle distance, so much so that Key interrupts himself to ask if Peele’s OK. He is, but as Key finishes his story, he realizes he’s talking a mile a minute and cursing up a storm. And we’re off!
The most intriguing aspect of Hot Ones is its unpredictability. The show fills its guest roster with all kinds of famous people—actors, rappers, athletes, chefs, comedians—but there’s really no way to tell whether someone can literally take the heat. This makes each episode of the series, produced by First We Feast and Complex, a wholly unique artifact. Sometimes people freak out, like Cara Delevingne and Shaq; others take the challenge head-on, like Gordon Ramsay—who came prepared with his own remedies, including doughnuts and a glass of Pepto Bismol, to ease the pain. (Still, he demanded of Evans, “Have you ever killed anybody?”) Still others, like Michael Cera and Padma Lakshmi, handle the pressure with calm aplomb. Key and Peele’s episode is a good place to start because we see them each breaking down in their own ways.
Hot Ones would probably still be a great show regardless of the wings gimmick. Guests often praise Evans, mid-interview, for asking unexpectedly thoughtful and well-researched questions. Like any celebrity talk show, there are some recurring interview tropes, like perusing the guest’s Instagram feed or asking about favorite rap lyrics about themselves. But Evans—who eats with his guests and seems to have a supernatural tolerance for hot sauce—tends to inquire about forgotten characters and stories deep within a guest’s career, which appeals to both the guest and their fans. In the Key and Peele episode, this moment comes at 9:06 when the two are so flustered that they briefly can’t recall an obscure tidbit Evans has brought up. “Why are you asking the deepest, most referential shit?” Peele accuses him. Key’s response is even better: “I’m having a stroke.” By just taking the time to do a bit more research, Hot Ones diverges from the same old spiel we often hear on late night and offers a refreshing, fan-friendly version of the celebrity interview.
By the time Key and Peele get to the last wing, Peele sits hunched over his seat and can barely utter a word, and Key has to stand up and take a lap around the room: “Whose fucking idea was this show?” The answer is Christopher Schonberger, who was inspired by Alexa Chung’s offbeat interviews on a British talk show called Popworld. The secret there, and on Hot Ones, was to get celebrities off-guard so audiences could actually get to know them and not the persona they wished to present to the world. In Hot Ones, the hot sauces become something of a truth serum revealing a celebrity’s true, unguarded self. In the Key and Peele episode, we see the two rely on their inherent comedy chops to help them under pressure. Others on the show become giddy, foul-mouthed, or stay completely cool. The reactions may vary, but in the end there’s one common theme: Celebrities—when it comes to hot sauce, they really are just like us.