‘Hot Ones’ Hits 300 Episodes: How Scorching Chicken Wings Conquered YouTube and Hollywood
Sean Evans has consumed approximately 3,000 chicken wings on camera as the host of “Hot Ones,” the viral series that subjects A-list actors, hip hop stars, comedians and other notable figures to unbearably spicy sauces in a traditional talk show format.
The show, produced by Complex’s First We Feast label, has become a go-to on the celebrity promotional circuit – as mandatory and beneficial as a ride in James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. Thursday marks the series’ 300th episode (it features comic John Mulaney challenging his gastrointestinal fortitude) and represents a milestone for a digital project with cable access amenities and a game show hook.
Chris Schonberger, creator of “Hot Ones,” marvels at how far the series has come. The title has 8.6 million followers across social platforms and has racked 385 million views on TikTok so far this year. On its native platform YouTube, the “Hot Ones” channel counts 91.9 million views in the shorts category for 2023 – up from only 13.1 million views in 2022. In addition to selling its own signature hot sauces and frozen chicken products, Complex’s parent company BuzzFeed announced Thursday that the show will partner with GrubHub for a delivery pop-up in New York City. Customers can sample the same sauces as their favorite stars in 6-and-12-piece wing combos.
Schonberger also revealed that the series will launch its first spin-off, “Heat Eaters.” The six-episode series will be hosted by Esther Choi, the chef and proprietor behind New York’s Mŏkbar and Ms. Yoo, which will explore how spice is represented in global cultures. Clearly, they’ve come a long way from the first wing.
“11 years ago, First We Feast was launched as a brand that merged food and pop culture. I had been writing about food at Timeout New York, and it became something my contemporaries were taking about more than sports or music. What are you cooking and where are you eating this weekend?” Schonberger said. “A lot of traditional media wasn’t speaking to this new audience. It was an ivory tower of foodies with a capital ‘F.’”
The brand benefitted from what Schonberger called “the great pivot to video across the industry,” where legacy food sites with deep catalogs of traffic-grabbing recipes had to compete with younger creators and a new medium.
“It leveled the playing field. No one had invested that much in their video product up until that time. Showing this new point of view about the intersection of food and culture just popped so much more on camera,” he remembers.
Complex was and remains deeply rooted in music and street culture – from sneakers and skaters to hip-hop royalty. The “Hot Ones” team took advantage of the talent roaming its corporate halls. Their first guest was Tony Yayo, the G-Unit rapper. Evans was a face Schonberger saw often in the office, a Complex on-air host that golfed with Steph Curry and played guinea pig for fitness trends (like following Dwayne Johnson’s diet for a week) in the name of views.
“He took to our idea immediately,” Schonberger said.
The show’s production and format are dead simple and have barely evolved since inception. Black drapes frame a table for two, equipped with a pitcher of ice water, a glass of milk, and ten chicken wings. As the host and guests move through the wings, the heat ratchets up, all measured on an index called the Scoville Spice Scale. The results can be horrifying and glorious, especially when top talent starts to crack under the heat with a camera pointed at them (Jennifer Lawrence was the most recent, meme-generating victim).
“It maybe the cliche, but the assumption is that celebrities hate doing press and every junket is a slog. When they do ‘Hot Ones,’ not only does it deliver for them in terms of getting eyeballs, but it’s also a crazy experience that you would talk about at a dinner party,” Schonberger said. “It’s a badge of honor.”
It took time and behind-the-scenes vouching to land the caliber of stars that “Hot Ones” currently draws. They fought for years against a perception that the show was “unserious,” he said and was only suitable to promote fare like summer comedies.
Kevin Hart was an early get, he recalls. Another watershed moment came when Charlize Theron agreed to appear in 2018. “From that point on so many names, like a Chelsea Handler, would come in and say, ‘Charlize told me to do this,’” Schonberger said. Gordon Ramsay, Ricky Gervais, John Mayer, Billie Eilish, and many more followed. “Hot Ones” has also been the subject of parody (perhaps the biggest marker of success) in recent years. Maya Rudolph has done two spoofs on the series, one on her Apple show “Loot” and another on “Saturday Night Live” where she appeared in character as Beyonce. The series hit an industry peak when Focus Features booked Cate Blanchett on the show last year, an unexpected stop on her Oscar campaign for “Tar” which proved a stroke of publicity genius.
“The phone’s ringing more, there’s more inbound interest than there ever was before,” Schonberger said. He also credits the evolution of Evans’ interview style, which has become a more thorough examination of his guests’ past setbacks and triumphs.
“The show has evolved to be more of a deep dive interview, to cover craft and other aspects of people’s lives and work. It’s not seen as an internet freak show, which it definitely was for a long time,” he says. The series has also not yet reached the heights of its ambition.
“Dreaming big? ‘Hot Ones’ should be the most popular wing restaurant in America,” Schonberger said. “The products that we’ve built have been really informed by this idea of, how do we give fans the tools to eat the show and live the show?”
Eat and live “Hot Ones” at your own risk.