Hot Thoughts: SNL and Hot Ones
(Originally written 3/31/21)
SNL had a skit about Hot Ones last week.
If you’re not familiar, Hot Ones is an interview show inspired by three key concepts about human nature. First: it’s hard to focus on serious answers while you’re eating very hot food. Second: celebrities have a carefully crafted and maintained public image. Third: if celebrities were to attempt to answer serious questions while eating hot food, that image would crack, and hilarity would ensue. Guests are invited on to answer a series of ten questions while taking bites of ten chicken wings, each coated with hotter and hotter sauces that divide the table between the host and guest. (And yes, they provide vegan wings on request.)
The show kicked off around 2016–2017 with a regular pattern of guests: hip-hop artists I didn’t know and comedians I maybe sorta knew. The unpredictable, raw nature of the guests’ reactions to sauces like Da Bomb Beyond Insanity or Tears of the Sun attracted attention from an early cadre of dedicated fans that bloomed into a community creating power rankings for best guests, worst reactions, and the like. What sustained its growth, however, and attracted guests like Gordon Ramsey, Shaq, Billy Eilish and Dan Levy, was its host, Sean Evans.
Evans is a remarkable interviewer. His guests are used to being the center of attention by their celebrity nature. But in the black void of the show’s set, the guests aren’t merely the center of attention — they’re attended to. The experience never appears pleasant, given the pain of consuming so many Scoville units’ worth of wings in such a short amount of time, but Evans maintains a composed focus on the guests that’s equal parts impressive — he’s eating the wings alongside each celebrity — and comforting. Part of the spectacle is watching him be relatively unaffected by Torchbearer Zombie Apocalypse, especially knowing that he’s had that same meal three other times this week. The questions that he asks are genuinely interesting, however, and he’s able to build a remarkably strong camaraderie with his stars over the show’s 20-minute runtime that helps in getting novel answers out of the jaded interviewees despite, and also due to, the chemical warfare happening in their mouths. The show’s success is in large part due to Evans’ strong persona as an interviewer, and the team researching for the questions is second-best in the entire game.
SNL chose to incorporate only the form of Hot Ones into their sketch. Maya Rudolph, ever great, plays Beyoncé, and the central gag is what you’d expect: she reacts dramatically (forcefully, threateningly) to hot sauces with silly names, though she only gets through Hitler’s Anus and Devil’s Diarrhea before shutting the whole production down. Mikey Day is playing Evans no differently than he plays the host of BK Joe: he’s dorky and hesitant, a far cry from the in-control Evans.
Day is a solid member of the cast. He can play the essential straight man against absurd characters by Cecily Strong or Kenan Thompson, and he can also be wonderfully weird himself as in Mother Knows Best. It’s a shame this performance misses the point of making a Hot Ones parody that’s truly goofing on the original source material, and isn’t just a vehicle for reaffirming Beyoncé’s regality. If that’s the case, the option exists to have a generic hot wings show instead. It’s possible that SNL didn’t want to take the risk of lampooning something so niche as the mannerisms of the host of a show with ~10 million YouTube subscribers, but they could have delivered something more in-depth than just a nebbish white hipster.
To her credit, SNL’s Beyoncé does nail the “my friend told me to do this show because she’s a fan” refrain so common to some guests, and their Evans does plumb her career’s early years for questions. What more doesn’t work with this sketch overall is the way it attempts to recreate the spontaneous moments of Hot Ones with scripted gags. As silly and elevated as those get, they miss the spirit of the source material, and it almost feels unfair to ask a performer as talented as Rudolph to try. I say almost because the weight her voice gains as she enunciates “put six ice cubes on my head then put my wig back on” over and over, slower and slower, is perfect.
Hot Ones is in its 14th season. The show’s biggest episode when I discovered it, featuring Key and Peele, has ~685k views. Two weeks ago, their episode with Paris Hilton earned 1.8M, and Paul Rudd’s iconic episode last spring earned 17M. Their production company, First We Feast, has a successful line of hot sauces. They make great gifts, and even though my birthday is in September, it’s never to early to start giving. Hot Ones’ biggest breakthrough was appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where Evans got Colbert to discuss the nature of Hell while choking down Da Bomb. Sean Evans is far from a household name, but in internet music and comedy circles, he’s well known for his accomplishments.
Being parodied on SNL is a cultural marker known to very few, and I’ve no concern about the longevity of Hot Ones or Evans as a host or journalist (an earlier version reduced him to ‘content creator;’ this error was quickly addressed). If the writers at SNL choose to make this a recurring bit, I hope it’d be done with greater attention to comedic detail.