Columns, Opinion

Seen On TV: Chicken wing journalism

One of my favorite pieces of broadcast journalism these days comes from an unlikely source. For a few years now, the YouTube series “Hot Ones” has taught a masterclass on the art of celebrity interviews. 

The show is somewhat held back from being celebrated by traditional journalism institutions like the Columbia Journalism Review because of its strange concept — succinctly laid out by host Sean Evans at the beginning of each episode with the phrase“You’re watching ‘Hot Ones.’it’s the show with hot questions and even hotter wings.”

Smaran Ramidi / DFP Staff

For those who are unfamiliar with its glory, “Hot Ones” is an interview show where guests eat increasingly spicy chicken wings in between each question.

I honestly believe that if you aired this same show on a broadcast or cable news network, it would be highly regarded as one of the greatest interview-focused shows of all time.

And the celebrity interview genre is a tricky one to evaluate and equally tricky to celebrate.

At a certain point in life, you come to the realization that every guest you’ve ever seen on a late-night talk show is just there to try to make you stream their album, go to their movie or buy their cookbook. It’s not the pals-hanging-out situation that the host and guest want you to believe — it’s purely transactional.

The guest comes on the show to advertise their product and the host, in turn, reaps the benefit of said celebrity attracting viewers to their show — that’s the cold and capitalistic reality.

The host’s team also engages in a ‘pre-interview’ with the guest to find out what they want to be asked about during their appearance and what stories they might be able to offer.

The host behind the desk — whether that be Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres or David Letterman — then carries out the interview as planned.

What seems, from the audience’s vantage point, like a fun conversation between two pals is actually a cold, highly-manufactured marketing endeavor.

On the other hand, “Hot Ones” strays away from many of the conventions of this genre and openly mocks many of them too.

For one, the show’s out-there concept is at once a fun gimmick, but it’s also a commentary on the tired celebrity interview genre. In an interview on “The Today Show” in 2019, Evans described the show’s origin as “trying to solve a problem.”

“Celebrity interview shows are boring, how do we make them not boring?” Evans said. “Our solve for that, hot sauce.”

Many talk shows probably could have had this hot wings gimmick and been modestly successful with it. But without the journalistic bonafides of Evans’ and his team, the show wouldn’t be an incredibly interesting interview show.

There are many compilations on YouTube of “Hot Ones” guests complimenting Evans on his interview skills, with many commenting, “That’s a great question.”

With his interesting and uncommon questions, you can tell that Evans and his team have done their research. A “Hot Ones” interview is methodical, intentional and curated to each guest.

In an interview on the “H3 Podcast,” Evans described each new chicken wing as a “new act,” which allows him to structure the interview more than others can. Instead of a constant stream of questions being thrown at the guest, each question comes at a consistent cadence. As Evans says in the interview, it breaks up a long interview into manageable chunks.

The reason I think the show is so successful and has grown into one of my favorite sources for celebrity interviews is the care that the team behind the show has obviously put into it. Evans, who studied broadcast journalism at the University of Illinois, takes his job seriously and views “Hot Ones” not just as a funny opportunity to show celebrities freaking out about spicy wings, but also as an opportunity to dissect and reinvent the celebrity interview.

If mainstream journalism institutions and audiences would take “Hot Ones” as seriously as Evans’ and his team does, they’d realize that it’s a lot more than a show about chicken wings.

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