Sean Evans may have just landed his dream job. No, we’re not talking about the one where he eats hot wings during an in-depth one-on-one interview with some of the most famous people in the world. We’re talking about his new gig as the host of Hot Ones: The Game Show. “I’ve always thought that the game show host was the best job in the history of entertainment,” Evans tells me over the phone while filling me in on the unlikely TV star who he drew inspiration from.
Hot Ones: The Game Show is currently deep into its first season on truTV, and while it might not seem it at first, the show is the logical progression of Hot Ones — the hit online interview show made famous by Evans and Complex. In the game show version, Evans guides contestants through a competition that sees two teams battling it out in the “Pepperdome” through three rounds of trivia while tasting some of the world’s spiciest hot sauces. Though the host may not be chopping it up one-on-one with a celebrity here, his role is essentially the same. He’s on hand to take both the contestants and the audience on a journey that makes everyone feel like this is all some big wild, wooly hang session.
This week, we talked to Evans about the struggles of operating his shows in a pandemic world, his favorite parts of hosting a proper game show, and his current list of favorite hot sauces.
What made it feel like a game show was the logical progression of the Hot Ones brand? It feels like you’ve flipped the script, you humanized celebrities in Hot Ones, and now with the game show you’re glorifying everyday people.
Yeah, it’s exactly that. It just has an inverse relationship. What was an unintended consequence but kind of the magic of Hot Ones was that it’s this perfect “What’s it like to have a beer with this person?” celebrity interview show. That’s mostly because it takes a celebrity — which is, as a lifestyle, this unattainable and aspirational thing — and knocks them off of their pedestal to a level that we all understand, which is dying on hot sauce.
What we do with the game show is the complete inverse of that, which is exalting contestants with hot sauce, taking fans of the show and making them heroes in the Pepperdome, and hopefully winning them $25,000 and a milkshake.
Do you have any game show host idols that you took inspiration from?
I’ve always thought that the game show host was the best job in the history of entertainment because no one who has them ever leaves. Bob Barker was at The Price is Right forever, Drew Carey will be there forever, Alex Trebek at Jeopardy forever! But the guy that I think is the most underrated was Ben Bailey from Cash Cab. His style of taking the bootleg approach to doing game shows, and then being so funny, and then making a show that’s really smart, he did that perfectly. If Hot Ones the interview show started as a game show, it would be totally like Cash Cab.
Ben Bailey is someone who is special.
How are both shows adapting to COVID-19.? You’re working with something that causes people to cough and breath heavily on each other, how is that working as a remote operation?
Hot Ones as a studio show is not very social-distancing friendly because everyone is eating food and spitting at each other from across the table. The interview show has been affected heavily, we’ve started season 12 by shooting episodes remotely, and that’s offering a unique experience because we’re sending these sauces in the mail and celebrities are over saucing their wings. So it’s already a hot lineup but now it’s super hot in the at-home edition. All those little production things that I took for granted that are now on my plate, whether its sound or lighting or framing or taking this footage and uploading it to DropBox and Airdropping it. All the days that have been ruined trying to do that.
But for the game show, we were really lucky because we mass shot a ton of episodes in December. We did the whole year’s worth when we could still pack the Pepperdome, and that’s what’s happening with the episodes that are coming out now. We have a fully packed Pepperdome.
We were very lucky to have banked all of that before this whole thing went down, but it definitely affected the interview show quite a bit, it’s been a pain to try and do all of that stuff from my living room but for the game show, we lucked out on the timing and lucked out by shooting so many episodes.
Aside from the technical aspects of doing Hot Ones remote, how does it affect the dynamic of the interview?
Nothing will ever replace the face to face, at least for my style. Our show on paper is so stupid: “We’re going to interview you but you have to eat increasingly spicy chicken wings that turn into dorm room-like prank sauces.” On paper, it’s such a tough sell but we win people over in person a lot because everyone who works on the show is awesome, there are ways we win you over on sight.
Even during the course of the interview, if people thought on the surface level it was a goofy show, by the third or the fourth wing their shoulders are relaxed and they’re into it and there is this connection that is made and you can’t replace that over the internet, it’s impossible.
The thing that I’m missing the most in doing this is that face to face connection that really shines through on Hot Ones and makes those episodes so special. It can’t be replaced and no one wants to get back into the studio more than me for that exact reason.
But the flip side of that is that in these times you could shut down production and just not do anything and wait until things get back on track, but when you do that you alienate your audience. People need a sense of normalcy, even if they’re only escaping it in a YouTube video that comes out every Thursday. For us, it’s important to deliver that Thursday episode because, for the people who really want and need that right now, they want and need it more than they ever have. I think that right now it’s our duty to serve those people that need that Hot Ones fix and that escape because its such a bleak and depressing time. I think that we have an obligation and a duty to do our best and make the show and give people a sense of normalcy.
It goes both ways, I don’t love shooting stuff in the house, it loses something, but at the same time, you get to kind of get to go into people’s homes now, which is interesting. In the Eric Andre episode we just shot he’s walking around his house, he has a framed picture of a baby GG Allin hugging the Pope, all these little things you wouldn’t normally see you’re able to experience now that you’re in people’s homes. And again, they’re over saucing the wings, they’re dumping sauce on them on sight, so the whole thing has a gonzo quality to it and gives people a different perspective.
There are pluses and minuses but not being about to have that in-person connection is something I really miss.
You’ve seen wings as an equalizer — You’ve sat with huge celebrities eating them, and you’ve spent time with everyday people eating them, what makes chicken wings the right food to theme two shows around?
Hot wings are just such a universal thing. If we ever did the show with tacos or chips I don’t think it would work. Wings are just a thing everyone knows and understands. It’s also just a funny food, so that’s what really makes it work. My role doesn’t change from show to show. In the interview show it becomes a buddy cop movie by the end because we are both on this spicy chicken wing journey together, and then on the game show, it’s very different, but I’m still there for the team. I’m there in spirit, to help them through it. I talk to the teams before we get out there because it is an extreme show. On the interview show, we inch up the hotness wing after wing, turning that knob just a little bit more over this marathon career-spanning interview, but with the game show, it all comes so fast. The first wing is brutal and it only goes up from there. It’s ultimately a painful endeavor but I hope that anyone who goes through it, whether it’s a celebrity on the interview show or a fan on the game show, feels supported while they go through it. There is someone there for them, everyone in the Pepperdome and everyone on set is rooting for them.
The best moment in every Hot Ones episode happens near the end of the lineup when your guest is just completely out of themselves with their guard down. Which reaction has surprised you the most?
It all kind of blends into this spicy fever dream but what I’ve found is that everything is hard to predict. We would always bet beforehand about how someone will do, who we think will pass — they’ll do this, they’ll do that — but you cannot predict it. When Halle Berry came onto the show, she walked in and we didn’t know how she’d take to it. She said “I’m here for lunch, I’m cleaning it all, I don’t care. I’m not going to drink any water or milk.” Who would’ve thought Halle Berry would come in and say that?
Jim Gaffigan looked like a wing eating guy, he has all this material about food, but he tapped out and we thought that he’d for sure finish. You can’t ever predict it — so in a weird way, I’m surprised by everyone. If I try to predict beforehand, I’m wrong every single time.
What’s one of your favorite things about being a game show host over being and interviewer? It has to be not having to eat insanely hot wings, right?
Yeah, well, that’s one thing that’s great! But the thing that is the most rewarding about the game show is that when we do the interview show it’s very intimate, there aren’t many people in the room, it’s in this dark 80s cable access budget set. If its done right Stone Cold Steve Austin kind of forgets by the third wing that he’s even on a show, it’s just two people talking at a table. That’s awesome in a lot of ways and I think that’s how an interview should be, but the game show is so different because we pack the studio with 350 plus people who are all hot wings fans.
We shot in Atlanta, which I didn’t know was a hotbed for Hot Ones fans, so all of these people are cheering and dancing in the aisles, and throwing me hot sauce bottles to sign. When you do a show on the internet, I get that people watch it, I see the numbers, I read the comments, there are people who recognize me on the street, but you can’t physically touch your audience like you can on a game show and so that was the most rewarding thing about it for me.
Every shoot had so much energy, and it felt like a concert for the fans. Afterward, I’m signing hot sauce bottles, and taking pictures with people and high fiving people. The rush you get from walking off the set of a game show, you feel high. When you walk off the interview show you get a spicy high, but you don’t get that rush that you get from the game show.
If I could pick an analogy from music, the interview feels like the songwriting studio work, and the game show feels like the concert.
Is that much different than doing Hot Ones live, like at Complexcon or on a late-night show, or is it the game show setting that makes the rush so extreme?
Doing Fallon or Colbert or a live Complexcon episode, that has its own sort of nerves that you go through. I used to get them before high school football games — that feeling where you’re like “ugh I just want to get out there and do it because standing around is giving me crazy anxiety.” In the Pepperdome there are like a bajillion lights, there are pyrotechnics coming out from under the floor, you have a DJ who is blasting out music, and throwing contests in-between episodes and during commercial breaks, you have medics on hand, you have four people dying on spice running around the set, so it’s just like a much different environment in almost every way.
We’ve come to the point where I must ask you some hot sauce recommendations. Could you give us some of your favorite mild and ultra spicy sauces?
The best hot sauce, my favorite of all time, is the Queen Majesty Scotch Bonnet and Ginger Sauce, Yellowbird, they’re out of Austin Texas, they’ve never been on the show but they’re an amazing hot sauce maker, they have a habanero sauce that is awesome. I’m big on the Torchbearer guys, we’ve had a few of their sauces on the show but I like their horseradish — it’s my favorite that they do. Those are manageable sauces that are just awesome if you love hot sauce, I highly recommend picking up those three.
As far as a spicy sauce here is a call back — Zombie Apocalypse from Torchbearer, it was a great sauce that actually tasted good but is intense. Los Calientes Rojo which we have on the show now, that’s maybe the best sauce we’ve ever made. When you smell it you’re like “Oh my god it’s so good” but then it kicks harder than it smells, and you just keep eating because it tastes so good.
When you get that labor of love ceiling when you’re sweating through it and going through pain to enjoy the meal but you’ve found yourself finishing it, that’s how you know you’ve reached the edge of your place but you also have something that tastes excellent. That’s really a challenge from a culinary perspective to balance that, make something that’s not only hot but also adds flavor.
Do you have a favorite chili pepper?
I’m a jalapeño guy. I like habanero in sauces but not just eating one straight up. On not one but two occasions I’ve eaten a Carolina Reaper which I do not recommend anyone do but that’s an experience. That’s a trip, it’ll mess up your day but you’ll come out the other side a changed person.
Do you hate hot wings?
Hot Ones has totally killed wings for me. I don’t want to eat wings at a Super Bowl party, I don’t want to go out and get wings with anybody. People think I’m an encyclopedia of wing knowledge like “Hey dude I’m in Seattle, what’s the best wing spot?” Like I know every wing spot! I’m not a wing expert, I don’t love wings, if I even see them it’ll feel like work, so I have an almost Pavlovian response to them.
But the hot sauce, I truly love. Being exposed to all these different growers, all these different hot sauce makers, going to hot sauce expos, and meeting all these people at the Wing Out event in Chicago or whatever. The hot sauce subculture is so interesting and I’ve met all the people who make up the industry. I’ve sampled so many hot sauces over the years that I’ve actually become more into hot sauce. My fridge is packed full of hot sauce, I use hot sauce frequently, I’m probably more interested in hot sauce than I was when we started the show.
But off-camera, in this sort of quarantine atmosphere where I’m less mobile, I’m eating a lot of grain bowls and salads and healthy cereals and juices and stuff.
How have you been spending this time in quarantine?
What’s been nice is over the last couple of weeks is that we’ve gotten busy again, we are shooting episodes and putting them out, editing them over Zoom which takes more time than it used to take, everything is a little more complicated and more of a pain and more time consuming, but it feels good to be busy again and making episodes again.
Other than that, I’ve just been listening to true crime podcasts, and watching every episode of Better Call Saul and doing all the basic ride it out occupy your time habits, mass watching tv shows, listening to podcasts, calling my friends, having poker nights over Zoom. Talking to my dad a little bit more.
It’s a reset and it’s a universal experience we’re all going through that we cannot stand, but on the plus side of it, if you take the time to reconnect with people who through the ebbs and flows of the busyness of life you were unable to, maybe that’s a positive.
You can watch Hot Ones: The Game Show every Tuesday night on truTV.