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Inside Hot Ones, the wildly popular and heavily spirited YouTube show

Stone Cold Steve Austin is the greatest man I have ever seen in real life. Everything about the retired wrestler screams huge. From where I sit, with the milk, his shoulders seem to have their own gravitational field under his tight-fitting black shirt; his biceps remember boulders, or perhaps one of the Rocky Mountains with its tops smoothed; his hands, surprisingly agile, are like buckets on digging arms. Massive. But Austin seems nervous. Something has shaken the big man.

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Opposite him is a slender, more normal man, dressed in the cool, contemporary creative uniform – black windbreaker, black shirt, black jeans, grayish Common Projects sneakers, golden Rolex. It is smaller than Austin, although it is also bald. But Sean Evans is inexplicable. And now he projects reassurance when he asks about Austin & # 39; s tolerance for herbs. "Man, in my area at the time, I was the most difficult SOB in the history of WWE," Austin replies. & # 39; Here for you? I am perhaps the biggest sissy you have ever had on the show. & # 39;

For the two men, ten just-sawn wings are artfully laid down on two wooden cutting boards. Austin's job is simple: all he has to do is finish the wings and answer a few questions from Evans as he does this. Although, it's not as easy as it sounds. Each wing is covered with hot sauce, and as they progress, the spiciness escalates. This is the formula for Hey, a YouTube series with millions of dedicated viewers, appearing every Thursday at 11.00 am for a new episode with a new face. "It's the show with hot questions and even hotter wings," says Evans, as he has done nine seasons in the last four years at the start of each episode.

Hey has attracted a surprisingly large number of celebrities as guests, listens all the way from A to F and has made Evans a well-known guy in his own right. But not because of his talent to knock down hellolyly spicy wings; people know Evans because he is a sympathetic and consistently surprising interviewer – a little more Terry Gross than Nardwuar The Human Serviette. That means that he has done extensive research into who is sitting opposite him at the table, but that he is equally good at putting his guests at ease.

Over the hour from Austin at the table, Evans conveys the great man in spicier and spicier wings; Austin comes all the way to the end of the challenge, and yes, he does. (More on that later.) A few weeks later, when the episode appears on YouTube, I notice that the end product is not much different than what I had seen through the milk. It is certainly a polished interview. But Evans manages to see his life-size hero Stone Cold Steve Austin – also known as the Texas Rattlesnake, aka Stone Cold The Bionic Redneck, also known as & # 39; Stunning & # 39; Steve Austin – convert to Steven Anderson, a human man. That's the reason Hey has become one of the most popular video series on the internet. Which could also make the future of late-night television nowadays.


The context

Making this show – the one who is the bellwether of an industry that Americans have loved since Ed Sullivan debuted in 1948 – is undeniably tough. "The Hey it doesn't stop, "Evans says, right after the shoot." We fucking fuck … how much Hot peoplerelated video & # 39; s per year? Like almost every week, & # 39; he continues. "Right now, I think I'm just like a farm animal. I'm just a junkyard dog. As if my lips are on fire, my throat, my stomach is bubbling a little, but I know I have an interview now, I have to go to go an operation and then I have to go home and do Steph Curry research and then I got to set my alarm clock and then do it all over again. "

Evans ends, rebellious. However, he does not seem upset. "I wouldn't trade it, you know."

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Making video & # 39; s is the same as making any other high-quality food product; the processing machines cannot stop, because the hunger of the public is never satisfied. Hey was born during a tumultuous time for digital media: the year 2015. Before that, the news activities had undergone a series of catastrophes – Craig Newmark had killed advertisements, the lifeblood of newspaper financing; the pre-paywall transition from print to digital was largely completed, which meant that the number of subscriptions in both arenas fell; and Google and Facebook had conquered and cannibalized the digital advertising market, which would soon happen to catch up are traditional counterparts. In 2015, however, the news industry had begun seriously with its disastrous twist on video. Largely taken over by Facebook's exaggerated video statistics, news publishers had begun to change their editorial strategies to increase their user engagement, which they could then use to sell advertisers with higher advertising rates. Digital starters such as Vice (true, complete openness, I used to work) and Mic attracted tons of young people to create the content to feed an perceived collective hunger.

Complex was one of those companies; they had grown up by bringing news and entertainment blogs to the attention of the masses, but by 2016 their strategy shifted. (Complex would close the printed magazine the following year, after a respectable 14-year run.) The company's vertical and food culture, First We Feast, had launched four under Chris Schonberger years earlier, and it organized the hodgepodge of short messages, videos & viral snark that was characteristic of the media time. It was then, on the 35th floor of the old complex office in 50th street Hey began.

At the time, Evans was a fairly new employee. He recently moved from Chicago, where he grew up, and where he worked in the tourism industry, to New York to work at Complex after a brief assignment in New Orleans to interview people for the company's upcoming online video presence. He had been friendly with Schonberger – a & # 39; say what's in the hall & # 39; but one day that changed. According to Evans, Schonberger just came out with it. Like, right away, he asked: "What do you think of a show in which we interview celebrities while eating violently hot chicken wings?"

"And the way it touched my ear, it was just so funny," Evans says. So they were in a small room and hammered the thing out. "I had never made a video in my life," says Schonberger. He is tall and thin, with a constantly messy desk – bottles of hot sauce, sent by fans, are scattered everywhere. At the same time Schonberger thought up Hey, other people in the food world did things like chef profiles, or the kind of top-down, hands-and-pan cooking videos & # 39; s that BuzzFeedS Tasty popularized, which then immediately jumped through cannibalized by competitors and the proverbial shark. "Hey was really like a total orphan greeting, & Schonberger says. "We had to go a lot more to the entertainment side of this and just try something totally new."

For more concrete inspiration – because you can't just make a show by repeating the phrase "violently hot chicken wings", even if it's a good one – Schonberger looked at his past, at Alexa Chung, the English multi-hyphenate model and TV presenter . Halfway through the eight, Chung was the host of Popworld, a cheeky (and sometimes uncomfortable) TV show that interviewed musical celebrities – the Schonberger family is from England and he would watch the show there during visits. "They were almost laugh at the guests & # 39 ;, he says. In other words, the idea was to break the format of the celebrity interview in a way that people cared about, which, again, violently hot chicken wings.

At the university, Schonberger was known on campus as the hot sauce dude, because his father regularly shipped him new, weird sauces. "Other people received shipments of new bedding or Gatorades or useful things to be in college and he only sent bailiff Brutality Salsa." Schonberger remembers that he was "super shy" in college, and the sauces were a good ice-breaker; he would come to dormitories where people play games and offer them something. "Everyone would eat and laugh," he says, and that's how the sauces made the show that he and Evans were planning. “I was like that, that seems funny. Let's try."

After the show was lit green and Evans and Schonberger started to come up with the idea, they came across some opposition from above – the people in charge wanted to follow the prevailing content winds and make something short and sweet that they hadn't thought. At the time, the two felt undervalued, undervalued and underpaid; they decided to follow their guts, because why not? The people at the top said they needed it Hey to be five and a half minutes long, tops. That lasted one episode and by the start of the second season the episodes of the show had become longer. "I would like to be," Fuck you, we make it 22, "says Evans." And this show could never have succeeded without that fire. "


The process

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The real work begins between episodes. Although the show is relatively faithful to its recordings, it is the editing that makes the guests shine – and the music and graphics also help. It is a show about hot sauce and hot wings that is not about one of those things at all. And it's not a spectacle either, as you might think of a show about eating insanely spicy food on camera. The original plan was to correct the spiciness of the questions as the wings became warmer, but Evans and Schonberger abandoned that approach quickly because they discovered that it is difficult to talk when your mouth is on fire. Instead, the juiciest questions are asked first.

"Because they don't die early from spices, we have to give the things that we think people will be most interested in," Evans says. The other things, the things that they think have the most brick potential, go to the end. "Brick" is of course a basketball term; deployed there, this means a flop. When you combine a normal flop with extremely hot sauce and cameras, you may immediately get a viral meltdown. Think: Idris Elba, welling up eyes, choke on herbs as a reaction image. Or: Paul Rudd, saying:Hey. Look at us."And then there's the blob at the end – the hottest sauce of all, made with a patented pepper hotter than a Carolina Reaper, with (an imaginary optional) extra dab on the wing.

Apart from its lifespan, what moves Hey apart from the rest of the food media with which the series grew up, the idea is to put together every episode, from research to production. Guests choose Hey is an art; it is a whale hunt, in a micro-transactional sense, to make more fans. “Sometimes we talk about the big apples. As we will say Stone Cold, that's a big apple. Idris Elba, that's a big apple, because if you shake it off the tree, it knockes out a number of other things. They sometimes harass guests for a period of months or years to get them into the show. (In the case of Gordon Ramsay, for example, the chef's children had to become fans of it Hey and bothering him before he appeared.)

After a guest is booked, the research team goes to work for three people. "There is a lot of armchair psychology that enters the show," says Schonberger. In practice, this means that Evans' brother – Gavin, who lives in Chicago – compiles a file. "He will actually read like every article there is, every profile, every Reddit AMA, like reading everything he can find and create," Schonberger says, noting that they can be up to 30 pages long . "It is almost as if we have created our own Wikipedia template suitable for the show."

Sean, on the other hand, makes the video & # 39; s. He uses 12-24 hours of clips in search of breadcrumbs. In the case of Stone Cold Steve Austin, it was Evans that the wrestler liked to talk about Broken Skull Ranch, his home – a place that is important to Austin, but something that not everyone asks him about. Schonberger does a number of podcasts, which means that he listens everything he can get hold of. It is the same idea as with the videos, except that people are usually less monitored during podcast performances than during video recordings. Then they compare notes and Evans and Schonberger come up with ten topics that they should discuss during the interview.

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"When Hey is well done, each wing is like a different part of that person's personality, "Evans says. This seems to have been the case even if nobody knew anything Hey.

That started to change around the eighth episode of the second season, in which the comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele played the lead role. In 2016, the year in which the duo released their first feature film, Keanu, about saving a stolen kitten. (It was also a year earlier Get out blew up America.) "In the beginning, the show wasn't a huge, huge sight monster," Evans says. "Key and Peele was the first thing that was, & # 39; Boem, number one trending, front page of Reddit. & # 39; We set it up one day and we wake up the next day and it has 5 million views." 1 million views within the first three days of going live, which is actually the same.) That was huge because it meant that people would go back and the other videos in the Hey catalog. An increasing view count cancels all boats.

Those big apples can't always come to the team. About half of the recordings are in New York City, 40 percent are in LA and the remaining 10 percent are random places around the world. The Idris Elba shoot, for example, took place in London, because Elba advertised it Hobbs and Shaw. However, the constants remain. A consequence of Hey since the era of cheap web video & # 39; s is that they had a small budget to develop the show (typical for 2015 web video), therefore the set is one table and ten wings on a black background – and it makes it cheap to move where a guest is. The wings are usually from where the shoots take place by production manager Domonique Burroughs, who travels with Evans. (In New York the wings come from My Belly's Playlist on 35th street.) In addition to doing normal producer things, such as helping to set up shoots and working with the guest team, Burroughs also sauces the wings, something they do since season 2.

Her technique, which she learned from Schonberger, is this: she pours hot sauce into a plastic bowl, places a wing in it and places another bowl to form a clamshell, which is then shaken vigorously. (To correct a common misconception: they didn't change their sauce technique at all after the Gordon Ramsay episode. He couldn't change the way they prepare their wings, but he did complain about the wings that guests got slightly were colds.)

Burroughs told me that her favorite part of being on the Hey set sees the guests react to the wings. "You never really know what response you get," says Burroughs. "You never know what you will get from someone who literally eats the most spicy things they've ever had in their lives." Burroughs itself did not go beyond sauce five because they do not like spicy food. In other words, it is she who asks each guest a variation on the same question: Do you know what you are starting?


The sauce

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This brings us to the sauce. There are 10 each season, chosen by Schonberger and Noah Chaimberg, founder of the hot sauce boutique Heatonist. They first test 20 to 30 sauces on spoons, each chosen by Chaimberg, and after many rounds of taste tests, he sets the list back to 10 or 15. (Sometimes Chaimberg adjusts the recipes with the makers.) Then, Schonberger and Chaimberg comes together again to do the final test. It is an exhausting process; every meeting lasts between one and two hours, and there are many meetings. "We're crying there, taking notes," says Chaimberg. The Hot peoplebranded sauces, sold exclusively through Heatonist and partially developed by Chaimberg and his team, sell like gangbusters: The Last Dab became the fastest selling hot sauce in history, says Chaimberg, after having more than 10,000 bottles on its first full day on sale. (Schonberger says the hot sauces generate around $ 15 million a year in revenue.) That's given Hey a steady flow of money that is not dependent on advertisements or sponsored messages to make the budgets work, making the show enormously different – and more stable – than his colleagues.

To choose the Season 10 sauce arrangement, Chaimberg and Schonberger were hiding in a meeting room with glass walls in the office of Complex in New York, eating wings and sobs; they try to increase the heat every season. "We almost went too far," says Chaimberg. So they withdrew because they didn't want Evans to hate them.

And he would. Evans is not particularly familiar with the sauces in the line-up until his first taping every season. (If you're curious, those first three or so episodes of a season where he really dies from the heat because he's not yet used to the new spice.) Chaimberg is one of the hot sauce impresarios of New York, a man who sauces from a handcart began to swing. Today the operation has 20 employees, two stores and countless pilgrims who travel from all over the world to buy out his supplies.

Chaimberg himself helps in making some of it the sauces that Hey brands. He developed the flavor profile for The Classic after he had written down the first hot sauce recipe ever: a classic recipe that was just bell pepper, vinegar and turmeric. They added a bit of garlic and opted for fresh chili de árbol – unusual because it is generally dried – for the pepper, not specified in the recipe. The Last Dab, another one he helped make, is fascinating. It is made with a patented pepper called "Pepper X" – the name of Chaimberg, who was stuck – which is apparently hotter than the current world leader, the Carolina Reaper. Pepper X was developed by one Smokin ’Ed Currie, a mad pepper scientist in South Carolina who runs PuckerButt Pepper Company, a supplier of bell peppers for sauces around the world.

Currie became involved with Chaimberg and the Hey crew after a friend asked him to deliver some peppers for the NYC Hot Sauce Expo. They turned out to be Schonberger and the show and they became fast friends. During next year's exhibition, Chaimberg asked Currie to develop sauces especially for it Hey. Currie mainly grew weed when he started experimenting with crossing peppers, but after he got it sober, far back in the 90s, he switched to bell pepper full-time. Today PuckerButt ships all over the world.

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While hot sauce only takes "a few hours" to make, developing a pepper takes around eight to twelve years – and you don't know if the pepper is genetically stable until around the year four or five. "At the moment, I think we grow 246 varieties, 132 of which cross over eight to twelve years," says Currie, who also told me that all of his peppers are of commercial form unless the medical community thinks they can be useful. "So, maybe 10 to 20 crosses a year I try, and from that, maybe five to seven work."

He has seen the hot sauce community grow for a while now. During our conversation he reminds me that it was only fairly recently that hot sauce raided ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard as number one condiment. People are aware of hot sauce that goes beyond what is now in the supermarket; we know more than Sriracha, or that of Frank or Tabasco.

"Our segment is actually the fastest growing segment in the food service industry and frankly, as long as people come up with new ideas and don't try to repeat something that someone else does, there is nothing but growth," he says. And while it's hard to say how much a YouTube show may have contributed to that growth, it's easy to see them leading the way: pushing new, small batch sauces to millions of people who may have never heard of it. Currie says that the best part for him is the possibility to develop new sauces. "Developing something out of nothing and making it bloom and then making it appear in the show, is it like seeing a baby being born, you know what I mean?"

He watches every episode of Hey with his children. "They are six and seven. Part of the language is inappropriate, but they love the show and they call Sean" Uncle Sean, "even though they have never met him," says Currie. "They just know I'm going to New York to do something with Uncle Sean and Uncle Noah." And it has the feeling of a family affair: organic and loving, homely and somehow rickety.


The future

Stone Cold Steve Austin, that mountain range of a human man, completes the challenge with the gentle encouragement of Evans. He pats, and then promotes his podcast and television show, which he could have done even if he hadn't finished the challenge. He walks out a little less than a studio hour later, and I can only imagine that he felt changed afterwards. Or maybe not; perhaps the wings and sauces were like a pebble that fell into the smooth lake of Austin's massive soft gut and caused only a brief wrinkle of discomfort before it was forgotten forever.

Anyway, it was good television. Hey remains best to look at if you are not sure what you want to see; it rewards passive consumption as well as it rewards active love. "I know what it's like getting bored in your apartment, smoking weed, looking for something to look at," he says. "And I think I've always wanted to fill that void." That's the hole & # 39; late night TV plugs – if you're up at an odd hour on a weeknight and all the fun is closed, a good variety show can fill that restless gap in your heart, or your schedule. It is something to consume because it is there, and it is better than anything else you could do. That is also the nature of web video and one of the reasons why YouTube exists: if there is nothing left to do, you must set your browser to play automatically. Millions of people do this, enough that it has shown public interest in an interview that it is not Terry Gross, which is difficult to do. It is the future. It's for you. It's on now if you want it.

And that is part of the genius of Hey: it's for you, but it's also for everyone. You can let it play in the background and feel nourished after three hours. Evans thinks so. He says the highest compliment anyone can pay him is when a parent says the show bridges a generation gap – when they say they can watch it with their children. & # 39; I remember my brother watching Beavis and Butthead or South Park, but we would all be secret about it because we didn't want our father to know, & he says. "And then before I know it, I am in fourth grade and I, my brother and my father, are watching South Park together. "The idea that that is not the case required child-friendly, yet good enough to show to children, is something that Evans treasures are. That is a remarkable achievement for every show, let alone one that has only been around for four years and is only broadcast on YouTube and Facebook.

It has also changed the lives of Schonberger and Evans. They don't have to ask permission to do whatever they want, not really, not anymore. "Some of the wins are for me too, such as when it became viable as a company and the fact that we could sell this hot sauce in 90 seconds," says Schonberger. "Lego would approach us to make a promotion for their film with Tiffany Haddish." The show has become famous for Evans, with all its consequences. “I'm being treated a lot nicer now. And I have a Rolex and such, & he says. He is now being stopped on the street. Gordon Ramsay calculates him in restaurants.

"I don't understand that. But it will be … It's easier," says Schonberger. "There is some trickle-down influence going on."

That inevitably means more famous guests, warmer sauces and more wings. The fans, Evans says, scream for Keanu Reeves. Although there is no word about a Keanu function, I personally do not doubt it could to happen. Because above all, Evans and Schonberger are persistent; they understand that it takes time for people to get it, although the formula is fairly simple. Because before the fans wanted Keanu, they wanted Gordon Ramsay. They wanted Stone Cold Steve Austin. And those big apples all fell not far from the tree, straight into the laps of Evans and Schonberger. It takes a smart person to come up with a show about hot wings. But a demented form of brilliance is needed to convince Gordon Ramsay to try them.

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That willingness to go for the unlikely is, as it were, the secret sauce that makes the show work. That said, Evans thinks it's simpler. "I will say that this is the best interview show, but that is because there are so many bad interview shows," says Evans. "For comparison: we look damn excellent."