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Is Conan O'Brien the best 'Hot Ones' guest ever? Discuss.

By now, someone's probably sent you the clip of Conan O'Brien on the internet series Hot Ones, going full chaos gremlin: red-cheeked, sweating, drooling, his face smeared with hot sauce and bellowing about seizing the moment ("This isn't a bit! This is LIIIIIFE!"). He looks crazed. If you haven't yet seen that clip, sit tight. It's going viral, as the kids used to say.

And it's not the first time. You know that Paul Rudd meme, where he grins widely, radiating warmth and camaraderie ("Hey. Look at us.")? That's from Hot Ones, too. Ditto Jennifer Lawrence panicking and laugh-sobbing ("What do you mean? What do you MEAN?").

Now it's Conan's turn. He turned up on the show to promotehis new Max travel seriesand wasted no time seizing control of the interview and the premise itself. O'Brien is known as a performer who can't help but be "on" all the time, no matter the size of his audience. When he wrote on The Simpsons, he and his colleagues in the writers' room would be sitting around a table; they'd be pitching jokes, and he'd be miming an elaborate routine in which he was an astronaut strapping himself into a rocket ship – all for the benefit of the guys across the table from him. On his podcast, Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend, he tosses out an incessant series of bits to the delight (mostly) of his producer and assistant. There's a restless, needy quality to his comedy that would be worrisome if his instincts weren't so sharp if he wasn't funny as he is.

The perfect guest?

But before we unpack how and why O'Brien just became the best Hot Ones guest ever, we need to consider the show itself.

The first time you heard the premise of Hot Ones, the YouTube series on which celebrities are interviewed by the affable and scrupulously well-prepared host Sean Evans as they consume a series of increasingly spicy buffalo wings, you probably thought it sounded like a dumb gimmick. Then you probably started poking around to see if any of your favorite celebrities had been a guest. Then you watched one episode. And then, it was all over.

There are entire Reddit forums dedicated to ranking which Hot Ones guests are "the best," but determining that involves a very subjective calculus. Some want to see guests melt down; others want them to power through without breaking a sweat. Some watch in the hope that they'll gain new insights into the personality of a given celebrity as the various hot sauces start to dissolve their pat, media-trained soundbites like the blood of the Xenomorph eats through the Nostromo.

The good news is that there's a Hot Ones episode for whatever you're looking for. Different guests react very differently, and your favorite episode may not be anyone else's.

For me, a great guest has to come in with hubris – the excessive pride of tragic heroes – because they bring their own narrative arc to the endeavor. Because Idris Elba approached the challenge with dismissive bravado, his downfall – coughing, sweating, swearing, mock-threatening a producer – was all the more satisfying. Ditto Gordon Ramsay.

But it's also delightful when an episode seems to confirm your pre-existing impression of a guest. Padma Lakshmi stayed cool in every sense of the wordas she answered Evans' questions and commented insightfully on the flavor profiles of the various sauces (even the infamous Da Bomb, which clocks in at 119,700 Scoville units and reportedly tastes as if kerosene were angry at you).

Elijah Wood, Tom Holland and Michael Cera demonstrated a deep knowledge of the show, endearing them to fans. Alton Brown brought a know-it-all diffidence, which was not particularly endearing. Key & Peelebelong to that cohort of guests who turn on the host hilariously (see also: Shaq, Bill Burr, Lizzo, Michael Rapaport, Ed Helms). Lorde, Jenna Ortega, Charlize Theron and Rachael Ray weren't bothered by the heat.

Many guests have raved about interviewer Sean Evans over the years. Specifically, they've marveled at his questions, which are both deeply researched and novel. It's fun to watch celebrities who have repeatedly spent their careers answering the same questions on press junkets realize that they've just been asked a question about something they dearly love and no one else has ever asked them about.

And it's true – Evans is a good interviewer. But as a host myself, I'd love to hear him give his researchers some of the love he gets from guests. And if I have any quibble with the show, it's that Evans is so thoroughly prepared that his questions always sound more like written English than spoken English; there's a formality in the wording that doesn't quite jibe with the looseness of the chemistry the show aims for.

Now, about that Conan episode.

Conan has catapulted himself to the top of the list of Hot Ones All-Stars because he knew exactly what he was getting into and what he had to do.

1. He came prepared

Conan brought along a human bit. He introduced us to his personal doctor (actually longtime writer and producer José Arroyo). It felt like an old-school show-biz gag, something you could picture Johnny Carson or Steve Allen doing. O'Brien's ability to genuflect to his comedy forbears while striking out and doing something ridiculous on his own has endeared him to millions.

2. He came to conquer

Conan not only demonstrated a breezy familiarity with the show, but he also wasted little time ridiculing its premise ("What's WRONG with you people? You don't know what real danger looks like anymore!").

3. He was, predictably, nuts

Hot Ones fans talk admiringly about the Padmas and the Charlizes – celebrities who run the show's gauntlet without being bothered by the heat. Conan decided that he wouldn't just mock the show's premise; he'd put every previous guest who shrugged off the sauces' spiciness to shame. He used his innate comic sensibility – that artisanal mix of restless/needy – to achieve icon status.

He didn't merely dab the wings with hot sauce; he doused them with it. He loaded them up and smeared them across the table until they were laden with every stray drop. He licked them – lovingly, yet somehow angrily at the same time. He spread them across his face like woad; he slathered them around his nipples. He guzzled Da Bomb straight from the bottle.

I'll say that again: He guzzled Da Bomb straight from the bottle!

More importantly, He committed to the bit. Completely. Consummately.

He kept up the show of not being bothered, even as his face began to redden and his brow began to sweat. He kept it up, even as he started to drool, guzzle milk, pant, and give increasingly abstruse, rambling answers to Evans' questions. And all that red sauce around his mouth made him look like an extra from Cannibal Holocaust if it had been set in County Cork.

Even those of us who delighted in, say, an Aubrey Plaza managing to maintain her too-cool-for-school composure even as she snorted milk up her nose to cool the burn had never seen anything like this. We likely never will again.

Conan was so clearly suffering, and he'd done it to himself. We knew that because A. we have eyes, and B. because he began the interview by joking that, growing up as he did in an Irish household, "I never saw a spice until I was about 52 years old." And yet here he'd joyously hurled himself into a swirling miasma of extreme pain and gastric distress, all for a lousy YouTube show bit, just to be an idiot capering for our delight in the global village.

We watched in helpless confusion and wonder (and a bit of fear) as he strapped himself into that rocket and took off.

Fans of Hot Ones refer to those celebrities who make it through the sauces without complaint as Spice Lords.

This week, Conan O'Brien went them all one better. Not because he could endure the spice but because he gave himself over to it. He became a Spice Legend.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.