A million varieties of internet talk shows have bloomed to support our vast garden of celebrities.
"Now, your press day is doing a lie-detector test, followed by trying out a new skill, followed by eating insane chicken wings," said Chris Schonberger, the creator of the talk show Hot Ones.
Sean Evans, the host of the show, added, "Followed by building an Ikea desk."
On Hot Ones, A-list celebrities eat increasingly spicy chicken wings. It is one of the most popular of a crop of new talk shows that have shaken up the celebrity industrial complex.
The passive celebrity interview is over. Now celebrities must work for their press — or, at worst, they have to be interviewed by another celebrity. That's the case with Red Table Talk, a show hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith; her daughter, Willow; and her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, known on the show as Gammy.
These practices make sense in the social media era. Instagram, Twitter and other platforms are designed to let fans feel closer to celebrities than ever before, and have allowed those celebrities a control over their personas that they did not previously have. So, the new shows do what they can to soothe — or rattle — celebrities into a state resembling authenticity.
"It does feel like a natural place that we had to get to in the age of social media," Schonberger said.
Hot Ones lives mostly on YouTube. "ed Table Talk airs on Facebook. It has hosted top-tier guests including Gabrielle Union, Alicia Keys, T.I. and Will Smith, who is also Pinkett Smith's husband. In lieu of a hook like having to eat outlandishly spicy food, its creators are constantly in search of ways to connect authentically with audiences.
This is a second generation of these new talk shows. Their predecessors included Billy on the Street (started in 2011), Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (2012) and one of the earliest and most influential of the major online talk shows, Between Two Ferns (2008).
That show was hosted by actor and comedian Zach Galifianakis playing an ignorant, patronising and unexpectedly aggressive version of himself. It laid the groundwork for the off-the-wall interview shows airing now, which all tend to elevate the host as a central element and have a willingness to grant celebrities an escape from rote questioning. (This differentiates them from the heyday of David Letterman, the host who was known for leaning into the banality of the talk-show format.)
The so-called active celebrity interview also happens on the real TV, and much of its DNA evolved there. James Corden, the host of The Late Late Show, has found successful formats with his Carpool Karaoke and Spill Your Guts series.
Jimmy Fallon has played games with his celebrity guests from the beginning of his run on The Tonight Show, in 2014, translating some games played with guests from Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
Gavin Purcell, the showrunner of The Tonight Show, who also worked with Fallon on Late Night and pioneered these formats there, said that he had found that many celebrities enjoyed playing games like charades and catchphrase more than they did sitting passively for an interview.
"The vast majority of people who come to our show want to do these things," Purcell said. For BTS, he said, referring to the superstar K-pop group, "and for a lot of people, the game part is the easier part. It's them getting to be a version of themselves where they get to relax."
Purcell marvelled at the way that the various formats of shows like his had been disaggregated on the internet, released in components that made more sense online. "It's been broken down into all these different formats now," he said.
Mina Lefevre, the head of development and programming at Facebook, echoed that point, saying she sometimes refers to Red Table Talk as a "deconstructed talk show."
"We have the ability and the flexibility to have a topic and conversations continue throughout the week," she said. "We might be able to give you a piece Monday and another piece Wednesday."
The work of comedians like Galifianakis resonates for emerging comics. "Between Two Ferns is brilliant," said Amelia Dimoldenberg, the host of the British talk show Chicken Shop Date. "His character, that is what makes it. That's what I learned from that show. I knew it was up to my character to be the main point of difference from a regular chat show."
Dimoldenberg's show consists of its host flirting cluelessly (and in character) with British celebrities, most often musicians working in the electronic-hip-hop hybrid known as grime. Though the show is not as popular as its US competitors, it's notable for the way in which it has grown through tapping into a specific subculture.
Capturing an audience of music enthusiasts has given the show credibility, and has allowed Dimoldenberg to book better-known guests, including Daniel Kaluuya, the British star of Get Out and Queen and Slim.
Many of the web shows have relied on black celebrities, especially early in their runs. Hot Ones which is part of First We Feast, a food publication owned by Complex Networks, has made use of Complex's ability to book talent, particularly rappers.
Schonberger said that he and Evans had wanted to book hip-hop stars because of their own love for the genre, but that the show had also been helped by being a part of Complex, which has covered hip-hop extensively.
Recently, during an episode in which the hosts answered viewer mail, Evans was asked to stop hosting "pseudo-famous rappers who will only be relevant for a few months." That prompted him to rattle off some of the biggest names that had been booked.
Asked whether the show was in the process of turning away from the black celebrities it used to book more frequently, he said: "We don't really want to be the Late Night of the internet. We want to have one foot in the mainstream, one foot in the underground."
Shows that do not yet have the cachet (or the audience) of Hot Ones or Red Table Talk are still able to book talent because there are so many more celebrities than before.
suck It Up, a show hosted on the Hearst website Delish, owes a heavy debt to the First We Feast show: Guests, who have included the YouTuber David Dobrik and two of the cheerleaders from the Netflix docuseries Cheer, play a version of Never Have I Ever while eating increasingly sour candies. (Hot Ones makes its own hot sauces and sells them; Suck It Up is in talks to sell its own candies.)
"We're at a point where there's so many people who are doing so many things," said Joanna Saltz, the editorial director of Delish.
She compared the current environment with her early days in magazines, where "you sort of had a smaller pot to pull from. Now it's like YouTube stars, TV shows on all of the different platforms. There's just so many more people coming through."
Written by: Jonah Engel Bromwich
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