If you haven’t heard of Kenny vs. Spenny, stick this in your pipe and smoke it: after only two seasons, the show is the largest selling format series in Canadian history. DVD sales are through the roof. The show or licensed versions of it play in almost twenty countries, from Turkey to Iceland to Colombia. Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice have intensely dedicated followings, including fans like Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park and director Spike Jonze.
Because two best friends decided to compete against each other (with the loser forced to endure a humiliating punishment), Hotz and Rice have obliterated what classically constitutes Canadian Content and become a worldwide anti-establishment success story.
What’s remarkable about Kenny vs. Spenny is that the show is even on the air at all. It’s explicit, profane, reckless and unafraid, with barely a moment of censorship from broadcaster Showcase. What seems like an innocent challenge (“who can stand up the longest”) can result in a revolting humiliation (Spenny biting-off a piece of Kenny’s toenail). A challenge like “who can stay naked the longest” causes discomfort all around, including for the unenviable camera crew. Even something as silly as “who can wear an octopus on their head the longest” can spiral into some genuinely dangerous territory. We’d love to tell you what happens in the octopus episode, but it won’t air for another few weeks. What we can say is that it’s alarming, and it has nothing to do with an octopus.
Fans of the show will be familiar with the unending battle between the ethical, neurotic Spenny and his diabolical nemesis Kenny. The show has been hailed as both an anthropological study of male friendship and an allusion to classic literature and the art of war. It has also been blamed for the alleged demise of society and the increased interest in “reality stunts.”
Hotz and Rice developed the pilot for Kenny vs. Spenny in L.A. for the USA Network, which cancelled it halfway into a competition to see which guy could gain the most weight. Burned by having passed on Tom Green, CBC picked up the series for an unbelievable 26 episodes in 2003, after which it moved to Showcase.
The more hardcore legion of fans will know that Kenny and Spenny grew up together because their fathers were good friends; that Kenny was a freelance photographer in the Gulf War and is missing half of a finger; that the licensed Turkish version of the show features “Cenk vs. Erdem;” and that the duo wrote an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They also directed and starred in the acclaimed documentary Pitch, which chronicled their attempts to sell a movie script.
With the third season debuting tonight, Kenny and Spenny spoke to Torontoist about the State of the Union.
Showcase sent us some screeners from the upcoming season and it seems like the show is becoming even more hardcore.
KENNY: Yes, correct. It’s a result of boredom. I just like torturing Spenny. I gave the guy AIDS last year [Season 2, Ep. 7], so for season three, I just have to up the ante.
SPENNY: We have a tremendous amount of leeway and we appreciate it. Showcase has always been an amazing broadcaster. Their whole thing is “television without borders” and by-and-large, Kenny tests them.
KENNY: It’s incredible that we got Showcase. They’re the psychos that are airing the shit. It’s amazing that Canada, one of the most conservative countries in the world, actually has the most intense broadcaster.
I would never in a million years have expected an episode about who can produce the most semen to ever see the light of day.
SPENNY: CBC had rejected that idea soundly. On CBC, we didn’t even get anywhere near the freedom to do stuff like that.
Did you have to make changes in the show for the American networks?
KENNY: Previously we were on GSN [in the U.S.] and we had to chop the show to pieces. In fact, there were episodes that they wouldn’t even air. They didn’t air “who can drink more beer?” [Season 2, Ep. 1] When I was teaching Lenny [Kenny’s fake brother in Season 2, Ep. 4] to smoke a cigarette in “who do old people like more,” they cut it. The Standards & Practices in the U.S. are a lot worse.
Your show is so uncharacteristic of Canadian television. What makes it different?
KENNY: It’s sad to say, but most things are total shit here. Most things are also shit in the States, but this is just a much smaller country. I’m not going to make Dalton McGuinty jokes. I’m just not the audience for This Hour Has 22 Minutes or Comedy Inc. We’re one of those fine grains of rice that made it through the grinder. We’re working in a country that has a bureaucracy where the government actually produces content to increase Canadian culture. I don’t want to increase Canadian culture; I want to increase my bank account. I want my butler to drive a Bentley.
Our original pilot was intended for MTV and they didn’t pick it up and I almost killed myself. But if they did, they would have only given us $3000 to do a show and they would have pulled it after one episode and they would have kept the rights. We made it through the cracks, and with YouTube, the big networks don’t even know what’s going down. I’m a web guy and I actually do my show for the internet because that’s where everything is going to end up one day.
You’ve got a Gemini nomination this year. Would you be upset if you lost to Jeff Ltd.?
KENNY: Are you fucking kidding me? I will go in there and kill everybody. I’ll cover everyone in gas and it will be like the end of Carrie if we lose that fucking award. The doors will close and the whole place will catch fire.
You guys share a lot of body fluids. Do you have to get shots before you start shooting?
KENNY: Spenny has to get shots whether we shoot or not. He’s a walking Petri dish of transvestite viruses.
What kind of fans do you encounter?
SPENNY: The range of our fans both in gender and age is shocking and wonderful. We never really thought the show was going to be for women; in fact, we wanted Spike to pick it up when we were shopping it in the States a couple of years ago. A lot of women watch the show. I’m thrilled about that because they feel sorry for me and want to help me and mother me.
KENNY: Spenny doesn’t really like people. He won’t stop for fans and he’s kind of a grump-ass. Me, I love fans coming up to me, giving autographs, kissing girls, all that kinda stuff. I totally embrace our celebrity, whereas he kinda hates it.
SPENNY: Kenny’s more obsessed. He reads every blog, every opinion. When we first started, we had a forum on our website and I spent some time responding to people and then I started to realize that these people just wanted to create tension and derision and animosity, so I just turned-off and it’s been much easier for me. I don’t really read stuff about us.
KENNY: We get crazy fan mail from all over the world. I chat with fans all the time on kennyhotz.com. I like all hate mail and I want more hate mail. We’ve had stalkers too. It’s heavy shit. People don’t realize that if I dress up like a devil I’m not actually trying to conjure Lord Satan.
Do fans stake you out?
KENNY: We’ve been lucky enough to keep the house under wraps. I blur the house number and my mom’s house numbers. I know from reading online what people are going to pause on the DVD. A street sign in the background will totally give away the location of our house, but I’m really careful about that.
SPENNY: Once I was walking down Queen Street and a fourteen or fifteen year-old said to me [in sing-songy voice], “you’re a loser.” I wanted to punch him, and then I thought, wait a minute, I’m an adult.
Kenny, most people would be surprised to hear that you spent time as a photographer in the Gulf War and at the Waco crisis.
KENNY: If you haven’t visited Auschwitz or seen somebody get shot, you don’t really have a good barometer for what the world is like. I took my bar mitzvah cash and flew to Amsterdam and did photos of junkies in hash bars when I was thirteen years old. I thought I was going to be a photographer. With me it’s all about adrenaline.
Are you ever planning on doing more serious stuff?
KENNY: Well, I did The Papal Chase. If there’s enough cash in it, I don’t give a shit. I’m been trying to sell-out ever since I was three years old. If you are a sellout agent, call me.
Is it safe to say that the show is a classic portrayal of the battle between good and evil?
SPENNY: I say this with a hint of irony, but if you watch the show and you’re not just involved in Kenny’s juvenile content, I think there’s some solid socially-relevant messages in what we do. I will acknowledge that sounds insane, but if you look below the surface, there are some underlying philosophical truths that the show addresses. Personally, it’s one of the reasons I even bother doing the show.
KENNY: I compare it to the Ultimate Fighting Challenge. If Spenny likes to think he can kick my ass, step into the ring. Each episode is like a cage match.
SPENNY: If I thought we were just doing a Jackass-type show that was purely stunts and there wasn’t a story with some kind of moral underpinning, I would certainly not be excited about the show. I’m not dissing Jackass at all — I love it — I’m just saying that what we do is different.
KENNY: Spenny could do whatever he wants to me, but he doesn’t do shit.
SPENNY: I’m pretty comfortable just documenting his scumbaggedness because it’s there for posterity. I try to do what’s right, but I don’t hold myself up as all that is good, because I’m certainly not. I question the repercussions in culture of that kind of behaviour becoming the norm. You see it in Enron and in all the ethically-challenged issues that we’re living with right now. I know it’s crazy, but I do tend to worry about the future. Generations of video game players and people who don’t have hobbies but rather just sit and get passively entertained.
You obviously have to have a crucial level of trust in each other to tackle some of these challenges.
SPENNY: Kenny and I sort of made a decision that he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do and I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do, and I’m not going to be completely paranoid. Given that context, I don’t think he’s going to crowbar my knees.
KENNY: You have to understand that Spenny and I have known each other forever, and the shit that people do to each other growing up — kids are assholes, and he’s been an asshole many times. For me this is war. He knows who his opponent is and I don’t want to be humiliated on national television.
SPENNY: What he did in the octopus episode is almost unforgivable. It’s something that he actually had done to him and he thought that I did it and I didn’t. I guess I have a naïve, perhaps even stupid belief that he’s not going to go to the point where I’m completely harmed physically or mentally.
KENNY: Our show is a microcosm of life, and I think that I streetproof kids when they watch the show. You reap what you sow. I’m a Darwinist.
What were the toughest challenges?
KENNY: My toughest challenge is just trying to outdo myself with a devious plot every single week. The series for me is really Kenny vs. Kenny. Spenny’s kinda wimpy, so he’s not into the endurance ones as much as I am. This year I wanted to see who could fart more and who could eat more meat, and he didn’t want to do them because he’s really health conscious. He’s into doing more insane humiliations than I am. It’s his fetish to actually be abused by me.
SPENNY: Physically, the sleep deprivation episode from season one. I knew it was gonna be tough, but what I didn’t anticipate was when you hit the wall of exhaustion, your brain can’t concentrate even on something as passive as watching television. Emotionally, the one of who was the better actor.
That’s the one where Kenny made you believe you were HIV positive so you wouldn’t be in the mood to do a standup routine. [Season 2, Ep. 7]
SPENNY: There I certainly times I respect that in Kenny and there are times when I absolutely can’t stand it. When I look at the episode, it was really kind of horrible what he did but there was this relief when I realized it was all a prank. Then I could sit back and say that it was pretty clever. My comedy comes from a general neurosis and fear about life and living, but that fear was so in my face that it actually threw my performance.
Does shooting show put a strain on your friendship?
SPENNY: There’s a point where, yes, I want to compete and beat him — and I truly do, you have to understand that — but I’m not willing to pervert and sacrifice what I think is ethical. If nice guys finish last, then so be it. Before we even had a television show, we argued about ethics. We are very, very different people.
KENNY: Imagine having a friend like Spenny. The guy is so fucking wound-up and so critical. The cup is always half empty.
SPENNY: Kenny is one of those people with a narcissistic, machiavellian personality where there is no long-term logic or rational thinking. What there is is constant short-term thinking about what’s immediately to his advantage.
KENNY: The fact that he actually thinks he’s doing good in the world is so offensive to me. He actually thinks he matters enough to be an icon to children. That’s why I crush him.
SPENNY: Kenny has a series of soundbites in his head that he knows journalists are going to pick up, whereas I meander on all about this philosophical shit. I find him to be very transparent, but I know him. What happens is that I’ve heard these jokes and one-liners for twenty five years. Day after day, the same fucking jokes. What kills me is that someone is hearing it for the first time and thinking it’s funny.
Say something nice about each other.
SPENNY: I need his ying to my yang. He’s gonna say that I look like David Schwimmer with Down Syndrome; he’s gonna say he fucks my mother; he’s gonna say my dick is small. If you got him drunk, he would say some nice things about me.
KENNY: Hmm…uhh… [long pause] He’s an amazing loser. He has two innies. I’m referring to his penis.
SPENNY: I think that’s a subversion of maturity. Some people admire that quality, but I don’t.
Season three of Kenny vs. Spenny starts tonight (October 19) at 9:30 PM ET on Showcase. Kenny also really wants you to buy some of his stuff. Spenny wants you to leave him alone.