Published Nov 19, 2020About four minutes into my interview with Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice, it goes totally off the rails.
Hotz is in the middle of explaining how the Canadian comedy duo's cult '00s game show, Kenny vs. Spenny, was all about exposing the male ego. Rice is quiet for the first few minutes of the conference call, but he eventually interjects: "I'm just listening to the nonsense coming out of your fucking mouth."
After some bickering back and forth, Rice offers his own theory of what the show was about: "It's mostly a very toxic, sick relationship based upon a love of comedy and a love of money, and an audience that is just completely sadistic and sick and unintelligent."
From there, things devolve into a shouting match that would be impossible to transcribe. I'm getting flashbacks of this year's first presidential debate as Hotz and Rice talk over one another, the audio clipping and distorting as they raise their voices to be heard. "For some reason, I love him, even though he is a broken, sick person," says Kenny of his comedy partner. "I think honestly anyone, especially his own father, who passed away, would call me a hero."
Just like on TV, Kenny prods and pokes Spenny, the former cheekily hurling insults while the latter gets increasingly angry. At one point, Kenny threatens to reveal what kind of pornography Spenny enjoys. "If you say it, I'm hanging up," claims Rice. Kenny concedes: "Okay, I won't say it, but that should tell you how horrible it is."
The argument goes on and on. All told, it's 16 minutes before I get a chance to ask my next question.
We're speaking — or rather, they're speaking and I'm trying to mediate — because their show, Kenny vs. Spenny, has returned for its first episode in a decade. Some background for the uninitiated: starting in 2003, Kenny vs. Spenny was something like Canada's answer to Jackass, full of depraved stunts and gross-out body humour. Every episode was structured around a competition (episodes included "Who Can Stay Awake the Longest?" and "Who Can Wear a Dead Octopus on Their Head the Longest?"). Kenny would cheat, the loser (usually Spenny) would be forced to perform a humiliating act, and audiences lapped it up for six seasons, until the finale in 2010.
Now, they're back with their first episode since then: Paldemic, a one-off coronavirus special for CBC Gem (premiering tomorrow, November 20). It breaks the usual Kenny vs. Spenny format: there's no elaborate competition and no climactic act of humiliation. Instead, it's a darkly comic (and extremely meta) dispatch from coronavirus quarantine, full of personal revelations about Kenny's smug ego and Spenny's apparently dire financial situation. Rice rarely shows his face, spending nearly the entire special wearing a DIY hazmat suit that includes a mask, face shield, garbage bag vest and six-foot social distancing pole.
"I was told that we were the only show shooting in the entire country, because we shot it ages ago," remembers Kenny. "It was really irresponsible of us to be making comedy. When you have subject matter that is so depressing, it's hard to squeeze comedy out of it. But I think it's an opportunity to be real and truthful, which I think we've always had."
The idea of being "real and truthful" is nuanced when it comes to Kenny vs. Spenny. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the show, even more than its wacky stunts and parody of the male ego, is the way it blurs the line between reality and fiction. It comes from an era before The Real Housewives or Keeping Up with the Kardashians; it premiered just one year after The Osbournes, when the idea of semi-scripted reality TV was still a nascent concept. Viewers were always left asking: do these guys actually hate each other, or are they hamming it up for the cameras? Even years later, the show's highly active subreddit has countless posts debating whether or not the whole thing was staged.
Certainly, spending 45 minutes on the phone with Hotz and Rice makes a strong case for their rivalry being real, since their non-stop arguing is vintage Kenny vs. Spenny.
"The closer I get to reality, and the more honest we are, the funnier it is," observes Kenny. "So, to me, I learned a long time ago: be real, and it'll migrate through the screen, and that's what really what's going to be the best. Whereas Spenny's more [about] cheap laughs, just trying to do anything for money."
No matter how viciously they attack one another, there's a genuine sweetness at the core of their relationship. Only true friends could survive the levels of torment they put each other through.
"It's the caring part that makes the show good," says Kenny. "We love each other — like, Spencer's my brother. I've been with him since I was five years old. And our dads were best friends when they were teenagers." Even since the show ended, they've continued to gravitate towards one another; they toured Canada back in 2014, and they were supposed to hit the road again this fall until coronavirus prevented it.
So why continue to rekindle Kenny vs. Spenny, with all of its squabbling and humiliation? The answer is simple. "I'd rather go out on the road, yell and scream at our stupid audience, yell and scream at Kenny," explains Rice. "We both have fun doing it. We get drunk. We have a good time we get paid a lot of money. Why wouldn't I do it? It's toxic, but it's better than, you know, a lot of jobs."