“I don’t think there’s one bad episode, personally,” says Kenny Hotz, co-creator and co-star of Kenny vs. Spenny. “We did 88 episodes and there’s not one dud.” He and his colleague, Spencer Rice, have a reason to sound less than humble: when Showcase airs their show’s one-hour series finale on Dec. 23, they’ll go out after making the kind of international impact that most Canadian shows only dream of, including foreign remakes and a devoted Internet following (Hotz claims it’s “the most downloaded show in the history of Canada”). It’s the end of another paradox for Canadian TV: in an era when our TV shows were improving their production values to compete with the U.S., one of the biggest hits was a shoestring-budget show about two idiots who undertake challenges like “who can wear a dead octopus on their head the longest?”
That’s because Kenny vs. Spenny, which did 26 episodes for CBC before moving to Showcase for the rest of its run, was lucky or smart enough to offer something that other comedies didn’t. It came along at a time of what Hotz calls “the online explosion of people’s viewing content,” when the Internet and reality TV had made viewers less interested in traditional television storytelling. To fit these new tastes, the duo came up with what Hotz describes as “a reality sitcom,” a continuing series that used “elements of Tom Green and Jackass,” shows where real people did disgusting things on a regular basis. They combined that, Rice says, with their own training as old-fashioned comedians: “One thing that gets overlooked by our younger audiences is that Kenny and I are seasoned comedy guys. We grew up watching Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers, the list goes on.”
Every episode fuses those two elements together to create a mashup of modern reality TV with traditional slapstick comedy. As the cheap cameras roll, the two friends take on a humiliating challenge (like “who can stay awake the longest”), which Hotz usually wins by blatantly cheating, followed by Rice paying a horrifying penalty like eating vomit or dressing in a cheerleader’s costume. It’s not the first comedy to incorporate elements of reality shows; the aside glances at the camera on The Office, or the deliberately crude shooting style of Trailer Park Boys are in that tradition. But Kenny vs. Spenny actually follows the competition format of reality shows; the only big difference, Rice says, is that the people undergoing the humiliations are “the same guys every week,” instead of the rotating lineup of stupid people on Survivor.
Besides, shows like Trailer Park Boys are clearly fictional stories where everyone is acting. On Kenny vs. Spenny, though the ending is usually predictable, most of the things the performers do are real (and awful), meaning that just like with a show such as Jersey Shore, fans have gotten emotionally involved with the action in a way that hardly ever happens with sitcoms. When they encounter fans, Rice says, “Kenny gets abused by people for being the asshole. I get abused for being the naive loser.” And Hotz claims that the reality elements also make it harder for the show to be ruined by behind-the-scenes fighting: “Unlike other shows, if we started fighting in real life, or having problems with our relationship in real life, that made the show better, because it made me want to humiliate him more.”
Now both Rice and Hotz are preparing solo shows for Showcase, Single White Spenny and Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will. As if bidding farewell to the old ways, the finale will be a bit more expensive and elaborate than usual, allowing the pair to parody cheesy Christmas specials the way one of their favourite shows, SCTV, often did. But Hotz says the basic theme is still the same: “Spenny wanting to do a real Christmas special and me wanting to destroy it.” It will be a reminder that they transcended the limitations of Canadian TV because, as Hotz put it, they “glorified a cheater and made fun of morality and ethics.” It seems like disgusting challenges and amorality have a worldwide appeal: “Dalton McGuinty jokes,” Hotz says, “aren’t going to work in Nibia. And half of our fan mail is from places we can’t even pronounce.”