By Matt Tulloch
The competition began 25 years ago in a typical Rosedale backyard. Bored with the usual games and school sports, two fourth graders invent a new way to test their endurance: Who can stay in a sauna longest? Mere seconds pass before a winner emerges.
In a moment of divine inspiration, Kenny Hotz drops his swimming trunks and sprays pee all over the hot sauna stones. As the sickly stink of urine begins to permeate the air, his friend Spencer Rice bolts out the door.
The first point goes to Kenny in a battle that rages on to this very day. It’s busy this evening at Insomnia, a hip Bloor Street watering hole steps from Bathurst and the sparkling Vegas signage of Honest Ed’s. A crowd has gathered to sip cocktails and socialize in the dim lounge. Kenny, star of last year’s surprise smash TV hit Kenny vs. Spenny, sits inconspicuously at his favourite table in the corner. Over vodka soda and Hoegaarden Kenny comes across as a slightly more sensible version of his conniving reality TV persona.
He’s still confident, bold and crass, yet an appreciation for “luck” is evident when he speaks about his career.
“It’s all like, ‘Oh my God!’ I can’t believe these opportunities I’m getting now. It’s a crazy fuckin’ roller coaster ride – things don’t just happen overnight,” he says excitedly from behind a permanent five o’clock shadow.
It was a winding road from Toronto to Hollywood and, despite being a jerk on TV, he’s humbled by his success. As a former student of Ryerson’s Media Arts program, he has a keen understanding of visual media and deconstructs everything he sees. The depth in theme and content he brings to the show is what makes Kenny vs. Spenny work.
Well, that and the fact that Kenny might just be the most likeable heel since The Rock left wrestling.
“The competitions are all about mentally overpowering Spenny. It’s the coyote and the roadrunner; it’s Ernie and Bert. It’s a Laurel and Hardy reality show for the year 2000,” he says. His description of the show sounds rehearsed because it’s a speech he’s given many a time to jaded executives.
The premise of the show is simple: Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice are a pair of ultra-competitive roommates with polar personalities. Each episode features a different contest between the two best friends, capped with a nasty humiliation for the loser. Not much has changed since the Grade 4 sauna fiasco. Slacker Kenny usually wins with crafty cheats while dorkishly honest Spenny tries to retain as much dignity as possible. Despite suffering humiliations, like parading the Eaton Centre in a pink string-bikini, Spenny always plays fair.
“The show is really Kenny vs. Kenny. It’s kind of cerebral. Week after week I try to hatch these diabolical plans for crushing Spenny but he would rather win one competition fairly than a hundred by cheating. There was one episode where Spenny cheated, but he lost.”
Pinning down the funnyman for drinks is difficult these days. After a hectic year of promoting his CBC show, courting American broadcasters and working on a tongue-in-cheek Pope-hunting documentary, he has little time for chillin’ in the Annex. The waiter at Insomnia wriggles his way to the corner and manages to catch Kenny’s attention.
He points to the empty glass, “Another round?” “Yeah, but how about putting a little vodka in it this time?” Kenny shoots back. The waiter seems confused and Kenny rolls his eyes. Settling back into the couch he returns to talking about his show.
“At its broadest, I think the competition is who can get the most fans,” he says. Since selling the show to the Game Show Network in the states, the show’s competition for fans is global. “We’re on in 70 countries on satellite,” Kenny boasts.
Recently he was in Los Angeles filming promos for Argentinean TV, and before that in New York City for a guest appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. His show is also one of the only Canadian shows ever to sell its format in other countries.
After only one season on the air, Kenny vs. Spenny has franchised itself into seven foreign markets. Look for Elton vs. Simon on German television and Juan vs. Rom?n in Columbia. Both Kenny and Spenny were born and raised in Toronto, making media studies at Ryerson an obvious choice for Kenny. “I love Ryerson, though, I’m not even bullshitting. I really needed somewhere I could go and fuck around making films legitimately,” he says. “The thing about arts at Ryerson is either you do it or you don’t. The facilities are there, you just have to take advantage of that.”
After school Kenny and Spenny left home for L.A. to shoot their first comedy documentary, Pitch! Using techniques they learned trying to land a Hollywood movie contract they began pitching the concept for Kenny vs. Spenny.
Ironically, a hometown network was interested: the CBC. They began airing the show in an after-school time-slot where it gained a cult following but offended some network executives. “The CBC could have buried us,” Kenny says, his facial expression serious for the first time. “CBC executives Debbie Bernstein and Cheryl Hassen understood what we were doing and they really fought for us.” In the end the duo were able to sell their show to the Game Show Network and later to Showcase.
“The best episodes are the ones that they wouldn’t air on the CBC,” Kenny says, his forehead wrinkled in frustration. “Wait til you see them. They wanted a kid’s show but we just did the show we wanted to do. I couldn’t sell out to the kids – I’m not The Friendly Giant.”
Unaired episodes include “Who is the better parent?” and “Who makes a better stripper?” Currently Kenny is in Toronto to edit and mix his new comedic documentary about meeting the Pope, entitled The Papal Chase.
Kenny spends a big part of the year living with Spenny in L.A. but keeps an apartment in the Annex and spends as much time as possible here in his hometown. His first love is making documentaries but he says he prefers to keep their subject matter light. “They’re all Herculean tasks. Can I solve the mid-east peace crisis? Can I find the Holy Grail?” he says.
He still does all his editing and mixing in Toronto with old friends and longtime collaborators. Next he’ll be back to L.A. and shooting the second season of Kenny vs. Spenny.
The 13 new episodes, in addition to the nine previously unaired episodes, will air on Showcase in Canada and around the world on GSN.
Kenny plans to push limits next season with episodes like “Who can drink more beer in a week?,” “Who can produce more semen in a week?” and, of course, “Who do elderly people like more?”
The episodes are scheduled to air in the new year. How long will Kenny vs. Spenny last? He ponders the idea for a moment, tossing back the rest of his vodka soda. He says he has no idea but he’d like to do the show indefinitely.
“The longer the show runs, the worse it is for Spenny,” he says, chuckling at the idea of torturing his old friend for years to come. “But no matter what happens I’ll always make cool indie films. I’m not going to do anything for anybody else. “In the end it’s just a shitty little show. A lot of Canadians can’t relate to Canadian comedy today,” he cites Air Farce and Rick Mercer’s Monday Report as examples.
“[Canadians] are into shows like Kids in the Hall and Tom Green or Kenny vs. Spenny…I got pushed into doing television-I was doing film. I’ve been successful and I’d still feel pretty lucky if this was it for me. You keep doing it and you pray you don’t end up behind the counter at Subway,” he says. Then, grinning, he adds, “All I got are my brains and my elephant-sized penis.”
Exiting Insomnia he pauses to say goodbye to the two girls he knows working behind the bar and glares one last time at the waiter.