In their house in downtown Toronto, Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice were fighting each other in a heated match for supremacy. Armed with methane-detection devices and an assortment of beans, cabbages and peppers, Kenny and Spenny pushed their bowels to the limit in the "Who Could Blow the Biggest Fart?" competition. This wasn't the hare-brained scheme of two college roommates trying to decide on who should vacuum the floors that week— it was a nationally-aired television show in Canada.
Despite ensuring his victory by spiking Spenny's chili with anti-flatulence pills, Kenny had to psychologically crush his opponent. In the basement, Kenny opened the back flap of his onesie, slid a plastic tube up his rectum and proceeded to blow air into himself. Once he filled himself up, he marched back upstairs and found Spenny kneeling doggystyle on the couch, trying to squeeze one out. After letting out a small toot in Spenny's face, Kenny walked halfway up the stairs, turned back to Spenny and blew an epic 18-second-long fart that sputtered for what seemed to be an eternity. The gas mask-toting crew collapsed to the floor in laughter. One sound man turned away in disgust. Kenny's bare cheeks jiggled as he failed to contain his snickers. Spenny's jaw just about hit the floor in disbelief. "Holy shit!" he screamed. "He's not even measuring it!"
Nearly 15 years have passed since the first episode of Kenny Vs. Spenny ( KvS) aired on CBC in 2003. Yes, you read that right, CBC. Our tepid public broadcaster picked the show up after MTV and the USA network both pulled the plug on it before even airing it and since then, it has become a legend in Canadian television. KvS upended the values of decency and politeness in a time when Canadian TV was dominated by staid and family-friendly content. The premise was simple: pit two childhood friends against each other in a series of silly competitions such as "Who Can Wear an Octopus on Their Head the Longest?" or "Who Can Eat the Most Meat?" The loser performed a "humiliation," a degrading act chosen by the victor, such as streaking down Yonge Street, french kissing an old lady, or eating sushi off the other's naked bottom.
"We were the antithesis of television," Kenny Hotz told VICE. (Full disclosure: Hotz has since occasionally worked with VICE on classy productions such as "Getting an Election.")
While CanCon cable shows like Trailer Park Boys, The Tom Green Show, and KvS were aired all over the world during the late 90s/early 2000s and grew massive followings, they often received little critical respect domestically. Meanwhile, from 1995 to 2011, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report won 10 Gemini awards between them for best comedy series. Aside from a few nominations, KvS never won a Gemini and Trailer Park Boys only won best comedy series once.
Recently, shows like CraveTV's Letterkenny and VICELAND's Nirvanna the Band the Show (yeah yeah yeah listen to the Globe and Mail if you don't believe me) have veered from the standard pablum of Canadian TV, but it's still a challenge for creators to make something entertaining or groundbreaking compared to the US television industry.
"One of the big problems is that the executives in this country are extremely risk averse," Matt Johnson, co-creator of Nirvanna the Band, told me.
Television creators who are getting shows made outside of the mainstream are quick to credit shows like Trailer Park Boys and KvS for creating a path for them.
Jared Keeso, creator of Letterkenny, a show about the quirks of rural Ontario, says KvS "is special to me for the same reason Jackass is."
" KvS makes me cry, laugh and dry heave," he said.
For such an essentially dumb show, KvS features some of the most bizarre and compelling TV to have ever come out of Canada (or anywhere for that matter), and its fan base continues to grow even after the series ended in 2010. Part reality show, part slapstick comedy, and part documentary on the male relationship, the show is a goddamn unicorn in the Canadian television system.
I met Spencer Rice at a cafe on the outskirts of Kingston, Ontario. Lanky, long faced, and wearing a Charlie Chaplin T-shirt, he asks "Do you smoke?" right out the gate. I don't. After asking the waitress if she smoked (she didn't), he explains to me, without prompting, his theory on why millennials have no "comedic literacy." Apparently, Will Ferrell is to blame for giving young people an insatiable taste for "stupid comedy," which has them drool over the likes of Jackass and KvS.
"Which is fine," he adds, before he laments the devolving tastes of youth who no longer care for Woody Allen ("They find him to be a whiner") or bother steeping themselves in comedic history ("They don't even know Johnny Carson").
"Every artist mourns the end of eras," he says.
The show started miraculously enough on CBC. At the time, "edgy" reality shows like Fear Factor, The Osbournes, and Jackass were just hitting their stride, and the usually tame public broadcaster wanted to take a stab at the genre. CBC gave KvS's first season 26 episodes, to be aired at 5:30 PM, just before the local news.
It wasn't exactly a good fit. CBC viewers who wished to catch an early glimpse of the news were shocked when they flipped the channel to witness the end of a KvS episode—the humiliation segment of the show. After being let go by CBC, the second season aired on Showcase, who gave them free reign to go where CBC wouldn't dare to tread.
Where competitions in the first season were "Who Can Stay Awake the Longest?" or "Who is the Better Chef?" the later seasons cranked up the lewdness, escalating (or devolving) to "Who Could Drink More Beer?" or "Who Could 69 The Longest?"
"These guys were able to be so raw, and when they could, they were always the best moments of the show," says Sebastian Cluer, a KvS writer and director.
While the concepts themselves are worth a laugh,the heart of Kenny vs Spenny lay in their absurd, larger-than-life friendship.
Aside from a shared love of comedy and music, Kenny and Spenny are polar opposites, both on the show and in real life. Kenny plays video games and collects bizarre albums—his most prized vinyl record is a sermon by Jim Jones, cult leader of Jonestown Massacre infamy—while Spencer prefers reading novels and playing the blues guitar.
"I think the big difference between us is introspection versus extroversion," says Spencer. But Kenny sees it a little differently. "He's dark, he's angry, he's neurotic, violent and paranoid, and he hates himself," he tells me on the phone. "And I like myself."
I was skeptical of their TV personas matching their real-life personalities, but I was surprised to learn that they are essentially what you see on TV (at least in front of me). Kenny's friendlier and Spenny's a bit more self-aware, but what you see is what you get with these guys. Aside from a few jokes at the expense of Spenny's mom, Kenny was pretty candid.
"I'm definitely not mad, but I love going there," he says, making a bluewehWEHH sound, "but doing the show makes you crazy."
In the show, their personalities reflect their approach to tackling the competitions. Spenny, who fashions himself as a critically minded and virtuous competitor, took a straightforward approach. Kenny, a potty-mouthed maniac on screen, bent the rules or outright cheated in every competition and was hell-bent on slandering and insulting Spenny, accusing him of being everything from a pug molester to having an "innie" penis. Among Kenny's most ruthless and devious strategies was when he slipped Spenny LSD in the octopus-wearing competition, which he won after convincing Spenny that the octopus needed to be set free in Lake Ontario.
But for all of Kenny's pranks and antics, he isn't necessarily the villain: Spenny is stern, a stickler obsessed with the rules who scowls at Kenny's rapid-fire delivery of crass jokes. Yet despite his headmaster-like affection, Spenny was quick to anger, and each verbal poke and prod that Kenny made wound him up to the point where he'd explode into furious outbursts, often escalating to childish bouts of punching and slapping between the two 30-something-year-old friends. "He was just so angry," Kenny says, "it was so much fun to watch him lose."
But Spencer maintains that he was the good guy on the show. "I feel like Kenny is an enemy of sincerity, which I find very sad," he says. To him, the audience cheering at his defeats and humiliations reflects a societal decline of values. "Being honest and sincere and open is somehow seen as being weak or lame. I kinda think that's sad, but what are you gonna do?"
Perhaps Spencer would have a point if he didn't mistake his didacticism for virtue, his condescension with intelligence and his self-righteousness with sensitivity throughout KvS. But his character's lack of self-awareness is precisely what made him so funny; he was the perfect foil to Kenny, whom he set up every episode to hit jokes out of the park. "I think the ultimate joke of the show is that the person that should be loved is the one that's hated. The guy that's playing by the rules is the idiot," says Kenny.
The odds of such a neurotic man being paired on a TV show with a lunatic and was willing to take so much abuse seems incredulous. "The fact that me and Spenny ended up on a show together was just so incredible," Kenny says, calling KvS a "one in a billion shot."
After their third season, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker took notice of their televised antics, and were so compelled by the show that became executive producers and brought it Comedy Central in the US. Stone and Parker had years earlier created "Terrence and Philip", a Canadian television show within the South Park universe that consisted of nothing more than two friends farting on and insulting each other. But Stone and Parker saw more to KvS than just farts and fighting, calling it in a release "the most accurate examination of male friendships that we've ever seen."
And like South Park, KvS was highly self-aware, at once revelling in and admonishing its own puerility. Watching the show, you can't help but laugh, cringe and shake your head in disbelief. Even now, Kenny is at times embarrassed by how far they went. "We were so filthy and disgusting. Some of the shows were so brutally rude, like insanely rude," he says.
"Everyone wants to look good on television. I thought, Ugh, the worse we look, the better, the funnier it would be."
"It's all about exposing the male ego," he adds. " Kenny Vs. Spenny revealed the shittiness of masculinity."
Though KvS ended in 2010, it continues to garner a significant cult following. The revival was sparked after Kenny uploaded the entire series onto YouTube (which has since been deleted), where it accrued tens of million of views. The show was such a hit around the world that it spawned a series of international spinoffs, such as Ed Vs. Spencer in the UK, Elton Vs. Simon in Germany and Sid Vs. Varun in India. Netflix also added the show to their Canadian and American libraries, which sparked a fan-driven push for the online streaming service to make a seventh season. Netflix didn't bite on a renewal, but Kenny and Spenny have since reunited for a KvS live show that has toured through Canada, the US, and Europe, which, according to Kenny, still sells out venues.
But for all of its entertainment value, the back-and-forth animosity of the show took a severe toll on their relationship. But where most series decline because the creators hate each other, KvS got more twisted; as Spenny got more paranoid and angry, Kenny got meaner and crazier. But after KvS ended in 2010, the two friends didn't speak to each other for years.
"I saw the guys starting to embody their portrayal on screen and they became these exaggerated versions of themselves," says Cluer. "The masks became the faces."
And where reality TV feels polished and scripted, KvS was loose and cozy. Instead of cutting bloopers or awkward bits, they fully incorporated them into the show. The crew members became secondary characters, as henchmen to their schemes, or as horrified witnesses to the debauchery that was unfolding before them, giving the show a fresh breath of authenticity.
This was was something the spinoff shows lacked. The dynamics between the imitation Kennys and Spennys often felt forced, and the episodes amounted to nothing but two strangers pranking each other. The Turkish version, Cenk Vs. Erdem, had forgone the attempt to even be a spinoff, opting instead to be a shot-for-shot remake of KvS. While the format was easy to replicate, the long-standing, complicated relationship between Kenny and Spenny was the perfect storm for a show of the likes we will probably never see again.
Post KvS, both went off to make their own shows, but each has since settled down for family life. After the tension of filming KvS for seven years cooled, they reconnected, and continue to tour the live show on a semi-regular basis. After 86 episodes and a Christmas special of competing against each other, they remain friends. "Absolutely, I consider him a friend," says Spencer, though he admits it's "a very strange friendship."
Kenny echoes the sentiment.
"I consider him a brother," he says. "I've known him my whole life. We've been through one of the greatest experiences I've ever had."
Follow Nick Dunne on Twitter.