Revisiting Kenny vs. Spenny

‘Tis the season for watching re-runs, cooking shows, and Storage Wars marathons. This Canadian prairie winter has been especially bitter and depressing, so I’ve been revisiting shows that are guaranteed to make me laugh. Kenny vs. Spenny was a show that watched a lot in my late teens, so when I saw that the first three season are on Netflix, I found a warm blanket and queued up a couple of episodes.

Kenny vs. Spenny is a reality show about… well… the opening sequence describes it best:

Since the beginning of time, mankind has been forced to compete for survival. His spirit of survival has reached a pinnacle in the relationship of two best friends who battle against each other. Why? Glory for the winner. Humiliation for this loser. This is Kenny vs. Spenny.

Kenny vs. Spenny titleEvery episode, Kenny and Spenny compete against each other in a different competition. Some competitions are straight forward (“The first to laugh loses”), some are hard to define (“Who is the sanest?”) and some are totally ridiculous (“Who can wear a dead octopus on their head the longest?”) Regardless of the viability of the competition, at the end of every episode, a winner is chosen and the loser has to suffer a humiliation. What makes Kenny vs. Spenny work as a TV show is that both Kenny and Spenny actually want to win. While many of the elements of the show may be staged, their desire to win is real and it creates a wonderful, hilarious tension. If either competitor didn’t feel the desire to win so absolutely, the show would be boring. If they didn’t care who won, neither would we, the audience.

This desire to win must come from their long, shared history. Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice have been best friends since high school, and nearing their 40’s, they have accumulated a long history together. Some of the best moments of the series come from season one, where moments from their past are brought into the show. This is before season two, where both men learn to put up an act for the camera. Reality TV is at its best when it can catch its subjects in moments of real vulnerability.  In “Who can win a legal battle” Kenny shows photos to the camera of him and Spenny on different trips they have taken together. In the next breath he says he’s going to use these photos as proof that Spenny is a mooch (Kenny paid for those trips) but the moment of nostalgia Kenny has for Spenny is endearing and it is visual proof that they have had good times as friends, not just the horrible times that we see on TV. I am a sucker for the drama of human emotions. And while I enjoy fart jokes as much as the next person, the moments I love best (and often find the funniest) in Kenny vs. Spenny are products of the friendship between Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice.

My favourite episode is “Who can survive in the woods the longest?” from season 1. Firstly, an episode that takes place outside of the Kenny vs. Spenny house is always enjoyable. Secondly, there isn’t much room for Kenny to cheat. When Kenny cheats, the results are often funny, but what is funnier is when Kenny gets desperate (which isn’t often). On the first night, Kenny cheats by having a magnifying glass tucked in his “emergency whistle.” He starts a fire and enjoys the heat while Spenny is forced to sleep in the cold. Spenny tries to buy an ember of fire off Kenny for $100 and when that ember burns out, Kenny makes Spenny act like an elephant for the chance to buy another.

While Spenny dancing like an elephant is pretty funny, what is REALLY funny is the argument they have on night two about it. Throughout the day, Spenny keeps close to Kenny to see if he can make fire again. This causes friction between the two, and in addition to them both being really hungry, the argument turns into a full out yelling and wrestling match. The fight gets so intense that the crew has to intervene and pull the two men apart. In the conversation after the fight, Kenny and Spenny agree that they should call the competition a draw, in order to preserve their friendship. I find the actual physical fight hilarious. That may sound cruel but in fact, the fight is between two men who have chosen to traipse through the woods for two days, who then fight about the fact that one made the other act like an elephant for an ember of fire.

The episode is unstaged and totally fair. Both men get desperate and both men show that in the end, their friendship is more important than their TV show. In later seasons, these moments of friendship are all but gone and a lot of the fun is lost, in my opinion.

To go further with the dynamic between the two men, Kenny is the self declared evil genius. He cheats all the time. He is also the man on the show that tells the most jokes, pulls the most stunts and generally entertains the viewing audience. Spencer likes to think that he is the good guy – moral, honest and, in general, better than Kenny in every way. Despite thinking that he is the good guy, Spenny is a classic TV villain. Kenny is by far more enjoyable to watch. Spenny is the fly in the ointment, always bringing Kenny down with his rules and general party-pooper-y. I find Spenny sickeningly self-righteous in most episodes, so much so that I fast forward most of his talking heads. But as annoying as Spenny is, Kenny vs. Spenny would be nothing without Spenny.

I think of it like this – there are a lot of guys out there on TV like Kenny: funny, brash, willing to do anything, but there is no one like Spenny. No one would take Kenny’s crap with the level of seriousness that Spenny does. Since Kenny is a constant (he constantly cheats and is constantly funny) I have a theory that Spenny’s level of involvement correlates directly to how enjoyable the show is:

Spenny diagramThere have been spin-offs of this show, but I guarantee none are as good as the original, because there is no other friendship as unique as Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice. At it’s best, Kenny vs. Spenny is laugh out loud funny. At it’s worst, it is cruel, juvenile, and totally gross. The show does its job; it’s funny. But even more than that, it is a very unique portrait of two grown-up male friends… who battle against each other… and fart in each others faces.

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