It’s been more than a decade since the award-winning, unlikely Canadian reality TV sensation, Kenny vs. Spenny, aired its final episode, but that hasn’t stopped scores of the show’s fans from playing into one of its longest running themes, which, to oversimplify, is essentially Spencer Rice playing eternal punching bag to Kenny Hotz’s Machiavellian scheming.
“It was obviously a very popular show and something I love and am very proud of, but at the same time, I still get it,” Rice, 58, tells Pique.
“You know the show, The Office, the American version? I happened upon a YouTube interview with [Rainn Wilson, the actor who played beet farmer] Dwight Schrute. He goes through the same shit I do. Obviously his show is monstrously popular, where he’ll post some meal he’s eating with his wife and all the comments are, ‘How come there’s no beets in it?’” he adds. “That’s my life. There’s nothing I can post where I don’t get, ‘You owe Wolfish money. You rape pugs,’ and all the gaslighting Kenny has done. That’s still a part of my career.”
His latest tour, dubbed the Spenaissance, is at least in part an effort to get out from under the shadow of Kenny vs. Spenny, which saw the lifelong friends and rivals compete in a series of increasingly outlandish competitions, with the loser forced to endure often unthinkable humiliations. (The one where Spenny eats the viscous, cigarette-laden mucous scraped directly from Kenny’s tongue is, for my money, one of the most disgusting things to ever hit primetime Canadian TV.)
A blues player since childhood, Rice’s tour—which stops in Whistler on Sunday—combines music and comedy, with Rice showing clips from Kenny vs. Spenny and his other, lesser-known productions, like X-Rayted and Confessions of a Porn Addict, as well as playing tunes on his six-string acoustic, steel resonator and harmonica.
“These are songs that I’ve loved. It’s not a commercial venture for me; it’s a labour of love,” he says. “And if people go in and haven’t heard me before, they sort of go in with low expectations and I can pretty easily exceed them because I’ve been playing for 40 years.”
As much as Rice wants to shift audiences’ perceptions of him, it’s clear the show he is most known for remains a huge part of his professional life. When I speak with him, he is on his way to a live Kenny vs. Spenny stage show in Waterloo, Ont., and both Hotz and Rice have made public appeals for the show to be revived over the years.
Of course, much has changed in both comedy and the wider culture since the show debuted, somewhat unbelievably, on CBC in 2003. (Rice maintains the public broadcaster cancelled the series after its first season—it eventually wound up on Showcase—because it aired right before the evening news, and droves of Canadians tuning in to watch Peter Mansbridge were scandalized by the episode-closing humiliations.)
So, could the show get made in today’s climate?
“Probably not. I think you could say that,” Rice says. “We’re both—and people are surprised by me—very against the cancel culture and how it plays out in comedy. That’s not just raw self-interest. We live in a time, it seems, when there is no room for nuance and complication.”
For all its juvenile interests—I mean, the show included such competitions as “Who Can Blow the Biggest Fart?”; “Who Can Produce the Most Semen?”; and, a personal favourite, “Who Can Wear a Dead Octopus on their Head the Longest?”—Kenny vs. Spenny is the kind of series that snuck in deeper, philosophical themes of good versus evil, egotism versus empathy that have only become more prescient as time went on. All you have to do is look at Donald Trump, whose arrogant blustering and deceitful, win-at-all-costs approach are taken right from the Kenny playbook. Spenny, meanwhile, turned his earnest, liberal worldview into one of the show’s long-running gags.
“The good guy became the bad guy, and that’s kind of how I looked at it. If they’re going to make fun of me for wanting to save gorillas and talking about the environment and things I think are really important, unbelievably important, frankly, then I’m going to up the notch and just be obnoxious about it,” Rice says. “You look at The Sopranos or anything, people have always liked the bad guy. But it never seeped into reality quite like I see it right now. With the pandemic and this whole thing with masks, 2,000 people a day are dying on average in the United States, and you’ve got these people saying that wearing a fucking mask is somehow tantamount to Nazi Germany or some kind of government anti-freedom [campaign]. It’s gone way past where I ever thought it could go, and it’s really happening, which is great for the Spenny persona because I can fight against that stuff.”
Rice will be playing at Buffalo Bills on Oct. 3, starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20, or $35 for a VIP meet-and-greet after the show, available at loveoflive.ca.