As ID gears up to air the final season of Homicide Hunter, star Joe Kenda talks to TV Real about his television career and the universal appeal of true-crime shows.
Joe Kenda spent more than two decades in law enforcement. As a detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, Kenda solved 356 homicide cases out of 387 investigated—a solve rate of 92 percent. He left the force in 1996, but being a retired detective was not to be his final act. In 2011, Investigation Discovery (ID) premiered Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda, featuring the detective recounting some of his most infamous cases. Produced by Jupiter Entertainment and sold by Rive Gauche Television, Homicide Hunter has since become one of the network’s biggest successes. Kenda announced this summer, at the network’s annual IDCON fan event, that season nine, which launches today, would be his last. “The integrity of this show has been paramount to me since the beginning,” Kenda told his fans. “It is true and honest and relies on the case reports. You’ll find season nine to be enormously interesting. But once that’s over, only a handful of cases remain that are presentable on television. The rest are either too simple or simply too disgusting to put on TV. The result of that is that we don’t have enough cases remaining after season nine to support the continuation of the show. I didn’t want to be the guy who is the athlete who played one season too long or the singer who remained on the stage when they lost their voice. I want to go out at the top of my game.”
TV REAL: How did your association with ID come about?
KENDA: A producer saw a news tape of me being interviewed by Diane Sawyer on a program called Turning Point. He was impressed with it. He thought he could make a TV show out of it. He came to me. I wasn’t interested. My wife pressured me into calling him back for three days. I called him back. We created a pitch reel for the show and ID was interested and that’s how it started.
TV REAL: As you reflect on nine seasons of this show, what’s this journey been like for you?
KENDA: It’s been remarkable. I never thought it would be successful. I never thought it would be on television! I didn’t. I told my wife, This is just murder, no one is going to be interested. She said, You don’t understand. Well, apparently I don’t. Because it’s been absolutely crazy. It’s all over the world. It’s well thought of everywhere. The real point of it is, it’s true. There are no Hollywood conventions, no gun battles, no chases, none of that. It’s investigative work, one foot in front of the other. Why do people do what they do? That’s what people find most interesting.
TV REAL: What led you into law enforcement?
KENDA: I was 9 years old and my parents took me to the zoo. That’s a big deal in a kid’s world, going to the zoo! We go there and there’s a sign in front of the primate house that said, Around this corner is the most dangerous animal on Earth. Everyone ran around the corner and it was a mirror from the ceiling to the floor. Everybody was disappointed—everybody but me! It struck me. You’re looking at humans. And you realize it’s true. We have eliminated entire species. We now have the ability to eliminate life on Earth. We are the most dangerous animal on this planet. Murder must be the worst crime because we’ll do the worst to you for doing it. We’ll kill you or put you away for forever. That’s what I wanted to do. I focused my work on getting to that point. I got there and it turned out I was pretty good at it!
TV REAL: You’re also good on television! How has that transition been, from full-time detective to being on screen?
KENDA: It’s very easy. I spent a whole career in front of cameras, constantly in front of the press. So they turn on this camera—it’s just another camera. OK, I’m using to standing in front of nine cameras, this is only one? This will be easy! There’s no script. I say whatever I want to say. They eliminate the profanity. I don’t know why they do that—it’s the language of the street!
TV REAL: Is it difficult to relive your cases?
KENDA: It’s been therapeutic for me, which is why I wanted to do it. I don’t care about the money. It doesn’t interest me. I have a policy: if I have it, I spend it, I don’t spend it if I don’t have it. So it wasn’t that. It was, maybe if I talk about the cases I would feel better. And I do. So for me, that’s the value of it. It’s therapy to discuss these things that I never discussed in detail before.
TV REAL: As you mentioned, it has sold well around the world. Why do you think it has resonated in so many territories?
KENDA: This is human behavior. And humans behave badly. When your emotion overcomes your judgment, you do something incredibly violent because it is human nature to be violent. Picture yourself in the Serengeti Plain in Africa, millions of years ago. And you notice a creature 4-feet tall, covered in hair, and he grunts to other creatures like him and they seem to be able to communicate. You’re looking at early man. And you admire this clever little creature for a while and you realize he makes weapons and he’s able to kill animals three and four times his size. But it’s not in your best interest to try to pet him, and it still isn’t. Nothing has changed. Clothing is more sophisticated, better lying, better willingness to go along, but ultimately that button is still there.
TV REAL: ID owns this true-crime content space in the U.S. Why do you think the network has been so successful?
KENDA: ID does a great job in presentation. They are tasteful about it. They don’t show a lot of gore and blood and that sort of thing. They focus on the really interesting points—the human nature side and not the violence itself. A lot of programs focus on the violence.
TV REAL: I listen to a lot of true-crime podcasts, and I find they are sometimes more terrifying without the visuals.
KENDA: It triggers your imagination. And it begins to make the mind race! You’re looking over your shoulder while you’re listening! [Laughs] I understand completely!
TV REAL: One podcaster suggested that everyone have an “if I go missing folder,” with all the details authorities would need to try to find you.
KENDA: People don’t want to think about it. Life is random. Bad things happen to nice people. Don’t worry about the bullet that has your name on it. Worry about the one that says, “To whom it may concern!” [Laughs]
TV REAL: Do you enjoy attending fan conventions?
KENDA: The fans create everything. No one wants to believe that. Everyone thinks that they’re somehow important, but they’re not! The fans create the shows. Without them, we’d all be looking for jobs. That’s the reality.