Forever sitting in the back of the room, the prescient shit disturber arouses an array of emotions in his more starch-collared comrades. Pity, scorn, quiet admiration – it runs the gamut. The class clown can be stigmatized as something of a dolt, unwilling or unable to focus on the task at hand. Peer beyond the smirk, however, and you may uncover a nimble mind that knows its surroundings well enough to subvert them. Against the looming spectre of misunderstood genius, I humbly bring you: Compendium.
A Shakespearean fool of a section, Compendium’s format allows contributors to approach serious and offbeat topics with edgy candor. According to editor PJ Vogt, the section is conceptualized as an “entry point” for readers who want to engage with relevant material in a non-traditional way. Over the past few weeks, for example, contributors have commented upon housing rights, drug abuse, social anxiety, employment prospects, and environmentalism. Writers strive to address topical humour without seeming too insular. Vogt insists it takes a fine balance to avoid humour that is funny exclusively to Daily and SSMU insiders, while skipping over topics too broad to be considered relevant.
Accessible content aside, the section presents a unique set of challenges. “Compendium is the reason I’ll walk out [of the office] at four or five in the morning,” sighs Vogt. “A short piece can take hours.” Charged with bringing readers the least formulaic material in The Daily, Vogt is overcome by a “constant, terrible fear” that things will go awry. Fear, it appears, is the driving force behind the section. Last year’s editor Daniel Goldbloom echoes his successor: “There is an existential terror in knowing that you have between three and five blank pages every issue that will somehow become full by production. With time, however, this becomes a comfortable existential terror.”
The challenge, according to Vogt, lies in part in the fact that as Compendium editor he is forced to “switch sides of [his] brain and become a trivializer.” In doing so, however, he risks shaping content at odds with the rest of the paper’s. To protect against such eventualities, the section’s content is circumscribed by the Statement of Principles – The Daily’s guiding document. Such standards obviate most gratuitously offensive humour and encourage more thoughtful pieces. This is not always easy – Vogt admits to having written material which he found completely innocuous only to be told by other editors that he’d crossed the line.
Another separate hurdle is internal logic of the section. According to Vogt, whereas most editors have an incentive to widen their writer base, he does not have that luxury. Most people simply can’t write comedy. A poorly written News piece, he explains, can be edited to conform to standards. No such mold exists for comedy: “Bad comedy is just bad, and everybody knows it,” notes Vogt, adding the caveat that many pieces are rejected not based on their quality, but rather their fit within the section. Goldbloom is less generous: “People seemed to think that writing humour is easy, and frequently suggest terrible ideas for Compendium that one must pretend to take into consideration, refuse with excuses, or dump on its demerits.” Zing!
By performing its all-important balancing act and doing it well, Compendium is consistently one of the most-read sections in the paper. Like the archetypal class clown, however, it cannot afford to take itself too seriously – to do so would be to undermine its own existence. Witness the myriad silly comics and pieces which somehow work themselves into the section. Perhaps Goldbloom summed the section up best with the following words: “I could talk about how important a tool humour is in breaking down epistemological barriers and forcing readers to confront the absurdity of their deeply held beliefs and assumptions. But then, at least conceptually, I’d be a douche bag.” Touché, Goldbloom, touché.
Stefan Szpajda is The Daily’s public editor. The public editor serves as the readers’ representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears every other week, and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.