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How U of T satire publications keep the jokes flowing — even through Zoom meetings

The Boundary and The Toike Oike on confronting the pandemic head on
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Moving online in light of COVID-19 was a daunting prospect, but these publications adapted. MANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
Moving online in light of COVID-19 was a daunting prospect, but these publications adapted. MANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

Many U of T students turn to the university’s satire publications for catharsis and distraction online. Now, as U of T has largely pivoted to online delivery in light of COVID-19, this is as true as ever.

The Varsity spoke to two satire publications, The Boundary and The Toike Oike, to find out how they are adjusting to a new media landscape.

A bigger market for humour?

The Boundary’s readership has grown since March, when many students were pushed out of residences. Its readership is still rising, as a mass of first-year students who cannot be on campus — but want to feel a sense of community — begin classes.

“We’re seeing such a large increase because they’re trying so hard to get involved,” said The Boundary’s Managing Editor Emory Claire Mitchell. She suspects that students are more eager to interact with the publication because online classes may not be conducive to meeting people, and thus engaging in student life.

Several incoming first-years have reached out to The Toike’s Editor-in-Chief Parker Johnston over the summer. It is clear to him that the demand for satire and humour at the university has grown.

“We are hopeful for the future,” he said. “I think that’s just something that’s absolutely awesome, to be able to find ways to continue to grow The Toike… [because] it really is an awesome group to be a part of.”

How to crack jokes over Zoom

Johnston attributes the widespread demand for satire during the pandemic to its ability to draw from current events. It is popular because people have shared feelings and experiences from the past six months that they can relate to through humour.

It did feel refreshing to laugh as I scrolled through Toike TV’s video content before my interview with Spencer Ki. He and Joel Kahn are the first official directors of the channel.

“It’s a nice way of staying current without becoming overwhelmed by the [constant] news cycle, because you’re still keeping up with the general ideas of what’s going on without just seeing the constant barrage of negatives,” Ki explained.

“I think that’s a general phenomenon, but I think if it’s a general phenomenon, it could definitely be ascribed to U of T as well.”

Both The Boundary and The Toike underwent a learning curve while adjusting to production and publication changes caused by COVID-19. “Truth be told we don’t exactly have a regular [publication] schedule,” Ki said.

Ki’s genial appreciation for his co-editor is palpable. He credits Kahn for the ease at which their team produces and edits videos while physically distanced.

“Because he can splice together things that look natural, even though we’re all in different locations, even though we’re using stock photos and stock videos, he can make it look perfect,” Ki said.

The Toike found transitioning to online idea meetings difficult because it can be hard to engage everybody on one Zoom call. They split off into smaller breakout rooms to improve the situation. “They can talk about their ideas better,” said Johnston.

The Boundary’s Editor-in-Chief Nona Jalali described a similar experience: “I think with comedy, especially, there’s a really important point to be had in kind of riffing off of each other’s ideas. And so obviously we can still do that online, but when you’re in person and you think of something and you’re in a comfortable space, it just makes it so much easier to say whatever’s on your mind.”

Despite the initial challenge, the publication was posting content two to three times a week by late March. “Weirdly enough,” Jalali added, “I think we’ve gotten used to it to a point where now our meetings just look basically exactly the same as they did before.”

The Toike has already printed and mailed out its September issue but plans to distribute the rest of this year’s editions solely online.

The Toike is one of the few newspapers, I dare say in the world, that can’t go out of print literally… because of the Toiking ritual,” Ki acknowledged.

“It can’t stop printing because the engineers need to rub it on each other’s face; when they rub it on each other’s faces, they sometimes open it up and they appreciate U of T-centred content.”

Laughter is the medicine for the COVID-19 blues

The pandemic has created an environment in which the publications can be more innovative and creative. Johnston disclosed that The Toike’s October issue is titled “QuaranToike.”

“We’re planning to tackle this thing head on,” he said.

It is important to him that the publication finds different ways to engage with the community online. “We’re coming up with a lot of unique ways in which we can engage people,” Johnston said. The Toike had its first digital movie night on August 22. The film was Cats, which Parker reassured was 100 per cent “a movie that was filmed.”

Meanwhile, Toike TV has created advertisements to play before The Toike’s digital events. It tries to make the experience reminiscent of in-theatre entertainment. Kahn recorded the 20th Century Fox fanfare over anthropomorphic animals for the video played before Cats. “And, in a way, it was better quality than the movie,” said Ki.   

The Boundary had been planning a physical publication for the end of the school year and intends to revisit the project once physical magazines are widely circulated again. For now, its staff members have been focusing their attention on matching witty headlines with clever photos for their Facebook posts, which, according to Mitchell, have recently picked up more interaction.

“Fashion-Conscious Vic Student Thrifts Vintage Mask from Kensington,”  reads one post accompanied by a picture of a girl with a photoshopped plague-doctor mask over her face. “Brandy Melville Launches ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ PPE,” read another.

The importance of maintaining balanced content was mentioned by all the interviewees. It is paramount to draw from all of 2020’s events without tiring their audiences with the same jokes.

“We want to bring people out of the sad and focus more on the funny, so we can’t lean too much into [the sad],” explained Ki.

As the school year starts up, campus satire is looking to focus on humour that students can relate to. It can be an effective way of helping them cope, considering that the typical university experience — especially the first-year experience — has been especially afflicted by the pandemic.

Disclosure: Spencer Ki is The Varsity’s business & labour editor.