University of Richmond Collegian

Zen and the Art of Noise

By Jeffrey Carl

Jeffrey Carl UR Column
University of Richmond Collegian, March 23 1995

Thanks to a bare modicum of writing skill and a more obvious fondness for bourbon which aligned with that of my journalism professors, my putative career advanced rapidly through my undergraduate years. I went from a practicum story writer for the University of Richmond Collegian student newspaper in my freshman year to Assistant News Editor in my sophomore year, then on to Greek Life Editor and IT Manager (I read MacWorld magazine!) in my junior year, and ultimately to Opinion Editor in my senior year.

For some reason that escapes me now, I acquired a humor column during this process at the beginning of my junior year. This column, titled “Over the Cliff Notes,” eventually ran for 22 installments and was over the course of two years was read by literally dozens of actual humans, only most of which where KA pledges I forced to do so. Its literary influence was quite literally incalculable, and I’m just going to leave it at that.

It occurs to me now that topical humor from college campuses nearly 30 years ago does not age well. I’m sure it was absolutely hilarious at the time, though. Enjoy!

We here at The Collegian pride ourselves on being responsive to our readers.  Yes, both of them.

Each week, we receive figuratively hundreds of letters asking, “Oh please please please give the world a glimpse of the column-manufacturing process The Collegian uses!”  Well, this process is a heavily-guarded state secret, much like McDonald’s secret sauce (Thousand Island dressing) or the secret KA greeting (Sign: “The fat man is doing his laundry.”  Countersign: “Yeah, whatever.  Go away.”), and under normal circumstances anyone who found out would be killed by the élite Collegian Death Squad (assistant copy editors).  

But, hell, it’s my last week as Opinion Editor (Poppy Seed dressing),  and I’m feeling a little bitcrazy.  It’s time the cat came out of the bag, as it were.

The first recorded column was written by Socrates in 447 B.C.  It said, “The Greek system sucks,” which did not make him a popular man in Athens at the time.  History tells us that the ancient Egyptians also wrote hieroglyphic columns, which all seem to have been about scarabs, eyes and weird wiggly “Prince”-looking shapes.  Mesopotamians of the Bronze Age and Chaldeans of the Tupperware Age are both reported to have written numerous “humor” (Hidden Valley Ranch dressing) columns but were hindered by the low circulation of newspapers and the fact that everybody was still going to be illiterate for another 2000 years.

Columns experienced great popularity in the early Byzantine Empire, but were nearly crushed in the West after Pope John Paul George Ringo IV declared them to be “heretical as well as just plain irritating.”  Thousands of unrepentant columnists were tortured, burned at the stake or beaten up by male cheerleaders.

But all was not lost: under the enlightened spirit of the Reformation and the High Renaissance, columnists once again became hunted like the dogs they were, and burned almost continuously.  This continued until the Industrial Revolution (Zesty Italian dressing), when cheaper forms of fuel than “columnist-burning” were discovered.

But where – or who – or, really, why – do these columns actually come from?  Who are the valiant men and women who strive each week to bring much-needed entertainment to you, the reader, and the other guy?  Well, truth be told, they’re all illegal migrant workers.

Each week, hundreds of columns are harvested in the fields of Colombia by Juan Valdez, his faithful burro “Meximelt” and the rest of his literary cartel.  From there, they are processed, packed in shipping grease (Hollandaise sauce) and smuggled into the United States, disguised as a shipment of “Pet Rocks.”  From there they are sold on the streets, with “pushers” selling Dave Barry columns for as little as five dollars for a one-paragraph “hit.”  Some states have enacted laws providing a minimum jail term of 20 years for anyone distributing Mike Royko columns to minors.  Possession of “Freedom Betrayed” will get you the death penalty in Malaysia.

Ha ha ha hee hee.  Just kidding.  Nope, all of our columns are home-grown right here in the good old U.S. of A., except mine, which are flown in from “World Evil Headquarters” (light chicken gravy) in France.

Each columnist has a different “creative” process for writing.  None of these are interesting or probably even comprehensible, and, frankly, I really just don’t want to know.  

The point is that each columnist produces 750-850 “words” (Vaseline and grapefruit) which thereupon undergo a magical process that eventually ends with you, the reader, throwing the paper away after reading the “That’s What You Think” section.

Every week, each columnist reports to the Collegian office and presents his or her column before the scarlet-clad throne of the Opinion Editor in a formal ceremony.  If it is amusing, well-written and intelligent it is discarded immediately, and the Opinion Editor will order his royal guards to flog the columnist and occasionally mildly behead him or her.  All other columns are immediately rushed into print.

After columns have been submitted, the Opinion Editor will consecrate the writing by praying to the ancient Algerian God of Columns, “Crapola.”  This process used to involve a time-consuming ritual of human sacrifice and burnt offerings, but now can be done electronically by sending E-mail to [email protected]  After that, all of the columns are entered into The Collegian’s giant mainframe Commodore 64 computer.  From this stagnant pool of information, the individual columns are processed, translated into Pig Latin, encoded so that the Germans and Japanese can’t read them and run through a cheese grater.  This reduces the columns to fragments of about three letters each, which are picked up off the floor and are pasted on the page in no particular order by the Opinion Editor (I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter™).  Believe you me, they make a lot more sense that way.

So that’s how it all works.  Now the next editor will have to figure it all out.  And believe you me, I’m pretty happy to be done with this job.  Four more columns to go.  Yep, no way I’ll miss it.  I’m not kidding.