WHY YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THE HASHTAG AND #SAVEPICNICFACE

TO TAKE A MINUTE and not talk about Korea for once in eight months, I’d like to write up a little anecdotal evidence about why exactly Picnicface deserves to be a Great Canadian Cultural Export, rather then the stale leftovers of a Corner Gas entree. Here’s the thing: the folks in Picnicface are genuinely funny and genuinelier nice. In show business, from what notably little I understand of it, this is is a rare combination.

I started doing stand-up roughly halfway through my first year at Halifax’s University of King’s College. I had already gotten my tiny foot in the doggy door of King’s culture by writing for campus publication The Watch (under then-editorship, coincidentally, of Picnicface’s Evany Rosen) and decided to write monologues that were funny and not trust fickle actors to fuck them up. I was, some months in, recruited by a King’s alumnus to organize and host a comedy night to fundraise for our small uni’s iconic campus bar, The Wardoom. Having at least some vague acquaintance with Ms. Rosen and not anyone else in the troupe, I sent an email in the hopes that they would help make this fundraiser not shitty.

To have agreed would have been one thing. But I recall, and retain to this day as proof in the depths of my gmail inbox, the individual emails sent in by almost all of Picnicface’s eight members, sent from their personal email addresses. I remember receiving them one at a time, scattered throughout the day – “Oh, good, Brian’s on board. Oh! So is Cheryl… and Kyle… and….and…”

For a newbie comic several years their junior, the feeling can only be described as “awesome”.

One might argue, justifiably, that in 2009 they weren’t anywhere as big as they are now. They had no Comedy Network TV show, no Collins Canada book. They had Powerthirst but not yet Roller Town, their festival-hit feature film. They could afford then to do a fun little campus show for no money and a spot of free beer.

 

But they didn’t have to do it so damn well. It’s been nearly four years and I still remember Kyle’s bit about handjobs, and Mark’s full minute spent on something involving a shark in a vending machine. The crowd went fucking mental. They were really funny, and not once – this is important, now – not once did they break their humble attitudes, grow impatient, act rude or be divas. I have on many accounts reason to believe that their homegrown style of comedy, their fans-first attitude and their social media savvy all conclude that their egos have not inflated to the size of Russell Peters’s.

I’ve since watched nearly every video they’ve produced, albeit my Korean living situation has made watching their TV program range from “difficult” to “impossible” (though I just noticed they’ve uploaded some episodes onto YouTube), and if I may make this sentimental (fuck you, it’s my blog), they’ve been at times extremely comforting. I don’t often get homesick, but we all have our spells; watching Evany in a fake beard and Bill run all-too-convincingly like a girl draws me closer to the country I will always call home. Certainly, if nothing else, it makes me proud to be Canadian, no matter where in the world I am.

And that, in under 600 words, is why it’s worthwhile to #savepicnicface.

SEVENS STORIES

RUGBY BOYS FILL the hotel room, laughing and clutching their half-finished beers. Hey, boys: shut up, will ya? Chopper’s lying on one of the hotel beds, no shirt on, under the clean white sheets, and he squints at me. What’s he doing here? It’s all right, Justis tells him. That’s Fraiman, he’s writing something for the Watch. We don’t have to keep anything from him. Over by the corner of the room, Willy leans on a desk and starts to talk, so everyone quiets down.

It’s been proposed that we throw tonight’s game, he says.

Sevens

“The team is mostly rookies now—small-framed kids with guts but no experience. When you see them together, you get the sense that they’ll make a strong team one day, cohesive and well-trained; but now, they just seem young. When we get out of the van and walk towards the Sevens barn, a few of them run ahead; Justis stays behind, walking at his own pace. He’s been team captain since his second year, a title he can boast for only a few more weeks. “Sometimes this makes me feel old,” he mutters, and we enter the barn.”

My (presumably) last feature for the Watch. I’m pretty proud of the narrative style of this one, though the formatting on the website is absolutely incorrect. I don’t expect anyone who reads this blog is too picky, though. Or existent.

ALL THE KING’S MONEY

TRANSPARENCY ISSUES AT KING’S COLLEGE didn’t start this summer, when the senior administration and Executive Board of Governors agreed to apply for a $2.1 million loan via email.

Nor did they start when the administration dismissed facilities director Ken Newman in the middle of the summer, after 22 years of service, without informing any members of the college—which is why the junior administration and faculty continued to leave messages on his answering machine, unaware that he had been let go.

They didn’t even start two years ago, when the administration bought the house across the street for around $500,000, launching a King’s-wide critique of their financial priorities that has shadowed their decisions ever since.

Nobody knows when our transparency issues started, but President William Barker insists that it’s not for a lack of trying.

“They’re doing us all a huge disservice with the secrecy with which they operate.”

“Some decisions have to be made off to the side because they can’t be made within the community discussion in the speed that they have to be made,” he said.

“If you over-consult, you’re actually opening up the discussion to too many people who, for one reason or another, actually really shouldn’t be involved in it.”

But several members of the King’s community—including students, faculty and administrators—have problems with the way things are being run, particularly when it comes to money.

“The finances of the university are a mystery to virtually everybody,” said head librarian Drake Peterson, describing the budget process as the president and the bursar going “behind closed doors” to sort out the numbers privately.

“They’re doing us all a huge disservice with the secrecy with which they operate,” echoed former King’s Students’ Union President David Etherington.

In a faculty meeting on March 24, 2009, Foundation Year director Peggy Heller said she found the King’s budget process “mysterious”, and was frustrated at the fact that she received no response to her proposed FYP budget by such a late point in the year.

Even the Executive Board of Governors expressed concerns about their involvement with the budget process. According to the minutes from April 15, 2009, the Chair “reminded members that they are to receive reports, and hoped to create a process which would make the Executive an ‘effective part of the loop’.”

That “loop” seems to consist exclusively of the school’s senior administration—the president, Bursar Gerry Smith and Vice-President Chris Elson, who gives way to Kim Kierans in July.

“It’s hard to get something that people can call transparent if the number you give them one month is different from the number you give them two months later.”

Transparency issues at King’s primarily revolve around the school budget—a simply laid out, three-page document outlining where our $17 million is going.

Barker noted that it’s very hard to make a comprehensive budget earlier in the year, because the school’s revenues change drastically between September and March.

“It’s hard to get something that people can call transparent if the number you give them one month is different from the number you give them two months later,” Barker said.

Students drop out of classes, get their money back or shift around classes all year round, the bursar added. “You’d be amazed how much the numbers drop from February to March.”

The process goes something like this: the president and the bursar compose a draft budget, usually at the end of March, once the numbers are finalized. They approve it with the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC) and approach the KSU—this year, however, the KSU had not yet received any numbers, though a town hall meeting with the president was held on April 6. The budget then goes to the Finance Committee at the Board level, then to the executive Board of Governors for a quick approval.

Because all this happens in that small window in March, Barker said, our potential deficits—like last year’s dramatic $1.1 million, or $400,000 Barker mentioned at a faculty meeting earlier this year—are so often exaggerated.

But one of the problems with this timeline, according to Etherington and various faculty members, is that it forces the budget to be approved for the public in the summer, after most students and faculty are gone.

The bursar said that this is not unusual practice, as many schools release their budgets in June. He referenced Dalhousie’s BAC report: “They’re concerning themselves with 2011-2012 and not putting their numbers down for 2010-2011.”

The Dalhousie BAC actually released its preliminary budget to the public on March 22. Smith is right in saying it deals with some prospective 2011-12 numbers, but it also includes a preliminary line-by-line breakdown of all their operating costs and a comprehensive chart of next year’s inevitable tuition increases—which may be anywhere from 0.5 per cent to 24 per cent, depending on upcoming government grants.

“There’s something to be said for huge bureaucratic states—that they actually run efficiently,” said Gordon McOuat, who has sat on King’s Budget Advisory Committee on-and-off for the last three years.

“Smaller institutions have less bureaucracy, but that doesn’t make them any more transparent.”

The BAC is a committee of faculty and administrators that is supposed to survey our school’s finances and make recommendations to the president—who sits on the committee himself.

But McOuat laughed when asked what recommendations they’ve made so far: “This year? Almost none. We haven’t been given a general description of the financial state of the college.”

Barker said that the financial state of the college is impossible to tell earlier on, because the college’s revenues can’t be finalized until late into second semester.

So why does this group—which, as McOuat emphatically noted, meets “every week, for Heaven’s sakes”—even exist?

“I find it actually really, really useful,” Barker said. He explained that the committee helps him better understand the opinions of the college.

The irony is that Barker reformed the BAC in recent years to include more faculty members in the discussion. But that isn’t transparency, according to McOuat and other members on the BAC; the faculty is still just as much in the dark as the students—something Etherington knows about all too well.

Etherington’s biggest problems with the senior administration is that they will often act on their own, and assume that their decisions will be retroactively approved by the rest of the school.

“Smaller institutions have less bureaucracy, but that doesn’t make them any more transparent.”

“The problem is that there’s never really any information given to anyone for us to validate [those actions],” Etherington said. “A lot of the time you see bad decisions made.”

He’s referring to the KSU’s altercations with the bursar earlier this year—arguments over who could move into old dean’s suite (now the Day Bay), or how much of the Wardroom was owned by administration and how much by the students.

In both situations, Etherington witnessed university administrations—the Property Grounds and Safety committee and the Wardroom Board of Management—being “undermined” by senior administration.

“There are so many things that I feel I like we never really get a final apology on when the administration makes a mistake,” he said. “There’s sort of an understanding that we can all agree it won’t happen again and we can just move forward.”

McOuat agrees with this criticism: “The danger that we face is paternalism.”

And the president’s response?

“Everyone really feels they know how it works,” he said. “The administration has actually got multiple masters.” He cited the government and alumni as outside forces that overrule even the senior administration, or the mandatory six-per-cent annual faculty salary increases that comprise most of the school’s budget in the first place.

Between the salaries and the school’s ongoing sewage pipe issues, Barker said that financial cuts to the library or athletics are the only options.

“Those are the only things where you’ve got a choice. The library’s the only place you can go. Unfortunately, it’s the scholarships, it’s the library and athletics,” he said.

“We’re boxed in.”

——————–

Originally published in the Watch, King’s College’s monthly magazine, in April 2010.