Colbert to visit Pitt in the fall

By Gwenn Barney

Pitt students can pull out their American flags and throw on their Colbert Nation T-shirts. This… Pitt students can pull out their American flags and throw on their Colbert Nation T-shirts. This fall, comedian Stephen Colbert is visiting Pitt.

On June 28 on his satirical show, “The Colbert Report,” Colbert announced he will visit Pitt as part of the prize for four Pitt students who won his “Colbert Super PAC Super Fun Pack” treasure hunt. The contest challenged participants to create their own Super PAC — an entity that can donate money to political causes without spending limits — and go in search of a 101-year-old sterling silver antique turtle-shaped bell.

Pitt students Dan Stough, Daniela Aizpitarte, Ben Zaczek and Justine Buchman teamed up to follow the clues on the treasure map included in the Super Fun Pack — a cardboard box filled with directions for establishing a Super PAC and treasure hunt clues. Stough and Buchman are engineering graduate students, and Aizpitarte and Zaczek recently graduated from Pitt with degrees in engineering. Colbert sold 1,000 of the packs, which included comedic PAC-related materials in addition to the treasure map.

The Super PAC fun pack is a commentary on a controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling, known as the Citizens United decision, which said the government can’t stop corporations or unions from making independent political expenditures. Critics say that unchecked spending could corrupt elections.

After the Citizens United ruling, Colbert set up his own PAC and encouraged his viewers, whom he refers to as “heroes,” to donate. The group of Pitt students did, setting up a Super PAC of its own.

The goal of the Super PAC contest was to demonstrate to participants and “Colbert Report” viewers the simplicity of setting up a Super PAC. In addition to finding the treasure, any winners of the Super PAC challenge had to set up their very own Super PAC. The Pitt champions called theirs “Pitt PAC.”

“The Super PAC paperwork is literally like three pages,” Zaczek said. “The cover letter’s like [a] mad lib. They give you the template. You type in your name, the organization, and you sign it. That’s it.”

Stough bought the Super Fun Pack in April and immediately enlisted his friends to help him solve the clues included in the box. Through finals, research and the series of bomb threats that plagued Pitt this past spring, the team worked together via an online dropbox, where they could view the clues and materials included in the Fun Pack simultaneously.

“When I saw the Super PAC fun pack I thought, you know, this is probably something that would be a good waste of time for everybody, and so I bought it immediately, the same day” Stough said.

In a series of events that unfolded “National Treasure”-style, the team used a decoder ring, translated Masonic symbols and discovered a secret in the treasure map that allowed them to calibrate a set of GPS coordinates.These coordinates ultimately led them to Dixon, Ill., hometown of one of Colbert’s heroes, former President Ronald Reagan.

In Lowell Park, they discovered their treasure chest, a box crafted to resemble a typical wood log. Inside the box, the team found a small golden turtle and note congratulating them with an email address. Directions told them to send an email to the address included to claim the true prize, the 101-year-old bell.

Like historic treasure seekers, these modern treasure hunters learned that knowing where to find your treasure and actually finding your treasure are two different stories. The group experienced a series of missteps and comedic errors while on their hunt that Aizpitarte highlights in an entry on her blog, Real Person in Real Life.

Aizpitarte said the team’s experience in engineering helped them find the treasure.

“I feel like we’re used to working on seemingly impossible problems,” she said. “So we can contemplate on something for hours on end.”

Their troubles were rewarded this past week when Colbert flew them to New York City, where all four team members sat in on a taping of “The Colbert Report,” met Colbert backstage, and were in the audience for the usually closed-to-the-public pre-taping rehearsal. The team went to the taping in style, as “The Colbert Report” lodged them overnight in a hotel overlooking Central Park and picked them up in Escalades the next morning.

“We got star treatment,” Aizpitarte said.

During the rehearsal, Colbert stopped mid-joke to address the team sitting in the audience.

“He just looks over at us [and asks] ‘Who are these people in the audience?’” Stough said.

The crew turned the spotlight on the four friends.

“They’re the winners of the Super PAC,” a crew member answered.

“Oh, hello, Super PAC winners. I guess you’re the future of America,” Colbert said.

Then the lights suddenly went dim and Colbert spoke up from the darkness. “It’s all a ruse. We’re here to harvest your organs.”

The team enjoyed the joke.

“He was so funny. Even off-camera, the jokes that didn’t make it into the show were hilarious,” Stough said.

Stough went on the show to claim the team’s prize, shaking Colbert’s hand and exchanging dialogue for the last few minutes of Thursday night’s program.

“I was pretty nervous,” Stough said. “[Screenwriter] Aaron Sorkin was also on the show that day and one woman was like ‘Oh, Aaron Sorkin’s been on the show before, and he’s still really nervous. You seem pretty good though.’”

Stough revealed to Colbert during the taping that the winning team hailed from Pitt, meaning Colbert’s future destination would be Pitt’s Oakland campus. Colbert threw his hands up upon hearing the news and said, “Woo-hoo! It’s in driving distance!”

The team members said they hope when Colbert visits in the fall that Chancellor Mark Nordenberg will ring their antique turtle bell, named Turty by Colbert.

“It would be kind of fun if Turty became a part of Pitt history. An icon for the school,” Aizpitarte said.