Colbert brings his humor to Pitt

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He laughed. He cried. He talked about running for president.

Almost a year after four University of Pittsburgh engineering students won the "Colbert Super PAC Super Fun Pack" contest, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert appeared at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland Friday afternoon in front of a full house of Pitt students and read excerpts of his book "America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."

But the event also was an opportunity for Mr. Colbert to explain -- out of his familiar "Colbert Report" character -- how satire can be a tool to showcase problems with the political process.

Mr. Colbert read from his book for about 35 minutes, offering advice from how to get a job -- saying "This interview is my Make-a-Wish" was one suggestion -- to how to fix the budget deficit. On the latter, he called on America to "check the couch cushions for change" and "raise the retirement age to decomposition."

The super PAC challenge isn't the first time Mr. Colbert has let his conservative alter-ego break the fourth wall to test the boundaries of the political process.

He threw his name into the ring for presidential consideration after he learned he was polling ahead of Jon Huntsman in a South Carolina primary and he testified in front of Congress on migrant farm workers -- in character.

Although Mr. Colbert said he tries to be careful not to get too carried away -- he has no intention of stealing votes from serious presidential contenders -- he said we can learn about our political process by testing it.

"Why do you actually have to form a super PAC?" a question Mr. Colbert said he's frequently asked. "It's because you make discoveries when you actually do it."

Super PACs are political action committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money in support of political candidates and causes, but they cannot support federal candidates or committees and super PACs are barred from coordinating with candidates or their official campaigns.

"I said, 'I'd like to buy your primary,' " Mr. Colbert said. "'I'd like the naming rights to your primary.' And they said 'That sounds good to us. That'll be $400,000.' No one would have known you could do that if I didn't say, 'Here is $400,000.' "

And for $99, the cost of the "Super Fun Pack," four Pitt students helped Mr. Colbert draw attention to super PACs -- in addition to receiving a treasure map, decoder ring, socks and a T-shirt, among other crucial items.

In his opening remarks, Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said, "He's more than just an engaging media personality."

And based on student reaction to the event, it's clear many are taking their political and journalistic cues from Mr. Colbert. "More people watch Colbert and [satirist Jon] Stewart than watch the regular news," Harini Chandramouli, a Pitt junior, said.

"He uses his humor to educate us on current issues," Morgan Overton, a sophomore, said, pointing to super PACs as the quintessential example.

But even though Mr. Colbert's ironic conservatism often conveys deeper truths to his audience, he likes to think of himself as a something held together with a gob of saliva.

"Jon likes to shoot spitballs at the news," Mr. Colbert said, referring to the "Daily Show" host. "I like to turn into the spitball."

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