Comedy Central star Colbert to reward Pitt students who solved super-PAC puzzle
January 12, 2013 10:00 AM
Frank Paciaroni, a freshman at Pitt, shows off the tickets he scored to the Stephen Colbert event Friday.
By Maria Sciullo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After solving the puzzles in a remarkably cryptic treasure hunt, the only riddle left for the winners was: "When is Stephen Colbert going to deliver the grand prize?"
The answer: Friday.
Last summer, four University of Pittsburgh engineering students in pursuit of graduate degrees beat out 999 other teams in the popular "Colbert Report" host's "Colbert Super PAC Super Fun Pack" contest. The chase led them to a field in Dixon, Ill. -- home town of Ronald Reagan -- and to victory.
Colbert greets Pitt grad Daniel Stough
Stephen Colbert will be dropping by the University of Pittsburgh Jan. 18, the reward for four engineering grad students who cracked the difficult "Colbert Super PAC Super Fun Pack" puzzle last year. (1/11/2013)
The four were flown to New York City, where they attended the show June 28, and on-air Mr. Colbert presented Penn Hills native Daniel Stough with a century-old sterling silver bell in the shape of a tiny turtle. But the real prize was the promise of a visit to the winners' school.
On the program that night, the comedian reacted with characteristic enthusiasm to word that the winning team was from Pittsburgh.
"Woo-hoo! It's in driving distance!" Mr. Colbert said, throwing up his hands.
Mr. Colbert is finally making good on his promise. He'll be speaking at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland at 2 p.m. Friday. There will be a question-and-answer session and afterward Mr. Colbert will be signing his latest book, "America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."
Mr. Colbert announced the formation of his own super PAC in 2011. Super PACs are political action committees that can raise unlimited funds to support political causes, although they cannot make contributions to federal candidates or committees, nor are they allowed to coordinate with candidates. Mr. Colbert, who portrays a conservative political pundit on his show, used the creation of a super PAC to increase awareness of the organizations and their money-raising abilities. He ultimately raised more than $1 million, which he donated to charity.
Friday's event is not open to the public; tickets were made available Friday morning for the school at-large and the Swanson School of Engineering in particular. Attendees must have a current University of Pittsburgh ID.
Although the university announced that tickets would be released at 10 a.m. Friday, scores of disappointed students were asked to leave the William Pitt Union lobby by Pitt police around 9:59 a.m., according to Dylan Cauley, a second-year graduate student.
"It's unfair that they didn't make it public that the tickets would be given out earlier," she said. One student reported receiving a ticket as early as 8:20 a.m.
Christina Das, a Pitt junior and political action director for the College Democrats, said the event will put much-needed focus back on politics in the wake of the presidential election.
"It's good that the university is doing this after an election cycle. We want to keep the momentum going, especially since we have a mayoral election coming up."
Mr. Stough, who graduated in December with a master's degree, said he usually doesn't watch the "Colbert Report" the same night it airs on Comedy Central. "I usually catch it on Hulu a week later, so this was serendipitous." But he caught the host's announcement of the treasure hunt, which required participants to establish their own legal super PACs.
The following day, he and Justine Buchman of Saylorsburg, Pa., sent off for the prize packet, which included a map and some goofy, enigmatic hints. They recruited Benjamin Zaczek of Higganum, Conn., and Daniela Aizpitarte of Eagle, Idaho, and began by scanning the clues and setting up a Dropbox account for the project, allowing them to view, share and edit materials related to the quest.
He said they began working in the spring. It was fun, but often frustrating.
"It wasn't like 'A Beautiful Mind,' where you see these patterns in the numbers. It was a lot of thinking and laboring. A lot of wasting a lot of days, thinking about ridiculous things."
The prize packet included instructions, a map, a decoder ring, an American flag and an Allen wrench. The television show would occasionally provide additional clues. There was at least one online group that was crowdsourcing its work, he said, and another blog not connected to any college or university was soliciting ideas as well.
The clues involved knowing a bit about math, cartography, American history and the staunch Republican character Mr. Colbert portrays. Once the group was certain it had the correct GPS coordinates, the students jumped into a car for a 10-hour drive, concerned someone might already have beaten them to the treasure.
Even when they arrived, it took a bit more sleuthing.
"We decided that it's not that we had any particular skills in engineering or mathematics that gave us the ability to solve it," Mr. Stough said. "But we are used to facing challenges that don't have a clear answer. You sort of have to pound your head a little bit before you get anywhere."
When they finally got to the end of their quest, they found a fake log with a note inside offering congratulations and an email address to contact Mr. Colbert.
Although "Turty," as Mr. Colbert told them he'd named the silver turtle, was passed around the four after they received it last summer, it's currently residing on Mr. Stough's desk, where it serves as inspiration.
"[Mr. Colbert] was attached to it, he said he was sad to see it go. He had it on his desk and every day, when the writers got together, he would tap the head and make the bell ring. That's kind of how they started the day."