A new report warns just how much this country stands to lose when Stephen Colbert shutters his Comedy Central late-night show to take over for David Letterman at CBS. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, viewers of The Colbert Report who watched Colbert set up a super PAC and 501(c)(4) organization during the last presidential election cycle were better informed about campaign financing and the role of money in politics than viewers of actual news channels and other, actual-news shows.
"The Colbert Report" won for its Super PAC segments, and Stephen Colbert thanked Comedy Central "for all the freedom they gave us to do this thing that was possibly illegal, and especially Viacom for strongly resisting us doing this thing that was possibly illegal." He went on to add, "This is our accidental Peabody… I was just trying to mock a Tim Pawlenty ad and we didn’t know how to finish our ad and I said, " ‘Well, what’s at the end of his ad?’ and they said, ‘Libertypac.com’ and I said, ‘So just put Colbert pac on the end of our ad.’ "
On March 29th Stephen Colbert issued a challenge to college students to start a collegiate chapter of his SuperPAC: Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. Remy Maisel, a Penn State Animal Science Major, and amateur media critic for The Huffington Post accepted the challenge, and has since gone on to recruit over two hundred students, staff and faculty, including Sophia A. McClennen author of ‘America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy’ to the Penn State SuperPAC: Penn Staters For A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
You write in your article in The Huffington Post “Our Own SuperPAC, Made in Stephen Colbert’s Image” that you adopted the Improvisers philosophy of saying “Yes, and …” when faced with an option or opportunity in life. Was there ever a moment when you thought “Hey, wait a minute, what am I doing here? Have I gone completely mad?” and thought of backing out of the challenge, or was it full steam ahead from the get go?
Oh, absolutely. In fact, I’ve concluded that I have indeed gone mad. If I weren’t insane, this would probably never work. But, even as I question my sanity, it’s been, as you say, “full steam ahead from the get go.” Not too long ago, I would have described myself as a cynic. I’d have said no to opportunities that presented themselves out of fear of failure, or fear of taking on too much responsibility. But, thanks in no small part to Stephen Colbert’s wise words to the Knox College Class of 2006, I’ve opened my mind to the philosophy of “yes, and-ing.” I can honestly say that I have not regretted saying “yes, and” since I adopted this outlook, though not everything I have tried has necessarily been successful. But I owe a great many of my biggest triumphs to saying yes. I’ve learned that you don’t have to disregard the risks and fears of failure or embarrassment in order to say yes—you just have to stop giving them too much weight in your decision.
Throughout this whole process, especially with the founding of the PSU SuperPAC happening so quickly, have there been time(s) when you doubted your ability to set up and successfully run a SuperPAC? Surely, the notion of incurring legal penalties for breaking the law must be reason enough to head for the hills and give up on the whole endeavour.
When Mr. Colbert said that the paperwork required to register a Super PAC with the Federal Election Commission entailed one page, my reaction (which was a commonplace one, I think) was, ‘Surely not. Surely it’s more difficult than that.’ But, in fact, it is. FEC Form 1. Yes, I am duly concerned about incurring 4-6 figure fines for accidentally failing to report our finances correctly, or some such error, but I’m confident that myself, the 200+ people who have indicated interest in doing this with me, and my uncle and legal adviser Raymond Ragues, can put our heads together and stay out of trouble. Though we are doing this partially in jest, the gravity and significance of the process is not lost on us.
As an Animal Science Major, political issues on such a magnitude don’t often pop-up on the core curriculum. How are you finding the political and legal side of SuperPAC formation? Surely, there is a little more to it than signing and submitting the single form provided in the ‘Colbert SuperPAC Super Fun Pack?
You’re absolutely right about that. But, actually, my level of interest and desire to participate in political matters such as this one have indicated to me that I may want to re-think my major. It’s a matter of loving two different worlds equally, and knowing both are important to me, but deciding that one of them will be my hobby and one will be my career. I think I have changed my mind about horses being my career path and politics and journalism being my hobby.
As far as the political and legal aspect of Super PAC formation, however, as much as I wish there were, there really isn’t any more to it. Submit forms, then wait. I was dubious of this myself, and reluctant to believe that was all there was to it, but I’ve been repeatedly reassured by my uncle, my fellow conspirators, and the FEC website itself that the single form is indeed all there is to it.
We are being very conscientious with our record-keeping and collecting every member’s personal information before we collect a single dollar from anyone, because we feel that if we’re careful from the start, and if we ask questions whenever there’s any doubt, we will manage just fine. I think a large part of the reason we’re doing all of this is because we can—because it’s so easy, a group of college students can do it.
Your PSU SuperPAC legal advisor Raymond Ragues advised that you are eligible to form a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organisation, much like ‘Colbert SHH’, that allows you to launder unlimited amounts of money. What do you intend to do with the funds raised under the 501(c)(3)?
A preliminary vote within our group suggests that people are interested in forming the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization in Pennsylvania, inspired by Colbert SHH. I think that if we’re going to do this, we might as well go big or go home. I’m just lucky not to be the only one who feels this way, as the fee to file articles of incorporation and file for tax-exempt status would be prohibitive for me alone, but not for a group of our size. The fee in Pennsylvania is substantially lower than the New York fees, as well, which really puts this within our reach. It’s just a matter of collecting $3 from most of our members, and my uncle has assured us that he will take it from there. He’s handled the legal aspect of incorporating several times before, and personally has a PLLC. We are very grateful to have his support and pro-bono legal aid.
Is a greater awareness of political workings for current and future students at Penn State University a goal you hope to achieve by forming PSU SuperPAC?
Here’s where it gets tricky. I think it would be great if many of our members were inspired to become activists for the causes most important to them, certainly. But that would be the metaphorical icing on the cake for me. A major criticism of college students in general is that we’re apathetic. I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of college students care very deeply about many things, but are perhaps unsure of how they can get involved in activism, or disillusioned and disheartened about their chances of having an impact.
I’d like for this Super PAC to provide an opportunity for a bipartisan effort to raise awareness about the seedy underbelly of campaign finance laws, and, perhaps, facilitate change. We will not take on any other politically divisive issues, though, because I really do want this to remain a united stand for campaign finance reform, and we do currently have a politically diverse group of students supporting the effort.
While I would hope that awareness of this issue will lead to more action in the future, I do want to emphasize that this is by no means a general-purpose liberal or progressive political group. We are a single-issue organization.
What do you and your fellow PSU SuperPAC members hope to achieve by forming this SuperPAC? Have you set any short or long-term goals?
In the short-term, we are focusing on building our email list, staying organized, and beginning to collect donations and fill out paperwork. It’s mostly administrative errands and spreading the word as we wait for the super fun pack to arrive.
As for our long-term vision, let me turn this one over to my partner-in-(non)crime, Jess Cody:
To me, my main goal in this project is to show how your voice can be used, and that it is important. We’re college students. We don’t have the money or the political influence to make a huge sweeping movement that changes the world, but we do have each other. It’s so easy to feel like your voice won’t count, but with this super pac, we’ve got a lot of voices making a lot of noise. I like the sense of camaraderie that I felt last night at our meeting. I felt like I was amongst friends and that we can change the world, because we’ve banded together. Not to mention I like busting the stereotype of a drunken college Freshman and an apathetic teen. I am neither, and I want people to know that. We may be 19, but we’re still important to this election.
What has the reaction around campus been from both the students and staff? Do you think the idea of a possible appearance by Stephen Colbert is a strong driving factor to get people involved? Or are people genuinely interested and curious about the inner workings of a SuperPAC?
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. There are several faculty members who are actively participating in the organization, as well as one professor I reached out to, Sophia McClennen, who literally wrote the book on Colbert’s satire. She wrote a textbook called, America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy (Education, Politics, and Public Life). Others have reached out to me after reading the Daily Collegian or Onward State articles, offering help and support from whatever perspective they could.
Is a possible appearance from our brother, our captain, our king himself a big draw? Absolutely. I would love to meet both the man I un-ironically look up to and the character I ironically hero-worship. Many of my fellow “Super Paclettes” feel this way. But, as we discussed at our first meeting, we’re not just giving up at the end of the semester or if we don’t win the treasure hunt. We’ll stay connected with social media, which has been a powerful organizational tool for us, over the summer. And the timeline works out so that the paperwork might be resolved just in time for the fall semester to begin. The summer would largely have been spend waiting for that to happen, anyway. Yes, we will attempt the treasure hunt. But the Super PAC gives us a chance to stay connected and keep participating in the show. Mr. Colbert regularly says that the show is about his interaction with his audience, as though we are a character or characters in a scene with him. We play off of each other. That, I think, is what makes people so enthusiastic to play along.
Would you encourage fellow College students to accept Stephen Colbert’s challenge to start a collegiate chapter of Colbert SuperPAC?
Absolutely, yes. Not only has it been great fun, but I’ve already learned so much from this process. Not only about the legal aspect of creating a Super PAC, but about more general lessons about the diffusion of innovation, etc., which are universally applicable. We’re coming up on an important election. Unfortunately, I think we’re at a crossroads, and we’ll either swing dramatically to the right or to the left. It’s very important for us college students, as new voters, to educate ourselves and form an opinion about who we think could best preside over America. And it’s so important that we all vote. So I guess my answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’ on this one.
In light of the negative press surrounding Penn State of late, how much would a visit from Stephen Colbert boost the morale of the student body?
Ah, yes, the inevitable question. Well, without getting into it too much, I want to express that, while I don’t profess to speak for the PSU community in its entirety, that there has been an overwhelming outpouring of support for the alleged victims. I don’t want to refer to this as a “scandal,” because that word cheapens it. When Kim Kardashian gets a divorce, that’s a “scandal.” When my former favorite Congressman Weiner fails to use Twitter as he intended, that’s a “scandal.” Despicable crimes and gross miscarriage of justice aren’t. They’re an abhorrent tragedy. While we’ve rallied somewhat, as a group, it’s still a difficult time to be a Penn Stater. School pride is a big part of our identity, and it’s hard to be proud when you are the subject of negative attention, insults, and crude jokes. We have had many great speakers and entertainers like Arianna Huffington and Lewis Black visit us recently, and they have expressed a sentiment that I think is very important: that we still have much to be proud of, and there is still much to love about Penn State, that we should still fully enjoy our college experiences, and that all the good can be kept untainted and separate from what needs repair.
That said, yes, I think it would be like an adrenaline shot to the tired, bruised heart of Penn State’s morale if Stephen Colbert visited. And not only because he’s very funny, and, as I experienced at a taping a few months ago and (on a larger scale) at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, has the ability to electrify a crowd. I think that this endeavor is an example of the way that Penn State students can harness their enthusiasm and energy for a good cause, one that we can all be proud of. I don’t know that it will make a dent in the negative media attention we’ve received—after all, when THON raised $10.69 million for pediatric cancer research, it wasn’t really mentioned—but we will know that we’ve done something to be proud of.
What is it about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that makes their fans trust them so much, and agree to go on these crazy journeys with them, whether it be a ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear ‘or to form a Political Action Committee? Could you see yourself embarking on this journey for any other public figure?
I think I could write volumes about why they inspire me so much and why we trust them so much, as could many fans. But the succinct answer to this, at least for me, is that they’re comedians. They can be brutally honest, either directly, as is Jon Stewart’s approach, or through satire, as is Stephen Colbert’s approach. They don’t have to temper or moderate what they say to please their sponsors. They don’t have to uphold an image as journalists, because they’re comedians.
The other reason, of course, and I think one that is equally important, is that they make us laugh. Laughter is so important. My Cuban grandmother always said “I laugh for not to cry,” and I never understood that (and not because of the broken English). But then Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, particularly Mr. Colbert, really helped me understand the principle. One quote that particularly speaks to me is this one:
"I would say laughter is the best medicine. But it’s more than that. It’s an entire regime of antibiotics and steroids…Obviously, it’s a challenge to make light of the darkness but it’s better than crying about it." — Stephen Colbert
There’s so much darkness on our world. It’s daunting to look into it at times. And without ‘The Colbert Report’ to make light of it for me, I don’t think I could bear to keep up with politics.
A big thank you to Remy Maisel and Jess Cody for taking the time out to talk to us!!