As a student at Carleton in the early ’90s, Peter Gwinn (’93: Theater/Media) never got his hands on the roving bust of Johan Schiller. Now, nearly 20 years later, he can finally check that item off his to-do list.
In the most visible Schiller appearance ever, the campus icon made its national TV debut last Monday night on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” Stephen Colbert held the familiar bust in his arms when he ended the show by saying, “In the words of Friedrich Schiller, good night.”
Gwinn, a writer for the popular fake-news show, was the inside man who made the statue’s fifteen seconds of fame possible.
The stunt began several months ago, when Gwinn received a mysterious e-mail. “Hello,” it started:
“We are current Carleton students in possession of Schiller. We would love to have Schiller make an appearance on The Colbert Report. Is there any chance we could make this happen?”
The message was signed, “Yours in secrecy, The Guardians of Schiller.”
“My first reaction was, ‘Who gave you my e-mail?’” Gwinn said. “The second was, ‘If this is for real, I’m all for it.’”
Asked about what it felt like to take part in the Schiller tradition, especially so long after leaving Carleton, Gwinn said, “Well, as they say, ‘You are a part of Carleton and Carleton is a part of you-- ready to strike at any moment, whether you like it or not.’”
Gwinn would agree to the plan under only one condition, though: that he get a picture with the sought-after bust during its visit to New York, where the “The Colbert Report” is filmed.
While getting Schiller to the East Coast proved difficult, the even harder part of the scheme was explaining the Schiller tradition to Colbert and the producers, Gwinn said in an e-mail. “‘You see, at my college there’s this statue that people beat each other up for…’”
“I’m still not sure they get it,” he said.
Despite the months of planning, things didn’t go precisely as planned. Originally, Gwinn wrote a joke based on a Schiller quote for Colbert’s goodnight line at the end of the show. Colbert, Gwinn says, would have said it with Schiller’s bust on the shelf over his shoulder. Instead, because time ran out, Colbert went with a pithier farewell line — words already immortalized in YouTube links on many Carleton students’ Facebook pages.
Schiller’s appearance did not come without anticipation, though. Signs and photographs posted around campus during the first week of the term cryptically announced the bust’s biggest coming-out party since Bill Clinton’s commencement speech in 2000, during which the former president held up the statue to the College’s graduating class.
The signs read: “Upper Sayles / 36 / 3.29.10 / 10:30 PM.”
Monday night a crowd of at least one hundred students milled around the Upper Sayles television, impatiently waiting for something to drop from the roof, or storm in from the windows. By 10:30, someone had turned the TV to channel 36, Comedy Central.
The crowd stayed strong as the minutes passed. Even those in Lower Sayles and across the room by computer lab frequently glanced up to see if anything had happened. When the recognizable bust appeared on the screen on Colbert’s desk, screams and shouts quickly filled the building.
While Schiller’s national TV debut means the bust is no closer to campus, it will make it easier for future Schiller hunters to make sure they have the genuine statue. After the taping, Colbert signed the bottom of the bust.
Gwinn would not disclose any details about the identity of the Guardians, except that he had “to give a Tip of the Hat to the (them) for having the balls to make this happen. If only I ever learned their names or saw their faces. Their identity will remain forever a mystery.”
During his time at Carleton, Gwinn was very involved in the theater scene. He participated in Cujokra for four years and designed a special major in Media Studies & Theater. During his junior and senor years, he served as the chair of the Experimental Theater Board, and directed seven plays while acting in more than ten.
After graduating, he moved to Chicago, where he performed and taught impov. He and his wife, Emily Hall ’94, eventually moved to New York. While in the City, Gwinn ran into one of his old improv students from Chicago, who had just been hired as the executive producer of The Colbert Report. She was looking for writers, and Gwinn gave her a submission packet. He got the job.
“My advice to aspiring writers is, keep writing, every day,” he said. “You never know when you’re going to bump into the person that wants to give you a sweet job, and you need to be ready.”