Most graduation speeches are lengthy, moralistic, self-righteous and, frankly speaking, unmemorable.
As a student and a teacher, I have listened to such addresses. When it was my turn to deliver commencement addresses, I vowed to focus on other people (usually my students) rather than on myself.
Since people tend to remember stories more than purported advice, I would also sprinkle my speech with vivid anecdotes rather than moral dictums.
But I wish I could, just once, deliver a funny graduation speech, something similar to these comedians’ speeches on Class Day at the most prestigious university in the world, Harvard. (In 1968, the Senior Class at Harvard began inviting a speaker of their choice to their graduation. The Class Day speaker is different from the commencement speaker who is selected and invited by the university.-Ed.)
In 2003, Will Ferrell of “Saturday Night Live” entered the auditorium dancing to the tune of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” and gave the dean, Harry Lewis, a bear hug.
Ferrell impersonated then United States President George W. Bush and gave the students this message: “I just want to take time to congratulate you on your outstanding achievement as graduates of the Class of 2002. The great thing about being the Class of 2002 is that you always remember what year you graduated because 2002 is a palindrome, which, of course, is a word or number that is the same read backwards or forwards.”
Ferrell also poked fun at that year’s commencement speaker, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo: “Ernie’s a good man, a deeply religious man and one of the original members of the Latino boy band Menudo.”
Ferrell warned the graduates about the stagnating economy. “The chances of finding a decent job are about as good as finding weapons of mass destruction in the Iraqi desert,” he said. “Slim and none.”
Conan O’ Brien
In 2000, talk-show host Conan O’ Brien opened his speech with: “I’d like to begin by thanking the class marshals for inviting me here today. The last time I was invited to Harvard it cost me $110,000. So I was reluctant to show up.”
O’Brien reminisced about his days at Harvard. “I came here in the fall of 1981 and lived at Holworthy Hall… I was, without exaggeration—this is true—the ugliest picture in the Freshman Face book. When Harvard asked me for a picture the previous summer, I thought it was for their records, so I jogged in the August heat to a passport photo office and sat for a morgue shot. To make matters worse, when the Face book came out, they put my picture right next to Catherine Oxenberg, a stunning blonde actress who was expected to join the class of ’85 but decided to defer admission so she could join the cast of Dynasty. Folks, my photo would have looked bad on any page but next to Catherine Oxenberg, I looked like a mackerel that had been in a car accident.”
O’Brien also joked about his dorm. “After freshman year, I moved to Mather House. Mather House, incidentally, was designed by the same firm that built Hitler’s bunker. In fact, if Hitler had conducted the war from Mather House, he would have shot himself a year earlier. Saved us a lot of trouble.”
The talk show host could not resist a dig at alumni associations. “There’s also sadness today. A feeling of loss that you’re leaving Harvard forever. Let me assure you that you never really leave Harvard. The Harvard fundraising committee will be on your ass until the day you die.”
O’Brien warned the graduates about the real world. “You’re in for a lifetime of ‘And you went to Harvard?’ Accidentally give the wrong amount of change in a transaction and it’s ‘And you went to Harvard?’ Ask at the hardware store how the jumper cables work and hear ‘And you went to Harvard?’ Forget just once that your underwear goes inside your pants and it’s ‘And you went to Harvard?’ Get your head stuck in your niece’s doll house ’cause you want to see what it’s like to be a giant and it’s ‘Uncle Conan, you went to Harvard?’”
In 2006, Seth McFarlane, creator of the television show “Family Guy,” began with this: “To tell the truth, I don’t even know why you guys invited me here. I mean, this is—this is Harvard, this is the most prestigious college in the world. I went to Rhode Island School of Design… Harvard has created brilliant throngs of doctors, lawyers, authors, scientists. I created a TV show where a vaudeville-era barbershop quartet sings a song about AIDS. Your grandchildren will boast impressive salaries and trust funds. My grandchildren will owe money to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).”
McFarlane had this to say about the real world. “There’s no dress rehearsal, no take-home tests, no rough drafts. If you unconstitutionally wiretap people’s phones, you will be taken down. If you shoot someone in the face with a shotgun, you’ll reap the consequences. If you illegally invade a sovereign nation to secure oil interests and wage a personal vendetta, you’ll be reelected.”
But the graduates were the main targets of McFarlane’s humor. “You smart kids are gonna be sitting there in your cool caps and gowns looking like that owl on the Wise potato chip bags. I see you out there, thinking, pondering, pontificating, using words likes ‘centrifuge,’ ‘fuselage’ and ‘MSNBC.’ You remind me of many of the smart young people I know! Doogie Howser, Malcolm in the Middle and Donatello of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And we need more smart people like you… I mean, I get into my car every morning and I think, ‘How does my car work? What makes it move? I get in this thing and it just goes. How the hell does that happen?’ I don’t understand! But you guys do—and for that, I walk in your f****** shadow. The next wave of great inventions is gonna come from you guys! … Before smart people came along, you hadda wait for a cow to die and rot in the sun or somethin’… But now (claps) bam! Aerosol cheese! Cheese that sprays outta like a paint can, ya know? Whoever invented spray cheese had to have been a Harvard guy!”