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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 05/ 9/2010

The funniest commencement speeches

By Valerie Strauss

Nobody listening to President Obama--or, say, Lady Gaga--give a commencement address is likely to be bored, but, let’s face it: While graduation is exciting, most graduation speeches can put a crowd to sleep.

How many people actually remember who gave the address at their own graduation ceremonies, much less anything specific that was said, beyond the generic “this is the first moment of the rest of your life” message? (Tell me if you do.)

But there are some classes who get lucky, and are graced with a speaker who says something remarkably memorable, either because it is profound rather than sappy, or because it is really funny, and, because it is profound and funny at the same time.

Actually, Lady Gaga is scheduled to speak at New York University’s graduation in 2011, and while I don’t see her as being sappy or funny, it would be a good guess that nobody there will forget her.

My colleague Jenna Johnson is keeping track of who said what at commencements this spring, and you can follow along on her blog, Campus Overload. She quotes Obama, for example, telling University of Michigan graduates on May 1 that they should “walk in somebody else’s shoes” to broaden their perspective. That’s pretty standard commencement speech material.

What I like to read are speeches that aren’t so conventional. In fact, I like the ones that make me laugh. Here are excerpts of some in recent years that did just that. Click on the names and you can find the full transcript for each speaker.

Ellen DeGeneres
Tulane University, Class of 2006
Unannounced appearance

“They told me everybody would be wearing robes. [WEARING A WHITE BATHROBE] Anybody staying at the “W”? Can you return this for me? That’d be great....

Seriously, you are amazing people. You are a very famous graduating class, as you know. To go through what you’ve gone through ... to get this far, and all of a sudden have to be displaced and go to different schools is quite an experience, that I think will form you, shape you, and mold you, and suddenly you’re Jell-O. (LAUGHTER) I don’t know what to say. (LAUGHTER)

Really, I came up with.... to take care of yourselves, because when you’re younger, you don’t really listen ... your parents tell you. And so I really want to say it’s: Exfoliate. (LAUGHTER) No, wait. Hydrate is first (LAUGHTER), then exfoliate, and then moisturize, and then exercise, and then floss. So H.E.M.E.F., if you can remember that, that way: H.E.M.E.F. (APPLAUSE) Okay?


DeGeneres returned to Tulane as keynote speaker for the Class of 2009:

When I was asked to make the commencement speech, I immediately said yes. Then I went to look up what commencement meant. ... I thought that you had to be a famous alumnus - alumini - aluminum - alumis - you had to graduate from this school. And I didn’t go to college here, and I don’t know if President Cowan knows, I didn’t go to any college at all. Any college. And I’m not saying you wasted your time, or money, but look at me, I'm a huge celebrity...

....I’m here because of you. Because I can’t think of a more tenacious, more courageous graduating class. I mean, look at you all, wearing your robes. Usually when you’re wearing a robe at 10 in the morning, it means you’ve given up. I’m here because I love New Orleans. I was born and raised here, I spent my formative years here, and like you, while I was living here I only did laundry six times. When I finished school, I was completely lost. And by school, I mean middle school, but I went ahead and finished high school anyway.

And I - I really, I had no ambition, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did everything from - I shucked oysters, I was a hostess, I was a bartender, I was a waitress, I painted houses, I sold vaccuum cleaners, I had no idea. And I thought I’d just finally settle in some job, and I would make enough money to pay my rent, maybe have basic cable, maybe not, I didn’t really have a plan, my point is that, by the time I was your age, I really thought I knew who I was, but I had no idea. Like for example, when I was your age, I was dating men. So what I’m saying is, when you’re older, most of you will be gay. Anyone writing this stuff down? Parents?....

...As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity, and not to give into peer pressure. to try to be something that you’re not. To live your life as an honest and compassionate person. to contribute in some way. So to conclude my conclusion: follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that.

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Steven Colbert
Knox College, Class of 2006


.....And when you enter the workforce, you will find competition from those crossing our all-too-porous borders. Now I know you’re all going to say, "Stephen, Stephen, immigrants built America." Yes, but here’s the thing—it’s built now. I think it was finished in the mid-70s sometime. At this point it’s a touch-up and repair job. But thankfully Congress is acting and soon English will be the official language of America. Because if we surrender the national anthem to Spanish, the next thing you know, they’ll be translating the Bible. God wrote it in English for a reason! So it could be taught in our public schools.

So we must build walls. A wall obviously across the entire southern border. That’s the answer. That may not be enough—maybe a moat in front of it, or a fire-pit. Maybe a flaming moat, filled with fire-proof crocodiles. And we should probably wall off the northern border as well. Keep those Canadians with their socialized medicine and their skunky beer out. And because immigrants can swim, we’ll probably want to wall off the coasts as well. And while we’re at it, we need to put up a dome, in case they have catapults. And we’ll punch some holes in it so we can breathe. Breathe free. It’s time for illegal immigrants to go—right after they finish building those walls. Yes, yes, I agree with me.

There are so many challenges facing this next generation, and as they said earlier, you are up for these challenges. And I agree, except that I don’t think you are. I don’t know if you’re tough enough to handle this. You are the most cuddled generation in history. I belong to the last generation that did not have to be in a car seat. You had to be in car seats. I did not have to wear a helmet when I rode my bike. You do. You have to wear helmets when you go swimming, right? In case you bump your head against the side of the pool. Oh, by the way, I should have said, my speech today may contain some peanut products....


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Will Ferrell
Harvard University, Class of 2003

This is not the Worcester, Mass Boat Show, is it? I am sorry. I have made a terrible mistake...

I’m not one of you. Okay? I can’t relate to who you are and what you’ve been through. I graduated from the University of Life. All right? I received a degree from the School of Hard Knocks. And our colors were black and blue, baby. I had office hours with the Dean of Bloody Noses. All right? I borrowed my class notes from Professor Knuckle Sandwich and his Teaching Assistant, Ms. Fat Lip Thon Nyun. That’s the kind of school I went to for real, okay?
So my gift to you, Class of 2003, is to tell you about the real world through my eyes, through my experiences. And I’m sorry, but I refuse to sugarcoat it. I ain’t gonna do it. And I probably shouldn’t use the word "ain’t" during this day in which we celebrate education. But that’s just the way I play it, Holmes.

Graduates, if you will indulge me for a moment, let me paint a picture of what it’s like out there. The last four or, for some of you, five years you’ve been living in a fantasyland, running around, talking about Hemingway, or Clancy, or, I don’t know, I mean whatever you read here at Harvard. The Novelization of the Matrix, I don’t know. I don’t know what you do here.

But I do know this. You’re about to enter into a world filled with hypocrisy and doublespeak, a world in which your limo to the airport is often a half-hour late. In addition to not even being a limo at all; often times it’s a Lincoln Towncar. You’re about to enter a world where you ask your new assistant, Jamie, to bring you a tall, non-fat latte. And he comes back with a short soy cappuccino. Guess what, Jamie? You’re fired. Not too hard to get right, my friend.

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Russell Baker
Connecticut College, Class of 1995

...The authorities of Connecticut College have suggested that for me to speak longer than 20 minutes would be regarded as cruel and inhuman punishment and that if I go as long as 30 minutes several strong men will mount this platform and forcibly remove me. But if I can finish in 15 minutes - 15 minutes! - they will let me stay for lunch. They know their man, ladies and gentleman. When I smell a free lunch, I go for it.

So if I can do this right, you’ll see the back of me before we get to minute 16. This will not be easy. Condensing a graduation speech into 15 minutes is like trying to squeeze a Wagnerian opera into a telephone booth. To do it I had to strip away all the frills. This means you don’t even get any warm-up jokes. So those of you who came just for the jokes might as well leave now.

All right, let’s plunge right ahead into the dull part. That’s the part where the commencement speaker tells the graduates to go forth into the world, then gives advice on what to do when they get out there. This is a ridiculous waste of time. The graduates never take the advice, as I have learned from long experience. The best advice I can give anybody about going out into the world is this: Don’t do it. I have been out there. It is a mess....

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Jon Stewart
College of William & Mary, Class of 2004

...I am honored to be here and to receive this honorary doctorate. When I think back to the people that have been in this position before me from Benjamin Franklin to Queen Noor of Jordan, I can’t help but wonder what has happened to this place. Seriously, it saddens me. As a person, I am honored to get it; as an alumnus, I have to say I believe we can do better. And I believe we should. But it has always been a dream of mine to receive a doctorate and to know that today, without putting in any effort, I will. It’s incredibly gratifying. Thank you...

So I thought I’d talk a little bit about my experience here at William and Mary. It was very long ago, and if you had been to William and Mary while I was here and found out that I would be the commencement speaker 20 years later, you would be somewhat surprised, and probably somewhat angry. I came to William and Mary because as a Jewish person I wanted to explore the rich tapestry of Judaica that is Southern Virginia. Imagine my surprise when I realized “The Tribe” was not what I thought it meant.....

.....When I left William and Mary, I was shell-shocked. Because when you’re in college it’s very clear what you have to do to succeed. And I imagine here everybody knows exactly the number of credits they needed to graduate, where they had to buckle down, which introductory psychology class would pad out the schedule. You knew what you had to do to get to this college and to graduate from it.

But the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. And it can be maddening to those that go here, especially here, because your strength has always been achievement. So if there’s any real advice I can give you it’s this:

College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grades, or the results or success. Success is defined in myriad ways, and you will find it, and people will no longer be grading you, but it will come from your own internal sense of decency, which I imagine, after going through the program here, is quite strong .... though I’m sure downloading illegal files.... but, nah, that’s a different story.

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Ray Bradbury
Caltech, Class of 2000

I envy your youngness today. I envy your youngness. If I had to go back, and do everything over, I’d do it again. With everything that’s been wrong with my life; with everything that’s been good; with all the mistakes, all the problems. When I got married, all my wife’s friends said, "Don’t marry him. He’s going nowhere." But I said to her, "I’m going to the moon, and I’m going to Mars. Do you want to come along?" And she said, "Yes." She said yes. She took a vow of poverty, and married me. On the day of our wedding, we had $8 in the bank. And I put $5 in an envelope, and handed it to the minister. And he said, "What’s this?" I said, "That’s your pay for the ceremony today." He said, "You’re a writer, aren’t you?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "You’re going to need this."


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Bob Newhart
The Catholic University of America, 1997

I’m honored and moved to be asked to be the 1997 commencement speaker. These may appear to be tears but they are actually allergies. My son graduated from here in 1989 with a degree in English literature, specializing in the poetry of Yeats. As you all know, when you pick up the classified pages you just see page after page for jobs for Yeats scholars.....

A recurrent theme running throughout commencement addresses is that what the speaker does for a living is worthwhile. So I will now attempt to justify what I do for a living. I was amazed when I re-read some of the books I had previously read on humor and laughter by the breadth of people who have written on the subject, starting with Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, Freud (who devoted an entire treatise on it), Kant, Schopenhauer, Spenser, and Arthur Koestler, who devoted the first 90 pages of his book The Act of Creation to humor and its place in the creative process.

I’ve found that one other thing that humor does is it makes us free. That may seem like an odd conclusion, but as long as the tyrant cannot control the minds of free men, they remain free. Humor abounded behind the Iron Curtain and in POW camps. Humor is also our way of dealing with the inexplicable. We had an earthquake a couple of years ago in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t more than three or four days later that I heard the first earthquake joke. Someone said, "The traffic is stopped, but the freeways are moving."

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 9, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  commencement speeches, degeneres speech, ellen degeneres and tulane, funny commencement speeches, funny graduation speeches, graduation ceremonies, graduation speeches, hilarious commencement speeches, jon stewart and commencement address, jon stewart and william and mary, lady gaga and commencement address, lady gaga and new york university, obama and commencement, obama and graduation, obama at hampton, will ferrell and harvard  
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