Tuesday, May 25, 2004

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Not since Conan O'Brien...

The alchemy of selecting a commencement speaker is a fragile one, as these two Chicago Tribune stories by Nara Schoenberg can attest. The alchemy of delivering a graduation speech that commands the attention of matriculating students suffering from hangovers is even more fragile.

This is particularly true if you try to be funny. My standard for funny commencement speeches has been Conan O'Brien's address to Harvard's class of 2000.

Jon Stewart's address to William & Mary's class of 2004 hits the mark (link via Andrew Sullivan). The funny part -- for someone who got a Ph.D.:

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. That’s very nice of you, I appreciate it.

I’m sure my fellow doctoral graduates—who have spent so long toiling in academia, sinking into debt, sacrificing God knows how many years of what, in truth, is a piece of parchment that in truth has been so devalued by our instant gratification culture as to have been rendered meaningless—will join in congratulating me. Thank you.

The funny and poignant part:

I was in New York on 9-11 when the towers came down. I lived 14 blocks from the twin towers. And when they came down, I thought that the world had ended. And I remember walking around in a daze for weeks. And Mayor Giuliani had said to the city, “You’ve got to get back to normal. We’ve got to show that things can change and get back to what they were.”

And one day I was coming out of my building, and on my stoop, was a man who was crouched over, and he appeared to be in deep thought. And as I got closer to him I realized, he was playing with himself. And that’s when I thought, “You know what, we’re gonna be OK.”

posted by Dan on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM


"We're going to be OK." That's awesome.

posted by: Joel on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

This story brings to mind David Brenner, who some years ago, came up with a description for what he called "New York's unique state of normalcy".

His description, involves two pictures.

In the frame, you see a man, a woman and a baby in a stroller, at a bus stop. The man is bending over the front of the stroller, apparently trying to make the baby smile... and the guy's got this weird look on his face, and going:


And in the next frame we see the woman, the baby and the stoller are gone, and it's getting dark outside, suggesting that many hours have passed... but the guy is still slightly bent over, standing in exactly the same spot, still with the weird look on his face, and still going:


posted by: Bithead on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

You gotta love this too:

"Lets talk about the real world for a moment. We had been discussing it earlier, and I…I wanted to bring this up to you earlier about the real world, and this is I guess as good a time as any. I don’t really know to put this, so I’ll be blunt. We broke it.

Please don’t be mad. I know we were supposed to bequeath to the next generation a world better than the one we were handed. So, sorry.

I don’t know if you’ve been following the news lately, but it just kinda got away from us. Somewhere between the gold rush of easy internet profits and an arrogant sense of endless empire, we heard kind of a pinging noise, and uh, then the damn thing just died on us. So I apologize.

But here’s the good news. You fix this thing, you’re the next greatest generation, people. You do this—and I believe you can—you win this war on terror, and Tom Brokaw’s kissing your ass from here to Tikrit, let me tell ya. And even if you don’t, you’re not gonna have much trouble surpassing my generation. If you end up getting your picture taken next to a naked guy pile of enemy prisoners and don’t give the thumbs up you’ve outdid us.

We declared war on terror. We declared war on terror—it’s not even a noun, so, good luck. After we defeat it, I’m sure we’ll take on that bastard ennui."

posted by: zoe kentucky on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

What Jon Stewart didn't know was that after receiving his honorary PhD, the Comedy Channel cut his salary to $45,000 a year, transferred him out of New York City to a small rural town in Pennsylvania, and forced him to grade 150 essays on "how a bill becomes a law."

posted by: Laura on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

As a fellow alumnus, I have to agree with Jon Stewart that his appearance at commencement in Williamsburg makes it look like the College is going downhill.

I blame budget cuts in Richmond.

posted by: Zathras on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

(Jon Stewart singing:)

"I'm just a Bill, here on Capital Hill..."

posted by: Bithead on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

Remember his first bit after 9/11?

"They said to get back to work. There were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying, which I would have gladly taken. So I came back here."

posted by: Lex on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

Will Farrell's Harvard commencement speech is another classic:


posted by: Dario on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

I rather liked my alma mater's graduation ceremony policies--no honory doctorates, the president of the university gives a SHORT uplifting commencement address.

posted by: Sam on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

Don't forget Joseph Brodsky's fantastic commencement address at University of Michigan. Couldn't find an online version, but it's in his volume "On Grief and Reason."

"The world you are about to enter and exist in doesn't have a good reputation. It's been better geographically than historically; it's still far more attractive visually than socially. It's not a nice place, as you are soon to find out, and I rather doubt that it will get much nicer by the time you leave it. Still, it's the only world available: no alternative exists, and if one did, there is no guarantee that it would be much better than this one."

posted by: Kirk on 05.25.04 at 11:46 PM [permalink]

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