6 Funny Commencement Speeches
by Rachel Balik
What’s hilarious about graduating college during a recession? The job market probably isn’t, but many graduation speeches have offered audiences a chuckle in years past. Some of them even offered hopeful words about troubled economies! Cheer yourself up with these six funny graduation addresses. They’re guaranteed to be a little more entertaining than the listings on Monster.com.
All the graduation speech hype seemed to begin with the famous Vonnegut “sunscreen” speech, purportedly given during the MIT commencement in 1997. And while anybody in his right mind would agree that you should absolutely wear sunscreen, almost everyone now knows that the speech itself was never delivered to an audience, nor was it written by Vonnegut. Kofi Annan gave the MIT commencement address that year, and the “sunscreen” speech was actually composed by a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich. She has no idea why people attributed her column to Vonnegut, but Wired magazine reported that she was not even that impressed with it; she thought it was silly. Either way, the advice it contained has become quite famous—director Baz Luhrmann even turned it into a song in 1999.
Ubiquitous and hilarious comedian Will Ferrell gave a real graduation speech at Harvard in 2003. Ferrell warned that his speech would be “unorthodox,” and immediately began fake-crying about his failure to be admitted to Harvard. Although he told the grads, “I’m not one of you,” he promised to be frank with them. (Not Frank from “Old School”—just honest.) Incidentally the economy was also doing quite poorly at the time; while he cracked jokes about it, he had little advice to offer, simply observing, “the chances of landing a decent job are about as good as finding weapons of mass destruction in the Iraqi desert.” While he didn’t have any advice on resume building, he did strongly urge graduates to pay their taxes.
Unlike Will Ferrell, Conan O’Brien actually was “one of them.” Fifteen years after graduating Harvard University, he addressed the Class of 2000 and explained to them: “As you leave these gates and re-enter society, one thing is certain: Everyone out there is going to hate you.” But simply having a (universally resented) Harvard degree is no free ride to the top, he said, using examples from his own struggles to find success as a TV writer and performer. O’Brien urged his audience to keep trying, despite the obstacles in their way, and “when all else fails, there's always delusion.”
When Jon Stewart spoke at the College of William and Mary in 2004, he began with a “confession” about the doctoral robes he was wearing, saying, “When I am not on television, this is actually how I dress.” Stewart noted that he didn’t quite measure up to the people who had received the honorary doctorate before him. Comparing himself to past recipients Benjamin Franklin and Queen Noor of Jordan, he joked that the quality of the institution must have gone downhill. Like Ferrell, he also reflected on the struggling economy, but he did offer a hopeful outlook on the problem: “things change rapidly, and life gets better in an instant.”
Like other comedians before him, Stephen Colbert made sure to adequately demean his own education when he spoke at Princeton University in 2008. He joked that at his own college, people slept late every morning and were not “go-getters” like the Princeton grads. He said he, and other Americans, liked the “status quo.” He went on, against the grain of most commencement addresses, to ask the graduates to leave the world the way it was. Forget the “you can change the world” shtick, he asserted. He also refrained from advising them to conquer their fears, citing some things he was still afraid of, such as the students themselves.
Cambridge University-educated Sasha Baron-Cohen took a no-fear approach when he gave a speech to the Harvard Class of 2004 in character as his alter-ego, Ali G. He took it upon himself to explain to graduating seniors the proper rules for capitalization of nouns, and claimed that a Lexus and Harvard education had the same economic value. He made offensive sexual gestures, used racial humor and even botched a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. The Harvard Crimson reported that at the end of the address, when he “accidentally” called the school “Princeton,” he was taken away by police in handcuffs, screaming about “police brutality.”