Ah, the graduation ceremony. On the brink of freedom and a lifetime of higher earnings, you’re faced with one last obstacle; to sit through the painfully long, extraordinarily dull commencement speech that drips with overused clichés regarding reaching for the stars. Fortunately though, commencement speeches seem to be making a comeback. We’ve compiled a list of a few that surprised us with their ability to leave an impact using humor or frank discussions of tough subject matter. This non-traditional approach garners a fair amount of attention on YouTube and other corners of the internet. The following commencement speeches, listed in no particular order, stand as unique and memorable for either their hilarity, bucking of convention, or blunt honesty – sometimes all 3 at once.
- Stephen Colbert 2006 Knox Commencement Address
In 2006, Knox College in Galesburg, IL conferred an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts to the titan of truthiness himself, comedian, author, commentator, and all-around awesome individual – Stephen Colbert. Allowing the audience to decide for itself if he adapts the satiric persona he adopts on The Colbert Report, he delivers a hilarious speech spanning 3 videos in total (available here and here). Commenting on drinking games revolving around the Lincoln-Douglas debates, questioning the school’s choice of mascot, and “sausage[s] of knowledge,” deposed Nigerian princes, (and more!), he engages and entertains the crowd and wrings considerable laughter out of a typically dry ceremony. Some parts even involve turning the generic platitudes of the usual commencement addresses up-side down, yet without ever compromising the intention of inspiring. Colbert is realistic enough to dissect the usual tenets of folly and cynicism present in youthful “wisdom” and understands that knowledge comes from experience far beyond the walls of a classroom. This inverts the expected while still keeping with the main point of delivering a commencement speech – a testament to Colbert’s considerable gift with words and concepts and proving that he fully deserved the honorary PhD.
- Conan O’Brien at Stuy 06 Graduation (Pt 1 of 2)
New York’s Stuyvescent High School played host to probably the only commencement speech in history that contains the phrases “sweet, sweet coin” and “pompous, self-important jackass.” Conan O’Brien received the honor of delivering their 2006 address, referencing his Harvard colors as visual shorthand for an over-inflated ego and dropping hilarious re-enactments of high school drama stereotypes. His trademark self-deprecation starts seeping into the speech, making it delightful viewing for his legions of fans. O’Brien enjoys subverting the stiff, boring, and painfully generic clichés regarding reaching for the stars and daring to dream that inspire yawns more than anything else. Instead, his giddily antisocial advice revolves around ostentatious displays of calling Stephen Hawking an “idiot,” burning anyone who questions the existence of a long-distance boyfriend or girlfriend with a “hot drink” to the face, and using diarrhea as an excuse to get out of a class. He does, of course, deliver some positive words on the value of knowledge and hard work as well – just in a way that actually imbues the typically mind-numbingly dull nature of a commencement address with interest and engagement.
- Will Ferrell Harvard Commencement Speech Part 1 of 5
Will Ferrell’s sense of humor may not be to everyone’s taste, of course, but the one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to his 2003 Harvard Class Day commencement address is that he managed to keep his clothes on for once. Beyond that, though, he enters into the auditorium with a bang, dancing enthusiastically to Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” and dressed in yacht yuppie attire in anticipation of a boat show. What follows is a deliriously enjoyable descent into manic man-child insanity, complete with screamed damnations of Harvard’s ignoring of Ferrell’s application, subsequent crying, and attempts to show the crowd “the real world through [his] eyes.” At the time, he was filming Anchorman – and plenty of Ron Burgundy’s Ted Baxter persona begins to leak through, with some excellent non sequiturs, random tangents, historical inaccuracies, and pseudointellectualism peppering an otherwise boring ceremony with his signature brand of humor. At one point, Ferrell launches into the George W. Bush impersonation that transformed him from sketch comedian to wildly popular movie star. Be sure to watch through until the end for a very special song performance!
- Alec Baldwin NYU Graduation Speech
No speech Alec Baldwin can give will come anywhere close to the David Mamet-penned “one scene wonder” from Glengarry Glenn Ross, but the man deserves points for trying. The NYU alumnus spoke to his alma mater in 2010 after failing to appear for the 2006 commencement. Due to the rain, the actor could only whittle his speech down to 5 minutes. The resulting video may not incite nearly as many laughs as the gut-busting hilarity of Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, or Will Ferrell, but few can argue that the man certainly knows how to speak – even when he starts to get a little choked up along the way, he still manages to maintain an air of authority and grace. Alec Baldwin could probably sit and read passages from the truly abysmal Twilight series and make them sound like brilliance on par with A Confederacy of Dunces, so it doesn’t matter if his speech delves into free-floating good times or not. He’s just that good. For his considerable contributions to the field of film, television, and theatre, NYU conferred an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree as well.
- Eugene Mirman 2009 LHS Commencement Speech
Russian-American comedian Eugene Mirman graduated from Massachusetts-based Lexington High School in 1992, returning again in 2009 to deliver a commencement address to the lucky seniors escaping their “12 years of knowledge prison.” Although he obviously has to tone himself down a little for the younger audience, some excellent snippets of political and social commentary still manage to slip in there – including how Americans try to “hook up” with foreigners when studying abroad, the fact that 18-year-olds can enlist in the military but not drink, and the crumbling economy. Like other comedians on this list, he finds humor in using generic well-wishes and nuggets of ostensible inspiration involving charging into the future and acting as leaders and reaching for the sky and the like. One of the better parts, though, involves him calling out the cliché of firing off “a personal anecdote about perseverance” and following it up with sage advice and song lyrics – which he then proceeds to do with epic hilarity.
- Rachel Maddow Commencement Address for Smith College Class of 2010
Smith College chose MSNBC political commentator Rachel Maddow to receive an honorary Doctor of Law degree and speak at its 2010 graduation ceremony. She starts off with a story regarding radical teetotaler Carrie Nation, sprinkling the woman’s “lust” for destroying property (specifically, saloons) with humor. It is not the type of story one expects to hear at a graduation, but Maddow enjoys researching and discussing political corruption past and present – and she is not ashamed to openly call out figures on the left and the right alike in her speech for their embarrassing behaviors. But the bulk of her speech concerns the history of the prohibition movement as a lesson in her belief that “personal triumphs are overrated” – even citing KFC’s salty, disgusting greasewad of shame and woe known as the Double Down as another example. She completely subverts the usual commencement platitudes by discussing how hard work and staying with dreams can frequently come at a considerable cost to the well-being of others, making a case for mindfulness and ethics and NOT living life every day as if it is not the last.
- Ali G harvard speach part 1
Ignore the irony present in the title and enjoy British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s Class Day commencement address as his controversial satirical character Ali G. Never once breaking character, he passes the speech by parodying privileged Caucasians who borrow liberally from African-American and Afro-Caribbean cultures in order to seem cool and exotic without actually showing any real respect for the people and countries who shaped them. Most of Cohen’s work involves holding a mirror up to social stigmas, flaws, hypocrisies, and downright silliness, and he doesn’t reel any of it in to speak with the Harvard Class of 2004. Few would expect an Ivy League school commence speech to involve liberal amounts of porn, drugs, and alcohol references, but the comedian’s intentions remain, as always, satirical commentary rather than a juvenile last resort. As one can probably imagine, he also draws from the typical, hum-drum fare involving chasing dreams and spices it up with discussions of his own academic shortcomings, some of the fringe benefits of working in medicine, a woman’s role in the home, and “ka-nowledge.” It’s funny stuff for those in on the joke and with a love of politically incorrect reflections on how some members of society operate.
- Seth MacFarlane’s Harvard Class Day Speech (1 of 4)
Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane knows what people expect of his public appearances, and in 2006 his Harvard Class Day commencement speech came with a few guest stars. As the voice of numerous characters on the cartoon – most notably Peter, Stewie, and Brian Griffin and Glenn Quagmire – he took advantage of this claim to fame and played as all of them (save for the droll little dog) during his time at the microphone. Like he points out, nobody came to hear him spout off the usual inspirational platitudes. They wanted voices. Lots and lots of voices. MacFarlane pokes gentle fun at his own cash cow, Lost, Harvard itself, South Park, religion, Desperate Housewives, and…well…as Family Guy fans know…everything he can get his metaphorical hands on. As a bonus, he throws in a number of in-joke for fans of the show. For his entertaining remarks, the Harvard Class of 2006 declared him an honorary member.
- Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address
Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs was invited to deliver the commencement address at Stanford University in 2005. Though not a particularly humorous speech, Jobs does point out the irony that he never actually graduated from college before becoming one of the leading computer technicians and businessmen in the United States. 3 stories from his life form the cornerstone of the address, and while he does slip into the usual “follow your heart” dialogue, much of what Jobs has to say seems far more compelling when one realizes that only the year before he had received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Knowing this while watching his pleas to the graduates to find something they love, working hard, maintaining productive relationships, and constantly striving for something better adds an extra sense of urgency to his words. He speaks openly about his condition and how death leaves individuals feeling “vulnerable,” which seems morbid in a commencement speech but still serves a higher purpose. The universality of death can becomes an amazing motivator to keep with ones’ own affairs and goals, promoting individual innovation over staunch conformity.
- President Obama: Notre Dame Commencement
Frequently lauded for his warm, laid-back, and humorous public speaking acumen, it comes as little surprise that at least one university out there sought out American President Barack Obama for their commencement address. Notre Dame snapped up the honor in 2009 along with an honorary law degree, amidst controversy that he openly addressed towards the beginning of his speech. When an audience member begins interrupting him to protest his pro-choice leanings when it comes to abortion, the President declared that he did not wish to “[shy] away from things that are uncomfortable” and let the man and the audience express themselves before moving on. Surprisingly, he confronts the current dismal state of affairs head-on, not glossing over the fact that the graduates will be inheriting the tough financial, political, and environmental issues left behind by previous generations. He unashamedly shares the whats and whys behind his viewpoints and hopes that the left and the right can find common ground to rebuild America into something more positive and inclusive.
What individuals consider “inspiration,” of course, remains subjective, but the previous videos left a mark on thousands of graduates and viewers who felt like the speakers had something of genuine interest to say. Though many of them stuck with the expected positivity and encouragement, they did so in a way that was so uniquely them that they stood out amongst others who once took to the podium. Rather than falling back on tired old clichés, they took hold of expectations and added their own personal dimensions and quirks – or completely tossed them out the window and delivered rapid-fire awesomeness that left the venue feeling upbeat rather than exhausted with epic boredom.