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May 21, 2011 11:59 PM   Subscribe

Ten Commencement Speakers You Wish You'd Had
posted by netbros (70 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd almost forgotten how punk rock Bono is. Glad he took it upon himself to remind us.
posted by item at 12:14 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have to admit that I'm jealous of the class that had Will Ferrell. That was a pretty entertaining speech, even if Ferrell seems a bit hyped right now.
posted by spiderskull at 12:26 AM on May 22, 2011


I was at the NYU 2007 graduation, Wynton Marsalis to be honest was kind of a let down where was our speech!
posted by Virtblue at 12:45 AM on May 22, 2011


Wynton Marsalis's speech (video) blew me away:
In jazz, we play the blues. The blues plays with joy and tragedy – both the same. It affirms by saying I will sing and dance my life. Through acceptance and transcendence, the blues makes what hurts, feel good, and what is good, feel even better. The blues is survival music.
(See also his speech from 1998, hourlong lecture, 26m talk on MLK day)
posted by yaymukund at 12:47 AM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Entertained to find that fully half of these are people I detest. I doubt I could stand listening to someone like Bono spouting off, and there is no freaking way I would tolerate being lectured to by David Foster Wawa.

Dr. Seuss, though, that would be awesome.
posted by parrot_person at 1:38 AM on May 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


It seems only fair if they're going to include Jobs they should try and include someone Microsoft related. I don't know, maybe Steve Ballmer?

I was working on a big project early this week. I was afraid I might not be able to be here. I thought I might have to Skype in. (Laughter.) I’m glad to be here today. By the way, to all the families and graduates, post-graduation please Skype on.

Eh, never mind...
posted by justgary at 1:59 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm afraid none here hold a candle to the Kurt Vonnegut.. err.. Kofi Annan.. err.. Mary Schmich's "Wear Sunscreen" speech.

I usually find J.K. Rowling & her work kinda ridiculous, but her quoted comments sounds useful.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:16 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tis a pity, all i got in two graduation speakers were a retired sheriff, and lost hitch-hiker on his way to hollywood. i did a little better on graduation from the los angeles sheriff's academy, got a congressman. none of the speeches were worth remembering by the way.
posted by taxpayer at 2:26 AM on May 22, 2011


At my college newspaper there was a columnist who was on a ridiculous quest to get Jack Lord as commencement speaker. He failed.
posted by planetkyoto at 2:58 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is Woody Allen's "My speech to the graduates" online? (The link suggests it is.) It's been 32 years, hasn't it, since he wrote it. Sigh. It's amusing, if predictable.
posted by maxwelton at 3:21 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's all the way down at #8 for all you tl;dr'ers, but Le Guin's speech is worth a read. There's not a link there, but I've thoughtfully bring it to your attention.
posted by willF at 4:06 AM on May 22, 2011


erm. s/I've/I/. Too early here.
posted by willF at 4:07 AM on May 22, 2011


I read this as Ten Commencement Commandment Speakers You Wish You'd Had. Makes for an entirely different type of post.
posted by Fizz at 4:32 AM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


My commencement speaker was some local politician who made his entire speech about Iraq and the war on terror. I was incredibly annoyed.
posted by litnerd at 4:53 AM on May 22, 2011


(Will Ferrell was actually Harvard's Class Day speaker in 2003. The Commencement speaker that year was Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico.)
posted by sriracha at 5:33 AM on May 22, 2011


There's a lot to like about the David Foster Wallace speech (even for people who don't care for his novels, I would think!) but most of all it's the way it cuts across the grain of the form. You're supposed to tell the graduates to follow their dreams; Wallace dares to insist that they take on instead the much harder project of engaging with the world as it actually is, in all its boring and beautiful and undreamy detail.
posted by escabeche at 5:41 AM on May 22, 2011 [9 favorites]


I'm not certain who my commencement speaker was and I didn't go to commencement. Having been to my brother's graduation, where the speakers we clearly meant as status symbols, I like having gone to a university where you had to convince your parents that, no, they weren't supposed to turn up to this commencement thing the university had sent them a letter about, but to a graduation a week later they'd not had any information about.
posted by hoyland at 6:16 AM on May 22, 2011


There's only one commencement speaker I wish I'd had.

Douglas Adams.

He was supposed to be my commencement speaker.

He died 3 days before he could be.

.
posted by flaterik at 6:17 AM on May 22, 2011 [12 favorites]


I was wrong. It was the day before. Why was I so sure it was 3?
posted by flaterik at 6:21 AM on May 22, 2011


@jeffburdges, I had Kofi Annan as my graduation speaker TWICE. (Dude was stalking me, apparently.) It was nowhere near as good as a reading of Schmich's sunscreen column would have been. :)

I had the feeling he wasn't all that sure what American graduation speeches were about, it was something between a graduation speech and a stump speech for the awesomeness of the U.N.

In any case, it was boring. Twice.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:26 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have no idea who the speaker was at my graduation. I was there but I hadn't slept in a week trying to get my final project working and I was close to hallucination by that time.
posted by octothorpe at 6:26 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Erma Bombeck was our speaker in the late '80s, after the college had rejected our suggestion to invite Abbey Hoffman (lots of trust-fund hippies at our little school). I went to the ceremony very cynically, expecting a lot of her "kids (eye roll)" routine. Instead, she was funny and warm and set a lovely tone for the morning. Our college reprinted the speech and sent it to new grads as their first alumni/giving outreach - a nice tradition I stole when I went to work at a college myself.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:29 AM on May 22, 2011


Also, this speech by David Sedaris at Princeton in '06 would have been pretty amazing.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:32 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


My commencement speaker was Mike Bloomberg and it made me feel like I wasted a hundred and twenty thousand dollars.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:45 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have no damn idea who my commencement speaker was for any of my degrees. I do remember my university president coming in a golf cart, hopping to the stage and then used his canned speech (When you leave here, remember us here at [crap college]) and then hopped back into his chauffeured golf cart and sped away with his robes flowing in the cart's backdraft. Fucker better hope I don't win the damn lottery.
posted by jadepearl at 6:57 AM on May 22, 2011


I wish I had graduated to get a commencement speaker to tell me to follow my dreams.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 6:58 AM on May 22, 2011


Christopher Reeve spoke at my medical school graduation. His speech was poignant and addressed the need for research and to not give up hope but unfortunately he had to leave soon after when it began to rain.
posted by Renoroc at 7:05 AM on May 22, 2011


A couple of those I would actively boo and most of the rest I would either boycott or complain about my money being spent on them.

Honestly, Will fucking Ferrel making some stupid jokes and Anderson Cooper with nothing to say except to refer to a storm that happened before fucking freshman year?

Flagged as single link cracked.com.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:14 AM on May 22, 2011


An old roommate who went to NYU (a couple years after me) says he got two speakers. Someone else had been contracted to be the main speaker, but they also had James Earl Jones there, getting an honorary degree. And at some point someone realized "we can't have That Voice on that stage and not let him speak," and asked him to say a few words. ....He ended up saying even less than intended because apparently all the graduates went nuts when they saw him take the podium; a 90-second ovation before he even spoke. Then when they calmed down, he simply said "Good morning", and the graduates were off cheering again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:27 AM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


I would be happy to hear Mr Rogers give a commencement speech.
posted by ovvl at 7:35 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


At my undergrad institution, there is a long tradition involving the bust of the poet Schiller. Becoming one of the guardians of Schiller is very competitive (at one point, Schiller was hidden somewhere in Mexico and people had to go find him based on clues) and there are rules about the need to display the bust at public events. This involves masked people running in, shouting "Schiller!" and running away again before someone can catch them and wrest Schiller from them.

The year I graduated, Bill Clinton was our commencement speaker, his last address as a sitting president. Hijinx are all very well and good, but nobody was stupid enough to imagine that the Secret Service would be any too thrilled at a bunch of masked people dressed in black rushing the stage where the president was speaking (though one kid couldn't understand why they might object to him wearing chain mail while receiving his diploma). But the idea of Schiller not appearing at graduation was also unacceptable. I guess there were a series of negotiations with and through the college president's office for a temporary transfer, and Schiller was shipped off to DC. He made the return journey on Air Force One and Clinton held up the statue, said "Schiller" and the crowd, as they say, went wild. (Schiller is pretty widely traveled, and has even made an appearance on The Colbert Report.) Honestly, I remember the Schiller moment more than I do any of the rest of the speech.

Today is my graduation from law school and I so didn't care about law school, so I am going to a friend's birthday brunch instead of the ceremony because, well, the stories I want to hear from Ollie North's Iran-Contra lawyer are not the stories he's going to tell in a speech.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 7:38 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm jealous of those who got to have Kermit the frog speak to them. Personally my commencements were either at regional public schools or at larger public universities on off years, so all I remember about our speakers is that they represented local government or businesses. The grad school speaker did make a useful point of telling the undergrads to clean up their social networking profiles, but that's about as inspirational as it got.
posted by bizzyb at 7:39 AM on May 22, 2011


I expected to read the list and roll my eyes, but that's a pretty good list.

Sweetie Darling, thanks for the link to the David Sedaris address. That is exactly what a commencement address, or a State of the Union address, or a shopping list, should be.

My daughter is going to give an address at her high school graduation in a couple of weeks. She decided to create a satirical speech that was filled with the most horrible cliches, and she plans on delivering it totally straight. The other day she told me that she'd finished it, and it was about the most offensive thing she'd ever come up with. She wants to be a comedy writer.
posted by Xoebe at 7:44 AM on May 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


For my undergraduate commencement speaker from the illustrious LSU, we had Shaquille O'Neal, who also received an honorary degree that day. He mumbled through most of the speech, and his closing remark was something along the lines of "LSU stands for 'Love Shaq University!'".

Needless to say, it was a huge letdown.
posted by tryniti at 7:49 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


2006: I had John Kerry. He made a bunch of jokes at Bush's expense and his speech was pretty much uninspiring. That really summed up the 4 years I spent in college, now that I think about it.
posted by giraffe at 7:53 AM on May 22, 2011


I was surprised Ellen DeGeneres was not on the list.
posted by flex at 7:55 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


My commencement speaker was Dick Lugar, and we had to listen to him preach about the necessity of going to war in Iraq (this was 2003) for an hour and a half.
posted by sciurus at 7:58 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


We had Spalding Gray speak at our commencement at Rhode Island College in '98. When the dean of students made the announcement at the rehearsal the day before the ceremony, I jumped out of my seat yelling, "Hot damn!"

None of the other students knew who he was.

His speech was about growing up in Rhode Island in the Christian Scientist faith and how strange that was: both the religion and Rhode Island.

I approached him after commencement and mentioned that he had worked in a film directed by my uncle. We talked about the film and my impending fatherhood (my wife was due with our first child in less than a week). He was warm and incredibly polite to me during our brief conversation.
posted by Hale Poetry at 8:11 AM on May 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


I had the film professor's girlfriend at my college graduation. She worked on a few commercials and had "spent time in LA." Yeah.

Same college, one year later, my Mom (yay Mom!) had Sam Donaldson. He was great! Just the right amount of wit and inspiration. So I sat in the audience and pretended he was mine too.
posted by ladygypsy at 8:17 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have to admit that I'm jealous of the class that had Will Ferrell. That was a pretty entertaining speech, even if Ferrell seems a bit hyped right now.

Will Ferrell...so hyped right now. Will Ferrell.
posted by nosila at 8:32 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Joe Bageant's "Escape from the Zombie Food Court," while not technically a commencement address, would have made a good one. Way better than whatever was said by whoever it was at my commencement.
posted by Karmadillo at 8:34 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I now feel embarrassed at the whole ritual of commencement speakers. Likely because I looked at it the wrong way. I was 22 and desperate for guidance and meaning, and at that age I bought self-help books, books on figuring out what kind of career I wanted, and I think I really had no perspective on life, despite all my reading and listening.

I remember sitting there in the hot sun with tears in my eyes because I hadn't gotten a fancy consulting firm offer (hiring freeze after several rounds of interviews) and I was covering up my shame by pretending to be excited about doing an internship in NYC and getting a master's degree in London. Meanwhile, our fancy graduation speaker...well, she was saying things even from her place of great accomplishment that made me like life was an endless struggle and I was tired. She was talking about her failures and feelings of failure. And all my hopes were crumbling.
posted by anniecat at 8:34 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I vote this for the top ten most boring award.
posted by francesca too at 8:38 AM on May 22, 2011


We had Michael Moore as our commencement speaker. It was right on the heels of his first film and even though he was getting a lot of press at the time, it seemed a bit depressing. A documentary filmmaker? That's just a fancy term for "unemployed artist".
posted by cazoo at 8:55 AM on May 22, 2011


David Foster Wallace, absolutely yes, the others, not so much. I personally have great disdain for pop entertainers as commencement speakers. Would rather have a public intellectual who has something to say that might challenge me. Nothing against the pop entertainers, but I get them every other day of the year.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:57 AM on May 22, 2011


Willard Scott spoke at my high school graduation. His grandkids were in our elementary school. He was adorable and everyone loved him. That is all.
posted by phunniemee at 9:02 AM on May 22, 2011


I don't remember who spoke at my college graduations. Why? Because I went to a not-that-famous school who could never get anyone remotely interesting or memorable to speak. Oh, you snobby famous rich schools....
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:09 AM on May 22, 2011


I read this as Ten Commencement Commandment Speakers You Wish You'd Had. Makes for an entirely different type of post.

Me too, which made me think of Testicle Theater's definitive performance, but sadly those videos seem to be gone for good.
posted by homunculus at 9:44 AM on May 22, 2011


I liked Conan O'Brien's commencement address to the Harvard class of 2000: (video: part 1, part 2) (text).
posted by sharkfu at 10:06 AM on May 22, 2011


Oh, you snobby famous rich schools....

I went to a public university. We, in the year 2000, had Madeleine Albright. Some of my friends protested due to the U.S.'s Balkan bombing campaigns and I felt a twinge of shame while walking past them into the theater with my father. She began her speech with a positive acknowledgement of the campus's history of activism and agitation, and I can't remember the rest. It's bizarre to look back and think how those negative feelings were usurped by the outlandish behavior of the subsequent Administration, but here we are.
posted by psoas at 10:08 AM on May 22, 2011


My college graduation had a really cool commencement speaker. And I don't mean "really cool" as in "Bono is so cool". I mean someone who had accomplished something significant for the betterment of mankind.

I still couldn't get over the whole honorary degree thing.
posted by Flunkie at 10:16 AM on May 22, 2011


Frank Zappa was one of the speakers being considered for my library school graduation. At the time (June 1992), he was probably far too sick with prostate cancer to make the crosstown trip to UCLA, but it would have been beyond awesome for him to be there. As it was, we got some story teller as a speaker. He was fine, but he wasn't Frank Zappa.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 10:44 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Someone recommended the JK Rowling speech to me a while back, and I was actually quite pleasantly surprised. I suggest to those folks who are dismissing it out of hand - give it a chance. Going to listen to Dr. Seuss now.
posted by Glinn at 11:26 AM on May 22, 2011


Or not, since there's no link to the speech.
posted by Glinn at 11:27 AM on May 22, 2011


Undergrad, we had Knowlton Nash. That man can give a speech (unsurprisingly). He also turned out to be a heck of a raconteur. Highly recommended. Inspiring, hit all the right notes, entertaining.

Grad school, we had some schlub the school was pumping for money. Law school, same thing, only this guy was the franchise head of KFC Australia. Dullest speech I've ever heard. Didn't even give us a hint as to the secret herbs and spices.

I've also had to sit through Kim Campbell. Absolutely dreadful form letter speech. Didn't even hang around to chitchat with the students after, just bolted off in her limo. They give you a doctorate, and you can't even suffer coffee? Pfft.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:34 AM on May 22, 2011


Heh. The Jon Stewart at W&M one is pretty fantastic (Transcript Here). I graduated a few years after that, and we had Tom Brokaw, whose speech was fairly generic, but very well written, and given with fantastic gravitas. It could have been the worst speech in the world, and we'd still have sat there glued to our seats, listening to every word, because he was Tom fucking Brokaw.

It was a fantastic choice in hindsight, especially after the shortlist of alternatives was revealed a few months later. If you can't get somebody who's actually changed the world, just find somebody who can give a damn good speech. Never, ever use your B-list of alumni.

It could have been much, much worse. I attended the 2010 graduation, and saw the worst commencement speech ever, which eventually devolved into an economics lecture, and flustered defense of the Bush/Obama stimulus packages (which were very unpopular at the time, as this was right around the time that GM got its payout).

It also didn't help that the gushed (multiple times) about her postgraduate education at MIT, and the fact that her kids were also attending MIT, presumably as legacies. (I was seriously tempted to heckle her at this point. Fortunately(?), my SO's family was sitting right next to me, and I wasn't about to burn any (more) bridges with them). She got a muffled and polite applause, and sarcastic remark from the president ("That was very....educational, Christina") afterward. To put more icing on the cake, she resigned from her cabinet post a few months after the speech.
posted by schmod at 11:58 AM on May 22, 2011


At my undergrad the convocation address is given by a member of the faculty, rather than an outside ringer. It might not always be the most exciting speech—my year it was a law professor on the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—but at least it's relevant to the four years you've just spent in that academic community, rather than whatever happens to be on Katie Couric or Will Farrell or Ban Ki-moon's mind.

This year's speaker was the awesome Paul Sereno. My son would have been thrilled.
posted by stargell at 12:03 PM on May 22, 2011


I urge everyone to follow the link through to David Foster Wallace's speech. It's a relatively quick read and I can't imagine anyone finding themselves unable to relate to the content.
posted by Klieserber at 12:20 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Some thoughts on the real world by one who glimpsed it and fled"- Bill Watterson's commencement speech at Kenyon College, May 1990
posted by quiet coyote at 2:33 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


The DFW speech is literally the most true and profound thing I have ever read.
posted by eugenen at 2:38 PM on May 22, 2011


I was surprised Ellen DeGeneres was not on the list

I have to admit, I was a little annoyed at her speech. I don't mean to single her out - maybe they are all like this - but I thought her speech was a bit too self-centered. About her life, her dreams, her trials and tribulations. I didn't last throughout the speech.

If you are giving a commencement speech, it shouldn't be about you. Maybe a little anecdote, sure, to segue into some advice you want to give, but the majority of a commencement speech is not about you, it's about your audience.

Who knows, maybe all these speeches are like this - there should be guidelines or something (as if that's really going to happen)
posted by bitteroldman at 3:03 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wish I could say I remembered a word of my commencement speaker's speech. He was a very accomplished man, a pioneer in his field, but his speech was unmemorable. I suppose that's the case with many commencement speeches.

This link should really be called "Ten Commencement Speakers Whose YouTube Videos We Could Find."
posted by blucevalo at 3:28 PM on May 22, 2011


My second commencement speaker (I have no idea who the first one was, could not recall if my life depended on it) was Robert Redford. The only person who this thrilled was my mother. It was very much "meh."

And, although I rarely walk for the university-wide graduation where I teach because it is usually held on a Friday morning (the school-specific graduations are on Saturday), I am TOTALLY walking this year--have already ordered my garb--because STEPHEN COLBERT is coming to speak and I don't care if it is 100 degrees in the damn robes, I am totally psyched.
posted by jeanmari at 4:28 PM on May 22, 2011


This link should really be called "Ten Commencement Speakers Whose YouTube Videos We Could Find."

Just so. I would trade the whole lot of them and more for Mark Twain.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:34 PM on May 22, 2011


sciurus: "My commencement speaker was Dick Lugar, and we had to listen to him preach about the necessity of going to war in Iraq (this was 2003) for an hour and a half."

That sounds awful.

This reveals why I feel like we shouldn't have commencement speakers at all. We spend four years ostensibly teaching people to think for themselves, then right before they get their diploma, we force them (often literally) to listen to one person's opinion about what's important in life.
posted by Apropos of Something at 5:31 PM on May 22, 2011


We had a Congressman give our commencement speech. I can't even remember the guy's name, though I know he was a Democrat, and supposedly a good speaker. It was awful. He meandered, talked about WW2 and that generation (though he was a boomer, and the audience was graduating from college in '99). It was painfully dull, and I'd wished I'd been elsewhere.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:23 PM on May 22, 2011


Saw Jon Stewart - twice - at W&M while I was there. Our class's speaker was the Rev. Desmond Tutu - also fantastic, and highly preferable to Henry Kissinger, who I also saw during my time there.
posted by pecanpies at 7:33 PM on May 22, 2011


Hey pecanpies, sounds like we were in the same class! I remember being Tutu being pretty good, but I don't remember a whole lot of specifics. I vaguely recall him saying something against the war (which made me happy) and something about God (which made me irked), and then my roommate and I had an interesting discussion about to what extent it is appropriate to talk politics and/or religion in a commencement speech and potentially alienate parts of your audience. Also, I don't know if you also went to baccalaureate that weekend, but I remain traumatized by the memory of the look of horror on my parents' faces as the pastor rapped about affirmative action and other somewhat controversial topics (and I had only gone to baccalaureate because I had thought my parents would enjoy it).

I didn't see Jon Stewart, and also I was a transfer student from Kenyon and didn't see DFW. Sigh.
I think DFW's is the best commencement address ever, but I'm a fan of the J.K. Rowling one too
posted by naoko at 11:46 PM on May 22, 2011


My brother (and other brother, and dad, and friends and...) graduated from the St. John's University which is also a Benedictine abbey in rural Minnesota. Seated for my oldest brother's commencement in the great church with its soaring concrete banner of bells and a curtain wall of stained glass, we were told that the speaker, Joyce Carol Oates (I think it was) couldn't attend, so a bespectacled man in a robe read her lengthy piece about opression, including a bit about a Central American general cutting off someone's ear. I believe there was poetry.

When Cokie Roberts appeared on the podium at my own commencement some years later, everyone in the family heaved a sigh of relief.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:20 AM on May 23, 2011


Dude, our law school had Cory Booker last year. That guy is all kinds of amazing.

At my own undergrad ceremony seven years ago, we had to settle for Robert Redford....I was absolutely heartbroken.
posted by zizzle at 5:56 AM on May 24, 2011


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