Think all commencement speeches are boring paens to hard work, dedication, and the importance of serving others? The members of our top 10 beg to differ.
#10: The Farrelly Brothers - Roger Williams University, 2007
The Farrelly Brothers, who directed Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, also selected one of the school's graduates to appear in their next film, The Heartbreak Kid.
#9: Linkin Park’s Brad Delson - UCLA, 2009
I know Brad Delson isn’t exactly a household name (unless you were a rap/rock fan in 2000). He does a really good job here though with his self-deprecating humor (he was a last-minute replacement for actor James Franco). Delson pokes fun at his own lack of credentials for giving the commencement speech and brings up some topical humor that's good for some chuckles.
#8: Arnold Schwarzenegger - Emory University, 2010
This just happened a couple of weeks ago, on May 10th. Schwarzenegger was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws degree. In the video he comes on at the 2:30 mark and immediately cracks a joke about finally being accepted by Maria Shriver’s family since he got his law degree. He accent alone makes this hilarious, but he’s an affable guy, so the whole speech is a treat.
#7: Ellen DeGeneres - Tulane University, 2006
Rocking a typically eccentric white bathrobe instead of a graduation robe, New Orleans native Ellen Degeneres immediately starts off proclaiming off that she’s super hungover (always endearing to graduating college students). It’s a nice treat for the school's first commencement ceremony following the devastation of Katrina.
#6: Rahm Emanuel - Sarah Lawrence College, 2009
The new White House Chief of Staff addressed Sarah Lawrence the year after he facilitated Obama’s historic rise to the presidency. Emanuel pokes fun at the college's reputation right off the bat when he proclaims, “It’s good to be at a democratic rally.” He goes on to give a humble speech with all the right jokes, and even pokes fun at himself for dropping the F-bomb earlier in the week.
#5: Seth McFarlane - Harvard University, 2006
The acclaimed creator of Fox’s Family Guy, Seth McFarlane, lends his acerbic wit to Harvard's festivities. There are multiple videos of his speech, as he vacillates between the various characters he voices on his show. In this clip, he’s doing his everyman protagonist Peter Griffin, which is a nice break from the haughty stereotypes one normally associates with preeminent Ivy institutions like Harvard. We’ll see that this isn’t something new for a Harvard commencement, though.
#4: Stephen Colbert - Knox College, 2006
Onetime contributor to The Daily Show and current host of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert brings his deadpan delivery to Knox College in 2006. He begins by lamenting his catch-22: should he give the speech as the farcical Stephen Colbert he plays on his show, or should be just be himself? The Stephen Colbert on his show is a arch-conservative with a decidedly tongue-in-cheek interview and ranting style that is modeled after and satirizes Bill O’Reilly. You’ll find his commencement address as humorous as the character he plays on his show.
#3: Ali G - Harvard University, 2004
Ali G is the original brainchild of Sasha Baron Cohen (of Borat fame). Here he plays his Ali G character, a British hip-hop impresario who deliberately obfuscates his language with unintelligible rap colloquialisms that have no grounding in any sort of culture. He’s perfect for Harvard, as we can all laugh at how silly the whole thing is. This character is what originally made Cohen famous and helped launch him into Hollywood stardom.
#2: Conan O’Brien - Harvard University, 2000
Former (unfortunately) NBC talk show host Conan O’Brien delivered the commencement speech at his alma mater Harvard almost a decade before his famed late-night war with Leno. He does a great job of explaining the odious way people look at Harvard graduates. After his riff on the stigma Harvard attaches to grads anytime they do something wrong, he explains what happened to him after he graduated. It’s a classic homage to life after Harvard—including the reading of Tom Shales’ Washington Post column deriding Conan as a terrible host. This would normally be number one on this list if not for the next guy.
#1: Will Ferrell - Harvard University, 2003
The gold standard of commencement speeches. Mainly because Ferrell is so perfect at physical comedy, and in 2003 he was at the height of his comedic brilliance after an extremely successful run on SNL. Maybe not as seminal as Conan’s inspiring and funny speech three years earlier, but probably funnier, as he comes out at 1:45 in the clip in an outfit straight off a yacht, and asks the crowd, “This is not the Worcester, Mass. Boat Show, is it?” Harvard really knows what it’s doing when they invite someone to speak. You want to laugh after sitting around in your robes for hours as your peers file by on the stage. Ferrell is the perfect fit for this venue.