The 10 Best Celebrity College Commencement Speeches
Graduation memories are unfolding for college students at campuses across the country. Some are lucky enough to have speeches presented by the foremost thinkers of our time. Don’t discount them because of their celebrity. They’re bright, interesting, see the world from a different angle, and often leave otherwise stodgy commencement speeches feeling a little lighter.
We’ve rounded up the commencement speeches given by actors, actresses, and even tech giants that left us inspired, humbled, and in stitches.
In 2006, Stephen Colbert gave the commencement speech at Knox College, a private liberal arts school in Galesburg, IL. His opening remarks played on his thinly veiled real life/television persona. “I play someone on television named Stephen Colbert. He looks like me and talks like me, but with a straight face, says things he doesn’t mean. I’m not sure which one of us you invited here today.”
It didn’t take long to figure out which Stephen Colbert showed up. In his trademark farcical, news anchor style, he was light on the wisdom and heavy on “truthiness.” He somehow pulled off a law student/beer pong/Dred Scott joke, and claimed to have attended Knox College. “It doesn’t get reported much, partly because the press doesn’t do proper research, and partly because it’s not true,” he said.
It only took him 18 minutes, but he finally squeezed in some genuine remarks. He talked about his experience with improvisational comedy troupes, and how the spontaneity imitated life. “You’re about to start the greatest improv of all. You’ll have no script, no idea…and you are not in control. So say yes, and if you are lucky, people will say yes back,” he said. “Saying yes begins things, saying yes is how things grow. Yes is for young people, and that’s the word.”
Ellen Degeneres, comedienne and native of New Orleans, delivered the commencement speech at Tulane University in 2009. After thanking the honored faculty and creepy Spanish teacher, Ellen said she had to look up the word “commencement” after she agreed to do the speech. “I didn’t go to college at all, and I’m not saying you wasted your time and money,” she quipped, “But look at me: I’m a huge celebrity.”
She talked about the perception of success and the circumstances that hinder its development. Ellen was poignant and hilarious as she talked about her struggles with motivation, accepting death, and fear of coming out. “Your definition of success will change as you get older,” said Ellen. “For many of you today, your idea of success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila.”
In true Ellen fashion, she concluded her speech by running out into the audience and staging a massive dance party.
Actor Tom Hanks was the keynote speaker at Yale‘s Class Day in 2011. Illustrating his knowledge of young people’s desire to share every moment of their lives on social media, he began by encouraging all in attendance to leave their smart phones powered on. Employing the classic Hanksian wit that has charmed people for decades, he warned the graduates, “The jig is up, and the clock has run out. You are now the anointed.”
His speech was part State of the Union and part wedding toast, as he waxed about climate change, unemployment, and deadpanned: “There is a big brother, but he’s not a malevolent fiction. He’s actually all of us and he lives in our search engines.”
Reminding the students that they will now define the true nature of American identity, he told them their full time job was to “stand on the fulcrum between fear and faith. Fear at your back, faith in front of you.” He asked which way they would lean. Hanks encouraged them to move forward, “and tweet out a picture of the results.”
At 32 years of age, actor and comedian Andy Samberg might have been the youngest commencement speaker in Harvard‘s history when he spoke at Class Day in 2012. He referred to himself as “the fake-rap wiener song guy,” and said, “I’m as honored to be here as I am unqualified.”
His speech was light on wisdom but full of hilarious critiques on college life. He thanked the uninvited uncles and the “handsome janitors that are secretly math geniuses” for attending, and lamented his own decision to speak when he learned he wouldn’t be receiving an honorary degree.
Samberg declared all majors ending in “studies” useless, congratulated math and science majors for “finally” being cool, and brought up the embarrassing fact that the C. Thomas Howell in blackface film, Soul Man, was set at Harvard. After throwing in his impressions of Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Wahlberg, and Nic Cage, he reminded everyone to put their “dick in a box.”
His only real piece of advice was, “Once you graduate, you can never wear your Harvard sweatshirt in public without looking like a word class asshole.”
Successful film and television writer Aaron Sorkin gave the commencement speech at Syracuse University in the spring of 2012. As a Syracuse alum, his familiarity of the school’s culture provided a sentimental motif to the proceedings. He dictated simple proverbs, joked about parents listening to “Cat’s in the Cradle” on the way to the ceremony, and called the graduates “a group of incredibly educated dumb people.” His speech was all about the peaks and pitfalls that come on the path to professional fulfillment in post-grad life.
“There are some screw ups heading your way,” said Sorkin. “It’s a combination of life being unpredictable and you being super dumb.” The witty and honest writer spoke of the inevitable failures to come, and gave some advice on how to overcome disappointment. He mentioned that he was addicted to cocaine for 10 years because he feared he couldn’t write without it. He then revealed the vast body of work he’d produced since getting clean.
“Develop your own compass and trust it. Decisions are made by those who show up,” he said. “My friends, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The tall, pompadoured, ginger talk show host Conan O’Brien took to the campus of Dartmouth in 2011 to speak to the graduates. O’Brien was no stranger to Ivy League schools, he himself being a Harvard alumnus, so the quick witted comedian had a unique take on the graduates’ future. He was biting and inoffensive in a way only Conan can pull off, deadpanning, “With your college diploma, you now have a crushing advantage over 8% of the workforce,” and, “Dartmouth has graduated more fictitious Americans than any other college.”
It wasn’t all wisecracks though. Conan opened up about his well-publicized dismissal from NBC and his subsequent year of unemployment. He said it was the most satisfying professional year of his life, and, “There are few things more liberating than seeing your worst fear realized.”
He quickly put a stop to the mushy stuff, concluding, “Our failure to become our perceived ideal ultimately defines us. I bet some of you have changed your sexual orientation during this speech.”
Legendary comic and actor Bill Cosby gave the commencement speech at his alma mater Temple University in 2012. The 75-year-old, known for his family-centric and clean humor, delivered his speech as if he was father to all the graduates. A bit grumpier than he used to be, he opened with, “If one of you tries to use this graduation as a Mother’s Day gift I hope you get punched in the mouth by an arthritic woman.”
He warned them that nobody wants a friend with no job and said, “Your parents aren’t James Brown. They’re tired of telling you to get up!”
The speech was short but sweet, never mentioned pudding, and the surly old hat wondered why anyone needed a master’s degree when they could be finding a job. In grandfatherly fashion, he concluded his remarks with, “Whatever you’re going to do, do what you’re supposed to do. You’ve got plenty of time, but don’t dream through it. Wake up!”
The world’s first fake news anchor, Jon Stewart, was the commencement speaker at his alma mater William and Mary in 2004. Behind an oak podium, he spoke as if he was sitting behind his Daily Show desk; intermingling clever and scatological humor with just a hint of sappiness. On the sweltering hot day, he said, “I’m sure the environment that now exists under your robes is similar to the one where primordial life first began.”
On his being selected as the keynote speaker: “As a person, I’m proud. As an alumnus, I believe we could do better.” Surprisingly, his speech wasn’t too drenched in politics, as one of the only bureaucratic comments he made was apologizing for what his generation did. “We’ve broken the real world. Sorry. But here’s the good news: you fix this thing, you’re the next great generation.”
As he surmised that many of the graduates would be moving back into mom and dad’s basement, and that six of them were probably trying to make a bong out of their graduation caps, he claimed that college is not predictive of future success, and “the right path” is a fairy tale.
“Accepting that greatly eases the anxiety of your life experience,” he said. Recounting a college story, he said that he lost his virginity back in ’81, only to gain it back on appeal two years later. Perhaps, this quote sums it up best: “The unfortunate, yet truly exciting things about your life is there is no core curriculum, the entire place is an elective, the paths are infinite and the future uncertain. College is something you complete, life is something you experience.”
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and a leader for women’s workplace rights, was the commencement speaker at Barnard College‘s 2011 ceremonies. In her trademark upbeat and ultra-positive manner, she delivered her speech to the all-girls school with grace and wit. “I graduated from college 20 years ago,” she said. “And as I’m reminded everyday where I work, that makes me really old.”
She encouraged the graduates to not take their lot in life for granted, saying, “You leave not just with an education, but you take your place among the fortunate. You are all privileged, you have almost boundless opportunity.” Sandberg claimed that everyday she asks herself what she would do if she weren’t afraid, and said there was a sign hanging at the Facebook offices inscribed with, “Fortune favors the bold.” She asked the graduates what they would do if they weren’t afraid.
Her motivational speech ended with this: “I hope that each and every one of you has the ambition to run the world, because we need you to run it. I know it’s a daunting task, but you can do it if you lean in.”
Steve Jobs delivered the granddaddy of all commencement speeches at Stanford in 2005. Just one year removed from his first cancer scare, Jobs was healthy and about to step into the most successful period of his already highly accomplished career. Perhaps the most viewed commencement speech in history, his words were beautiful because they were simple, and Jobs didn’t try to hard to be clever or funny.
He told three stories: one about dropping out of college, one about getting fired from a company he founded, and one about his philosophy on life. Most people probably take the fonts on their iPhones and MSWord documents for granted, but Steve Jobs was the first person to develop beautiful typography on computers, and it all stemmed from him “dropping in” on a calligraphy class.
He spoke of professional fulfillment, urging, “Your work is going to fill a large chunk of your life, and the only way to feel satisfied is to do what you believe is truly great work.”
The most haunting and poignant element of his speech came when he talked about how motivated he is by death. “Death is the single best invention of life,” he said. “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” Sadly, Jobs did die six years later at the age of 56, but the product of his work ethic surely changed the world. With his speech coming to a close, he looked out into the sea of graduates and implored them to, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”