Stephen Colbert, comedian and political commentator
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
June 17, 2011
Since 2015, Colbert has hosted The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Northwestern asked him to speak at the 25th anniversary of his non-graduation. He contrasts the culture of the 80’s with the early 2010’s. Using himself as an example, he tells the graduates that it is okay to change one’s dream and improvise.
Good morning. Thank you President Schapiro, and my thanks to Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Willaim Osborn, and Provost Dan Linzer.
And thank you, parents! Of course, if you don’t thank them now, you’ll have plenty of time to thank them tomorrow when you move back in with them. And since it’s Father’s Day weekend, let’s show some special love to all the dads out there. Do something nice for Dad today. Like before you introduce your boyfriend, ask him to remove his tongue ring.
And thank you to the Class of 2011. You are what some have called, “the Greatest Generation.” Not many, but some, so far just me – and I’m counting on you to not make me look like an idiot for saying that. So be great – no pressure.
I am humbled to be standing here with today’s other honorary degree recipients: William Schabas, human rights champion, who is here to investigate Northwestern for cruelly allowing you to graduate into this job market; Doctor Barbara Liskov, the first woman to earn a PhD in computer science – I don’t know how she could concentrate surrounded by all those notoriously sexy male programmers; and opera legend Jessye Norman, though that’s actually kind of a disappointment – I normally start the speeches by singing Schubert’s Ave Maria, but I don’t want to steal anybody’s thunder. So I’m not going to do it today.
Now, as you have explained to your grandparents, my name is Stephen Colbert, but I also play a character on TV who is named Stephen Colbert. And I don’t always know which of us has been invited someplace. Well, today, I’m fairly confident that I’m me because I went to Northwestern and my character went to Dartmouth. So he was there for graduation last weekend and heard Conan. It was a great speech, but he was opening for Leno.
I am honored to be your commencement speaker on this, the 25th anniversary of my graduating class. Any fellow Class of 86ers here today? Remember, later we’re all gonna get together, put on some leg warmers, crank up our Sony walkmen, and Wang Chung to Mr. Mister unit the Flock of Seagulls come home.
But as honored as I am to be here, I am also a bit surprised to be your graduation speaker, considering that 25 years ago today, I did not actually graduate. I thought I was graduating – my family was here, I was wearing this ridiculous medieval garb. But when I went up to get my diploma and the dean, Cathy Martin, handed me the folder, she leaned in and said, “I’m sorry.”
Now, I didn’t know what this meant, but it didn’t sound good. I was hoping it was some new form of Latin honorific – like Summa Cum Laude – “I’m Sorry-Cum-Laude.” But when I got back to my seat and opened the handsome pleather folder, instead of containing an embossed diploma, there was instead a piece of paper torn from a legal pad that said, “See me, Dean Cathy Martin.”
Evidently, I had an “incomplete” of which I was not aware. So, in my graduation photos with my family, I am sheepishly holding a scrap of yellow paper. The first member of my family to earn a scrap of yellow paper; the rest of them got diplomas. So, remember: just be graduating on your graduation day, you are starting your career way ahead of me. Be proud.
Because Northwestern is a school to be proud of. In academics, athletics, science, and public service, it represents humanity at its best, and on Dillon Day, it represents humanity at its worst. For parents – Dillo Day is a festival that started in 1972 to honor the armadillo… That is the best explanation I can offer. Today, armadillos are honored by drinking 4Loko out of a super soaker while dancing to the New Pornographers in a drunken mosh pit filled mostly with National Merit finalists.
Northwestern’s alumni list is truly impressive. This university was graduated best-selling authors, Olympians, presidential candidates, Grammy winners, Peabody winners, Emmy winners, and that’s just me!
I loved my time here; I was a transfer student from a small, all-male college in Virginia where I had been a philosophy major, but I decided to switch to something with stronger job prospects: theater major. Which reminds me – I forgot to warm up. ‘Amidst the mists and coldest frosts with barest wrists and stoutest boasts, he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.’ I not only loved studying theater, I loved being a theater major. It gave me an excuse to brood, to grow a beard, to wear black “at” people. I didn’t just want to play Hamlet, I wanted to be Hamlet.
Northwestern’s academic resources are unparalleled. The library contains 5 million books and 100,000 periodicals, none of which anyone read because they’re not on an iPad. Next year, I believe Deering Library is being converted into a Chipotle.
Here’s an interesting fact – a recent poll among private universities found that students at Northwestern have the lowest desire to have sex. I think that is possibly because this year, Northwestern offered some truly advanced instruction in human sexuality. I saw some photos of the lab equipment, and I’m thinking it may have scared you people off of sex forever. It might actually have been a stealth abstinence program, or viral ad for true value hardware. Graduates – good luck explaining what I’m talking about to your grandmother at brunch.
Still, that low sex drive is surprising, given that Evanston is riddled with brothels – oh yeah, they’re out there – but thankfully this town is finally enforcing a century-old city ordinance that prohibits more than three unrelated individuals from living together, lest they reach critical mass and spontaneously prostitute themselves.
I’m all for this law – can’t be too careful. In this economy, running a brothel might be the most reliable work out there. And before everybody jumps on me, I am not saying that everybody at Northwestern will become prostitutes. Obviously, the Kellogg graduates will become pimps. Expecting big things from you folks.
So, you have a great town, a great school, a great life here – maybe too great. Because I see evidence that since I left, Northwestern has gone soft. And don’t go, “Oh what’s he talking about?” You know exactly what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about The Snow Day. You were hoping I hadn’t heard about that. On Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011, Northwestern was closed because of snow. “Oh no! What’s that white stuff coming from the sky… in Chicago… in February!” I’m sorry, that is weak. Let me ask the alumni here: you ever have classes called because it was a little brisk outside? No! Because we were wildcats when the wildcats were wildcats! For Pete’s sake, it’s called Northwestern because when it was founded, this was the Northwest Territories! Its first graduating class was offered a double major in fur trapping and frostbite.
And my first winter here, true story, I endured what is still the coldest day in Chicago history – January 20th, 1985. Negative 27 degrees, negative 83 with the windchill. You weren’t careful, your genitals could snap off like a graham cracker. Did NU close? No! We went to class! Well, not me, I was a theater major and didn’t go to class that often. But I was supposed to! Have I mentioned that I finished college with an Incomplete?
And we didn’t have cell phones. If you made plans to meet someone in a snowstorm and they didn’t show up, you just had to assume they were devoured by wolves and go on with your life.
And we couldn’t text, and we certainly couldn’t “sext” each other. If you wanted to send someone a picture of your private parts, you had to fax it. That’s how Kinkos got its name. You had to fill out a cover letter – it was embarrassing.
But the clearest example of how this once great institution has failed you students? In 1986, our commencement speaker was George Shultz, Secretary of State, fourth in line to the President. You get me – basic cable’s second most popular fake newsman. At this rate, the Class of 2021 will be addressed by a zoo parrot in a mortar board that has been trained to say, “Congratulations.”
But I’m not here to talk about me – I am here to inspire you by talking about me.
Fair warning: we are now entering the meaningful part of the speech. Those of you who already have enough meaning in their lives can go do something else – maybe try to remember where you parked the rental car.
This spring, I participated in a sailing race from South Carolina halfway across the Atlantic to Bermuda. In many ways, it was a beautiful journey: stars wheeling overhead, whales breaching to starboard, which I think is over here. And in many other ways, it was horrible. We were filthy and tired; for seven days, none of us slept for more than three hours at a time. Which is how Stalin broke his enemies – and how infants break their parents.
We eventually made it to Bermuda, and after a few days there, I came home by plane. And looking out the window, it felt completely artificial to fly over that same thousand miles of water that we just fought our way across inch by inch. The ease of coming back somehow made it that much harder to explain to friends what it was like out there – what was lost and what was gained on that sublime and terrible trip. And in some ways, it feels just as artificial to fly back to this place after 25 years to try to tell you how to navigate the waters ahead – though it’s tempting to think that I can.
Because like many people my age, I have fantasized about traveling back in time and giving advice to my younger self. To stop young Stephen on a streetcorner and say, “Break up with her, you idiot. Haven’t you noticed that she’s nicer to the dog?!” or, “Buy real estate,” or, “For God’s sake, don’t buy real estate!”
Or, “Under no circumstances should you wear white jeans. Even on a cruise. Also – don’t go on a cruise,” or, “Wear sunscreen – having a tan looks nice now, but in twenty years, your face will look like a catcher’s mitt.”
But I doubt my younger self would even listen to me. I’m sure he’d say, “There’s no way you could be me. I have a chin.” PLus, young me would never respect old me. He’s in the theater. I work in “TV.” I’m a total sellout.
So, to recap: I’m going to try to give you, who for all intents and purposes are me 25 years ago, some advice that I probably won’t get right, and you probably won’t listen to. Ready? Let’s do this thing!
For instance, Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge – with two men and three women – in what I now know was a brothel. He dreamed of living alone – well, alone with his beard – in a large, barren, loft apartment – lots of blonde wood – wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor, and a Samovarof tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for the homeless.
Today, I am a beardless, suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis, and makes Anthony Weiner jokes for a living. And I love it. Because thankfully dreams can change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.
So whatever your dream is right now, if you don’t achieve it, you haven’t failed and you’re not some loser. But just as importantly – and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to – if you do get your dream, you are not a winner.
After I graduated from here, I moved down to Chicago and did improv. Now there are very few rules to improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them, you’re the most important person and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re following the follower, serving the servant, You cannot win improv.
And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.
Like improv, you cannot win your life.
Even when it might look like you’re winning. I have my own show, which I love doing, full of very talented people ready to serve me. And it’s great. But at my best, I am serving the just as hard, and together, we serve a common idea – in this case, the character Stephen Colbert, who it’s clear isn’t interested in serving anyone. And a sure sign that things are going well is when no one can really remember whose ideas was whose or who should get credit for what jokes. Though naturally, I credit for all of them.
But what if we should serve others and together serve some common goal or idea? For any one of you, what is that idea? And who are those people?
In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love because service is love made visible.
If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself. And you will have only yourself.
So no more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return.
In closing, I’d like to apologize for being predictable. The New York Times has analyzed the hundreds of commencement speeches given so far in 2011 and found that “love” and “service” were two of the most-used words. I can only hope that because of my speech today, the word “brothel” comes in a close third.
Thank you for the honor of addressing you, and congratulations to the Class of 2011.