Pop Culture

Wear Sunscreen: Great Commencement Speeches for Graduation Season

Graduation season for college and high school is over, and hell, I guess they let kindergarteners graduate, too, with great fanfare. I remember mine like it was yesterday. I drank so much punch at the party afterwards I almost peed my He-Man underwear.

It's a grand time for students, who can finally tear away the shackles of the past year and kick back. For college graduates, it's a fearful time since the economy ain't too grand and the whole job-search thing can get scary. And for high school grads, it means saying goodbye to people you may have seen every day for over a decade, and you may never see them ever again. Ever.

These students are given a good push into the ether of adulthood -- or what passes for it now -- with great and grand commencement speeches. In high school the valedictorian usually does the honors, but what can you believe that comes out of their mouths? A semester away from home and the introduction of BOOZE usually change their sunny outlook on the future.

It's the college commencement speeches that count, since if the college and its students are lucky, they are delivered by a celebrity. Because normal people have awful advice, and that is why they are normal.

After he passed away last fall, Steve Jobs's commencement speech at Stanford University was seen as a ready-made epitaph, full of advice on success and failure. His closing tag, "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish," became a rallying cry for his devotees and Apple fanatics. The video of his speech has been viewed nearly 15 million times on YouTube.

Conan O'Brien had some great words for the class at Harvard back in 2000 about failure. Oddly enough, just a decade later he would be dealing with his own similar trouble as his relationship with NBC became strained when The Tonight Show didn't deliver the ratings the network wanted. "Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over," he told the graduating class.

His 2011 Dartmouth speech massacred that one, though.

In May 1997, Bill Cosby delivered a hilariously Bill Cosby-style speech to the grads at the University of Pennsylvania, opening with a Fat Albert "Hey Hey Hey." He seems to make a great living giving commencement speeches around the country, with his own material and probably a great pay rate. This one is pretty giggly, even for Cosby.

But sometimes the high school kids get lucky and they get a big name, like comedian Eugene Mirman, who gave the 2009 speech for Lexington High School and who reminded everyone, "You are not old enough to buy a beer, but you are old enough to shoot someone in the face." And there is an asteroid heading towards Earth that will kill us all.

Harvard's class of 2003 got a proper sendoff from University of Southern California alum Will Ferrell, mistaking the ceremony for a boat show. It's rather short and frazzled, the way it should be.

But seriously, if you want to hear something great and inspiring, it's President John F. Kennedy's American University address in June 1963, just five months before he was shot and killed.

The line "We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal" would become one of his most quoted. He also used it to announce new negotiations with our mortal enemies in the Soviet Union.

A fluke pop hit in the spring of 1999, Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" had text that was at first attributed to author Kurt Vonnegut, but it was in fact from an article by Mary Schmich for the Chicago Tribune. It's all pretty good advice, even if it gets pretty hokey, especially the singing at the mid-point.

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Craig Hlavaty
Contact: Craig Hlavaty