[Speech source: The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, edited by Dave Eggers]
Alright, yeeaaaah! I said yeeaaaah! Thank you. Thank you graduating seniors, faculty, parents….(several girls shout “we love you Conan!”) I love you too sir. Thank you graduating seniors, faculty, parents, SAT tutors, college placement coaches, jealous siblings, grandparents who have no idea who I am… (applause) “Who is this horrible man?” and people who wandered in accidentally because they have season tickets to Lincoln center.Before I begin, I’d like to thank you for inviting me today. Over the years, I have been asked to give commencement speeches at many prestigious institutions. Just last year, I was offered fifty thousand dollars to speak at a graduation. But I said, “you go to hell, Bronx Science!” (applause) Then they said “sixty thousand!” And I took it but I never showed up! Man, those guys are idiots.
Hang on, grandma. “What’s happening?” I am truly honored to be here today. Of course when I first got the call no one mentioned I’d have to show up at 8:45 in the morning and wear a dress. By the way, true story, I am wearing a ceremonial robe decorated in the colors of my Alma Mater, Harvard University. (applause) But I choose to wear it because it’s the fastest way to let everyone know I’m a pompous, self-important jackass. (applause) I’ll go to Starbucks later, “I’ll have a mocha latte, BUT DON’T STAIN MY ROBE!” By the way, if you’re curious, yes, under this thing I am going commando. (students “woo”-ing) I call it “Conando.” That was dumb.
I’m especially honored because I was told it was the students who wanted me to be here today. It’s very flattering to know I was up there with your other first choices, skateboarder Tony Hawk and Bow Wow. This is a sentimental occasion for me, because I remember my own high school graduation so very well. Just like you, I sat in a large auditorium, daydreaming about experiences yet to come — college, my first job, puberty… thirty eight.
Yes, I’m even reminded of something my dad said to me at my graduation. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me right in the eye and said, “I’m not your father.” Then he wrapped me in his strong, Samoan arms and said “don’t ever call me.” Yes, graduation is a day you’ll never forget. Many of you have been signing notes in each other’s yearbooks that you will read years from now. Things like “best friends forever” or “keep in touch,” and that’s fine. But you might want to do what I did. I wrote incredibly specific, untrue memories, just to confuse my friends when they look in their yearbooks twenty years from now. Greatest thing I ever did. I wrote things like “I’ll never forget the time you stole those mothballs, you shoe-sniffin’ wild man!” or “keep head butting alligators, señor Cinnamon Shorts!” They call me twenty years later, “what does it mean?!”
Yes, you should cherish this day because this morning is one of the most important experiences of your life. Then, afterwards, it’s off to brunch with your parents. Starts off well, but halfway through they mention dinner plans with your grandparents and aunt Rose who hasn’t seen you in ages. “But I made plans,” you say. “I’m going out with Kirsten and Dylan, there’s a party at Galapagos and JR has rented the VIP room.” “But aunt Rose came all the way from Garden City,” they say. “And who’s this JR?” Suddenly you jump up from the table, “OH MY GOD, IT’S JASON RUBENSTEIN, I TOLD YOU THIS LIKE TWENTY TIMES, I TOLD YOU TWENTY TIMES, YOU DON’T LISTEN!” So enjoy that.
Because this ceremony is so important I have thoroughly compared and researched yours school. According to wikipedia which I visited… (applause) … not five minutes ago on my blackberry, your school is named after Peter Stuyvesant, head of the Dutch West India Trading Company. This explains, by the way, why your teachers are still paid in grain and bags of salt. Stuyvesant, as you know, true story, is not your typical high school. In 1950, this really happened, in 1950, students in Stuyvesant tried to build a particle accelerator. By way of comparison, that’s the same year my public high school discovered fire. (Conan makes a caveman noise) In 1969, girls were admitted to Stuyvesant for the first time (applause). This started a new trend among the boys called showering. You didn’t want to be here pre-1969.
Today Stuyvesant has a remarkably diverse and varied student body, ranging from math geeks to science nerds. Yes, you’re a glorious beautiful rainbow of brainiacs. And that can be very intimidating, let’s face it, most of you are smarter than me. it’s a proven fact that as you get older, your brain shrinks and you get dumber. This is why you have to explain to your parents how a TIVO works and they have to explain to your grandparents how a cat works. Even I’ve gotten a lot dumber, I graduated from Harvard 20 years ago, and I am currently reading at the 6th grade level. If anyone here spoils the ending of Charlotte’s Web, I am so going to freak.
So what can I tell you this morning? What advice can I give you? Well, I’ll tell you what I won’t do — I won’t sprout a lot of meaningless clichés, you know the ones, the trite phrases that pollute most commencement speeches — “reach for the stars,” “follow your dreams,” “keep your eyes on the prize.” No, you guys are too smart for clichés, so I’m going to give you real concrete advice that will get you through the next four years of college.
Number one: most of you are going to competitive schools, so psych-out the competition right away. It’s simple, here’s how you do it — show up at freshman orientation with a copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and a black magic marker. Sit in the dining hall and start crossing out whole paragraphs of the book while yelling “WRONG, IDIOT!” “TRY AGAIN HAWKING!” “This guy’s an ass!”
Number two: rip out a picture in a magazine of a hot guy or girl and frame it. Tell people its your boy or girlfriend who goes to Ohio-Wesleyan and that your relationship is purely physical. When people ask you why she looks suspiciously like Jessica Alba throw a hot tray in their face and run away.
Three: be warned, everyone has a weird roommate. If you don’t have a weird roommate, then you’re the weird room mate. (applause)
Four: if you want to get out of a test, don’t say you have a family emergency. Everyone says they have a family emergency in college and it never works. Say you have diarrhea. No one ever says they have diarrhea unless they do.
Five — write these down, these work. Five: some of you guys will be tempted to grow a goatee. Do not grow a goatee. A goatee is just a beard with low self esteem. On the same note, some of you girls will be tempted to get a lower back tattoo. I just want to say — that’s totally awesome. (applause, principal shakes his head) My message is a little different than your message. You won’t invite me back.
Number six: people will tell you that your future depends on what major you choose. This is not true. Einstein majored in hotel management. Dick Cheney majored in modern dance, and Britney Spears wrote a thesis on socialist labor relationships in post-glasnost Poland.
Alright, those are silly and a complete waste of time. But believe it or not, I actually do have some real advice for you. I don’t want to freak you guys out, but twenty five years ago, I could have been any one of you. I went to a public high school, and I was a bright, ambitious, hard working kid who wanted more than anything to go to a good college. The only problem is, I was much more interested in succeeding than in really learning. When you’re a smart kid in a competitive school, it’s an easy trap to fall into. So I did a lot of things in high school not because I enjoyed them but because I thought they look good on an application. I think you know what I’m talking about. I was on a debate team — hated it. I ran track — I was terrible, I got so bored running the two mile that I tried to talk with my opponents during the race. “what are you gonna do later, I mean you gonna be doing something later?” I joined school government — hated it. Of course, like many of you I worried obsessively about my GPA and my SAT scores. And of course, it worked. I got into the college of my choice and to this day I’m proud of the work I did in high school.
But old habits die hard. Once I got into college, I had every intention of joylessly grinding away again. I was gonna turn college into just another step on the road to being successful, whatever that meant. I told people my plan was to go to graduate school in law or government, just because I thought that’s what smart people were supposed to do. And then something really weird happened. My roommate — by the way, he was the weird roommate — my roommate was going to an orientation meeting at the Harvard Lampoon, the school humor magazine, and I decided for some reason to tag along. I wrote one piece, then I wrote another piece, then another. Before long, I was running the place. The only difference was, I was joyously happy. I was succeeding at something because I loved the process, not because I was trying to get anywhere. I had found the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I honestly didn’t care where it took me or what it paid.
So when I graduated form college in 1985 I told my parents “thanks for the amazing Ivy League education, now I want to be a comedian.” Later, in the emergency room after they woke up, they said they were fine with my decision, and I was on my way. I’ve had a lot of highs, I’ve had my share of lows, but if I hadn’t allowed myself to experiment and risk doing something without a clear career payoff, I might have missed out on so much. I never would have written for Saturday night live. I wouldn’t have preformed in stage in Chicago in a diaper in 1988. I never would have spent hours crafting the Homer Simpson line, “the bee bit my bottom and now my bottom is big.” I never would have jumped out of a window in the South Park movie. I never would have danced with the masturbating bear or been pooped on by Triumph the insult Comic Dog. I never would have swam naked in Arctic water with the Finnish Ministry of Defense. Yes, it’s been a wasted life. But I honestly believe that I found the best use for Conan O’ Brien. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked extremely hard at being an ass, and yes I’ve made some sweet, sweet coin. I do very well. (applause)
What I’m asking you to consider is that the next four years don’t have to be just a stepping stone. You are very bright, impressive young people. But for the last four years, your GPA has been calculated to two decimal points and you’ve pushed yourselves very hard. Many of you have succeeded because you have stuck to a very rigid and linear path and that is fine, that’s fine, all I’m asking you to do in college is to take a moment every now and then, breathe, look around you. If something intrigues you, take a small chance. You might just find your entire life you’ve been planning on. It could be bio-physics, it could be medicine, could be puppetry, could be ultimate fighting, beekeeping, government, or whatever the hell it is Ryan Seacrest does. Don’t really know what that is.
The point is, at this moment, many of you have ideas of what you want to do with your life, but for many of you those ideas will change. And that’s because you think you know who you are right now, but you really don’t. Trust me, when I look back at 18 year old Conan it’s a ridiculous sight — six feet four inches of pale skin and bone, scared of girls, squeaky voice — I’m sorry, that’s 43 year old Conan. But life and the choices I made have changed me in a thousand ways. None of it would have happened if I had rigidly kept my eyes on the prize and decided with great determination to follow my dream, because I didn’t have the slightest idea what my dream was when I was 18. It had to find me. So enjoy the next phase of your life, make sure you enjoy today as well. You’ve all achieved something pretty remarkable today and you should be infinitely proud.
Before I go, let me leave you with one last message. Tonight, many of you will party — it could get pretty rockin’. All I ask is that you remember to stop for a moment, take out your cell phone, and invite me along. My home number is 212-664-3737, seriously, I have no plans. Thank you and congratulations.