Conan OBriens Speech to
the Harvard Class of 2000
Id like to begin by thanking the class
marshals for inviting me here today. The last time I was invited
to Harvard it cost me $110,000. So I was reluctant to show up.
Im going to start before I really begin by announcing
my one goal this afternoon. I want to be half as funny as tomorrows
Commencement speaker, moral philosopher and economist Amartya
Sen. Thats the job. Must get more laughs than seminal
wage-price theoretician. By the way, enjoy that. Bring a calculator.
Its going to be a nerd fest.
Students of the Harvard class of 2000, 15 years
ago I sat where you sit now. And I thought exactly what you
are now thinking. Whats going to happen to me? Will I
find my place in the world? Am I really graduating a virgin?
Still have 24 hours. Roommates mom very hot. Swear shes
checking me out. There was that Rob Lowe movie.
Being here today, on a sincere note, is very
special for me. I do miss this place. I especially miss Harvard
Square. Let me tell you, (you dont know this) Harvard
Square is unique. Nowhere else in the world will you find a
man wearing a turban and a Red Sox jacket working in a lesbian
bookstore. Im just glad my dads working.
Its particularly sweet for me to be here
today becausethis is truewhen I graduated I wanted
very badly to be a Class Day speaker. Unfortunately, my speech
was rejected. So if youll indulge me Id like to
read a portion of that speech. This is the actual speech from
15 years ago. Fellow students, as we sit here today listening
to that classic A-ha tune which will definitely stand the test
of time, I would like to make several predictions about what
the future will hold. I believe that one day a simple governor
from a small southern state will rise to the highest office
in the land. He will lack political skill, but will lead on
the sheer strength of his moral authority. I believe that justice
will prevail and one day the Berlin Wall will crumble, uniting
East and West Berlin forever under Communist rule. I believe
that one day a high-speed network of interconnected computers
will spring up worldwide, so enriching people that they will
lose their interest in idle chitchat and pornography. And finally,
I believe that one day I will have a television show on a major
network seen by millions of people at night which I will use
to reenact crimes and and help catch at-large criminals.
Then I had a section on the death of Wall Street, but you dont
need to hear about that.
The point is that although you see me as a celebrity,
a member of the cultural elite, a demigod if you will, and potential
husband material, I came here in the fall of 1981 and lived
at Holworthy Hall as a student much like you. I was, without
exaggerationthis is truethe ugliest picture in the
freshman facebook. When Harvard asked me for a picture the previous
summer, I thought it was for their records, so I jogged in the
August heat to a passport photo office and sat for a morgue
shot. To make matters worse, when the facebook came out, they
put my picture right next to Catherine Oxenberg, a stunning
blonde actress who was expected to join the class of 85,
but decided to defer admission so she could join the cast of
Dynasty. Folks, my photo would have looked bad on any page,
but next to Catherine Oxenberg, I looked like a mackerel that
had been in a car accident.
You see, in those days, I was 6 feet 4 inches
tall and I weighed 150 pounds. True. Recently, I had some structural
engineers run those numbers into a computer model, and according
to the computer, I collapsed in 1987, killing hundreds in Taiwan.
After freshman year, I moved to Mather House.
Mather House, incidentally, was designed by the same firm that
built Hitlers bunker. In fact, if Hitler had conducted
the war from Mather House, he would have shot himself a year
earlier. Saved us a lot of trouble.
1985 seems like a long time ago now. When I
had my Class Day, you students would have been seven years old.
Seven years old! You realize what that means? Back then I could
have beaten any of you in a fight. And I mean really badly.
Like no contest at all. If anyone here has a time machine, seriously,
I will kick your seven-year-old butt right now.
A lot has happened in 15 years though. When
you think about it, we come from completely different worlds.
When I graduated in 1985, we watched movies starring Tom Cruise
and listened to music by Madonna. I come from a time when we
huddled around the TV set and watched the Cosby Show on NBC,
never imagining that there would one day be a show called Cosby
on CBS. In 1985 we drove cars with drivers-side air bags.
But if you had told us that one day there would be passenger-side
air bags, wed have burned you for witchcraft.
Of course I think there is some common ground
between us. I remember well the great uncertainty of this day,
the anxiety. Many of you are justifiably nervous about leaving
the safe, comfortable world of Harvard Yard and hurling yourself
headlong into the cold, harsh world of Harvard grad school,
a plum job in your fathers firm, or a year abroad with
a gold Amex card and then a plum job at your fathers firm.
Let me assure you that the knowledge you gained here at Harvard
is a precious gift that will never leave you. Take it from me,
your education is yours to keep forever. Why, many of you have
read the Merchant of Florence, and that will inspire you when
you travel to the island of Spain. Your knowledge of that problem
they had with those people in Russia, or that guy in South Americayou
know, the guywill be with you for the rest of your life.
Theres also sadness today. A feeling of
loss that youre leaving Harvard forever. Let me assure
you that you never really leave Harvard. The Harvard fundraising
committee will be on your ass until the day you die.
This is true. I know for a fact that right now
a member of the alumni association is at the Mount Auburn Cemetery
shaking down the corpse of Henry Adams. They heard he has a
brass toe ring and they aim to get it. These people just raised
$2.5 billion and they only got through the Bs in the alumni
directory. Heres basically how it works. Your phone rings,
usually after a big meal when youre tired and most vulnerable,
and a voice asks you for money. Knowingyouve read
in the paperthat they just raised $2.5 billion, you ask,
What do you need it for? There is a long pause,
and the voice on the other end of the line says, We dont
need it, we just want it. (Sinister laugh).
Let me seeby your applausewho here
wrote a thesis? Thats nice. A lot of hard work went into
that thesis. And no one is ever going to care. I wrote a thesisthis
is true, I dont lieLiterary Progeria in the
Works of Flannery OConnor and William Faulkner.
Lets just say that during my discussions with Pauly Shore,
it doesnt come up much. For three years after graduation
I wanted to show it to everyone, and so I kept my thesis in
the glove compartment of my car, so that I could show it to
a policeman in case I was pulled over.
What else can you expect in the real world?
Let me tell you. As you leave these gates and re-enter society,
one thing is certain. Everyone out there is going to hate you.
Never tell anyone in a roadside diner that you went to Harvard.
In those situations, the correct response to, Where did
you go to school? is School? I never had much in
the way of book learnin and such. And then get in
your BMW and get the hell out of there. Go.
You see, kids, youre in for a lifetime
of And you went to Harvard? Accidentally give the
wrong amount of change in a transaction, and its And
you went to Harvard? Ask at the hardware store how the
jumper cables work, and hear And you went to Harvard?
Forget just once that your underwear goes inside your pants,
and its And you went to Harvard? Get your
head stuck in your nieces doll house cause you want
to see what its like to be a giant, and its Uncle
Conan, you went to Harvard?
So you really know whats in store for
you after Harvard, I have to tell you what happened to me after
graduation. Im going to tell it simply, Im going
to tell it honestly, because, first of all, I think my perspective
may give many of you hope, and, secondly, its such a cool,
amazing rush to be in front of 6,000 people and just talk about
yourself. Its just great. Its so cool. And I can
take my time.
You see, kids, after graduating in May, I moved
to Los Angeles. I got a three-week contract at a small cable
show. I got a $380-a-month apartment, a terrible dump, and I
bought a 1977 Isuzu Opal, a car Isuzu only manufactured for
a year because they found out that technically its not
a car. Quick tip, graduatesno four-cylinder used vehicle
should have a racing stripe.
So I worked on that show for about a year, feeling
pretty good about myself, when one day they told me that they
were letting me go. I was fired. I hadnt saved any money.
So I tried to get another job in television as best I could
and couldnt find one. So with nowhere else to turn-true
storyI went to a temp agency and filled out a questionnaire.
I made damn sure that they knew I had been to Harvard, that
I had written this thesis, and that I expected the very best
treatment. And so the next day I was sent to the Santa Monica
branch of Wilsons House of Suede and Leather.
When you have a Harvard degree, and you are
working at Wilsons House of Suede and Leather, you are
haunted by the ghostly images of your classmates who chose graduate
school. You see their faces everywherein coffee cups,
in fish tanks, you think youre going crazy, and theyre
always laughing at you as you stack suede shirts no man in good
conscience would ever wear.
I tried a lot of things during this period.
Acting in corporate infomercials. Serving drinks in a nonequity
theater. I even took a job entertaining at a seven year-olds
birthday party. In desperate need of work, I put together some
sketches and scored a job at the fledgling Fox network as a
writer and performer for a brainy show called the Wilton
North Report. I was finally on a network and really excited.
The producer told me the show was going to revolutionize television.
And, in a way it did. The show was so hated and did so badly
that when four weeks later news of its cancellation was announced
to the Fox affiliates, they burst into spontaneous applause.
Eventually, though, I got a big break. I had
submitted along with my writing partner a batch of sketches
to Saturday Night Live, and after a year and a half they read
it, and they gave us a two-week tryout. The two weeks turned
into two seasons, and I felt, hey, this is success, Im
successful now. Successful enough to write a TV pilot for an
original sitcom. When the network decided to make it, feeling
good, I left Saturday Night Live.
This TV show was going to be groundbreaking.
It was going to resurrect the career of TVs Batman, Adam
West. It was going to be a comedy without a laugh track or a
studio audience. It was going to change all the rules. And heres
what happened. When the pilot aired, it was the second-lowest-rated
television show of all time. It is actually tied with a test
pattern they show up in Nova Scotia.
So I was 28 and, once again, no job. I had good
writing credits in New York, but I was filled with disappointment
and I had no idea what I was going to do next. And that is when
the Simpsons saved my life. I got a job there and started writing
episodes about Springfield getting a monorail or Homer going
to college. I was finally putting my Harvard education to good
usewriting dialogue for a man who is so stupid that in
one episode he forgot to make his own heart beat. Life was good.
And then an insane, inexplicable opportunity
came my way, a chance to audition for host of the new Late
Night show. I took the opportunity very seriously, but
at the timeI have to be honestI had the relaxed
confidence of someone who knew he had no real shot, so I couldnt
fear losing a great job that I could never hope to have. And
I think that actually that attitude made the difference.
I will never forget being in the Simpsons recording
basement that morning when the phone rang. It was for me. My
car was blocking a firelane. But a week later I got another
call and got the job. So this, finally, was undeniably it. The
truly life-altering break that I had always dreamed of. And
so I went to work. I gathered all my funny friends and poured
all my years of comedy experience into building the show over
the summer. I gathered the talent, figured out the sensibility,
found Max, found Andy, found my people. We debuted on September
13, 1993, and I was really happy, really happy, with our effort.
I felt like I had seized the moment, that I had put my very
best foot forward.
And this was what the most respected and widely
read television critic, Tom Shales, wrote in the Washington
Post. OBrien is a living collage of annoying nervous
habits. He giggles and jiggles about and fiddles with his cuffs.
He has dark, beady little eyes like a rabbit. He is one of the
whitest white men ever. OBrien is a switch on the guest
who wont leave: hes the host who should never have
come. Let the Late Show with Conan OBrien become the late
Late Show, and may the host return to whence he came.
Theres more, but it gets kind of mean.
Needless to say, I took a lot of criticism,
some of it deserved, some of it excessive, and, to be honest
with you, it hurt like you would not believe. But Im telling
you all this for a reason. Ive had a lot of success. Ive
had a lot of failure. Ive looked good. Ive looked
bad. Ive been praised. And Ive been criticized.
But my mistakes have been necessary. Ive dwelled on my
failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest
liability is your need to succeed, your need to always find
yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Success is a lot
like a bright white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it,
but then youre desperately afraid of getting it dirty,
of spoiling it.
I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon
of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of the Simpsons. And
each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet every failure
was freeing, and today Im as nostalgic for the bad as
I am for the good. So thats what I wish for all of youthe
bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something
occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your own unique way
of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story
is never over.
If youll indulge me for just a second,
Id like to read a little something from just this year.
Somehow, Conan OBrien has transformed himself into
the brightest star in the late-night firmament. His comedy is
the gold standard, and Conan himself is not only the quickest
and most inventive wit of his generation, but quite possibly
the greatest host ever.
Ladies and gentlemen, class of 2000, I wrote
that this morning. As proof that when all else fails, you always
have delusion. I will go now to make bigger mistakes and to
embarrass this fine institution even more. But let me leave
you with one last thought. If you can laugh at yourself, loud
and hard, every time you fall, people will think youre
drunk. Thank you.