Each year I make a hobby during graduation season (May/June) of paying attention to college commencement speeches. We’ve covered quite a few here on Mbird over the years. It’s a rhetorical phenomenon that sheds light on philosophies of the world that are either long on law or lame optimism about human potential: Look inside yourself, follow your heart, failure is just a stepping stone to future success. Oh, the places you’ll go! These are some of the many cliches that are repeated year after year. They’re also often insufferably boring.

conan_sq-9a9ec242c78920ba9d721221051ca80c3bf90d64-s300-c85Yet, it seems each season a glimmer of hope breaks through the the cracks from unlikely sources—usually comics and literary types—who offer up some hope by calling a thing what it is, getting vulnerable, and addressing the futility and mortality of human efforts. As Conan O’Brien so poignantly said in his speech at Dartmouth several years ago: “Nietzsche famously said ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ But what he failed to stress is that it almost kills you.” A little (or a lot of) humor goes a long way, too.

These are anti-commencement speeches, the ones that break the mold and are worth our time. Here are three I’ve come across this year (so far) that are worth a listen either for their content or their approach or both. Sadly Joe Biden, Matthew McConaughey, Kanye West, and George W. Bush aren’t on my list (despite Bush’s C-student joke).

Stephen Colbert gave a speech at Wake Forest University. (Note the Chi-Rho and Alpha-Omega patches on his robe!) Admittedly, his speech this year doesn’t match his classic at Northwestern several years ago, but it’s still good because it’s funny. One thing I love about Colbert’s speeches is he offers up about 95% absurdity and then makes a solid point when you least expect it. As a result, the well placed shot hits us when our defenses are down—preachers and all other communicators should take note.

Of course, any standards worth having will be a challenge to meet. And most of the time, you will fall short. But what is nice about having your own set of standards is that from now on, you fill out your own report card. So do yourself a favor: Be an easy grader. Score yourself on a curve. Give yourself extra credit. You have the power. You are your own professor now. Which I know is a little creepy because that means you’re showering with your professor. But you have tenure. They can’t fire you.

Poet and best-selling author Mary Karr was given and honorary degree and spoke at Syracuse University, where she is also on faculty. Her speech is full of Twitter-worthy zingers and vulnerable anecdotes from her tortured past (no surprise from her). Please note the various reactions of the academics behind her. One highlight for me was the prodigal-son-ish and Rod-Rosenbladt-esque story she told from a poem about her son:

The night my son smashed the car fender and rode home in the rain streaked cop cruiser he asked, Did you and dad screw up this much? He let me tuck him in, my grandmother’s wedding quilt from 1912 drawn up to his goateed chin. Don’t blame us, I said, you’re your own idiot now. At which he grinned. The cop said the girl in the Chevy took it hard. He found my son awkwardly holding her in the headlights where he draped his own coat over her shaking shoulders. My fault, he confessed right off. Nice kid said the cop.

Ed Helms is beginning to make the rounds each year just as much as Stephen Colbert—last year he even spoke at Cornell University (get it/heard of it?). This year he spoke at the University of Virginia’s valedictory exercises. Overall, he talked reductive labels—being defined and/or defining oneself. Admittedly, his anthropology is too high for my tastes, but he teeters on edge of talking imputation to say the least. If for anything, he closed the case on the Rolling Stone-UVA scandal:

We’re all guilty of this. How many times do we label people with our first impressions only to be proven wrong? The tattooed motorcycle guy who turns out to be a teddy bear, the buttoned-up co-worker who actually knows how to party, or the mousy librarian who takes off her glasses to reveal that she’s a bloodthirsty alien from a distant galaxy. We try to define others with simple labels because it makes the world easier to understand.

Stay tuned till the end though, or skip to the end for the a cappella rendition of “This Little light of Mine.” Sure, it’s a misappropriation of “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your fine works and give glory to your Father who is in the heaven,” but at least it was fun, something lacking in most commencement speeches. One thing that sets all three of these speeches apart from most others in the genre is they don’t take themselves too seriously, yet they get more across than the usual snoozers that are mostly nothing but seriousness. Again, preachers, teachers, and other public teachers ought to take note and apply authentically to their own situations.

Bonus: Some hopeful possibilities still to come this season (we’ll see):

  • Eric Carle, Amherst College, May 29
  • John Waters, Rhode Island School of Design, May 30
  • Christopher Nolan, Princeton University, June 1
  • David Brooks, Dartmouth College, June 14