In lieu of traditional graduations, the class of 2020 has been treated to a series of virtual commencement speeches from various celebrities and political figures. (Shout out to the class of 2020 who are coming of age in a literal nightmare but are hanging in there with the TikTok dances and what not.) There are many of these virtual commencement speeches, but they are not all created equal. First of all, some of these commencement speeches are compilations in which the speakers only have to muster up two to three minutes of material, which I do not acknowledge as a legitimate commencement. I will be ranking virtual commencement speeches and the only qualification is that it be a solo speaker delivering an address as would be customary in a traditional graduation ceremony. None of that compilation bullsh-t, this isn’t Now That’s Graduation Vol. 26. Without further ado, I give you a totally arbitrary ranking of some of the virtual commencement speeches of 2020 so far. YouTube’s virtual graduation event is happening this weekend and I’ll be back next week with more rankings.
Conan O’Brien – Harvard University
Conan is an experienced commencement speaker, which shows in his address to the Harvard class of 2020 (he is an alum, class of 1985). The speech has a few awkward moments where jokes fall flat because there is no live audience, but overall, this is solid, acknowledging all the sh-t the class of 2020 has been through in their lives thus far. This is the one virtual speech that feels most like a traditional commencement address, and it’s not hard to imagine Conan delivering a version of this address largely unaltered at a traditional ceremony had the pandemic never happened. Although I don’t believe anyone has ever, in the history of the world, been embarrassed to say they went to Harvard, so points deducted for that.
Power ranking: Drunk graduate passed out during the ceremony
President Barack Obama – Class of 2020, inclusive
President Obama gives a speech to the high school graduating class of 2020, reminding us all what it sounds like when a US president is capable of delivering a coherent speech. It’s a typical Obama speech, generally uplifting and full of bonhomie, and also acknowledges that these kids are our future, not because they’re so super special, but because the adults in the room have hopelessly f-cked everything up, and now it’s on a bunch of 18-year-olds to bail us out. All those YA dystopias where children have to save the world weren’t books, they were user guides, and this is the part where the mysterious leader sets the kids loose in the maze. Good luck, dystopian teens, and godspeed.
Power ranking: Literally the only president I want to hear from right now
Oprah Winfrey – Facebook (ugh)
Oprah’s speech is a passionate, stirring call to action, complete with dictionary definitions and a reference to alchemy. She stands before a verdant hedge, speaking over a backing track pulled from the “inspirational rock” category on the music licensing site, and issues a plea to graduates to please save us, please vote, if the youths vote, we will definitely get a new president in November, please, please vote, young people, we need you, oh god, WE NEED YOU.
Power ranking: Competitive valedictorians rooming together in a freshman dorm
Mike Birbiglia – Georgetown University
Comedian Mike Birbiglia (class of 2000) speaks to Georgetown grads in his typical shambolic style, approaching his point from multiple directions in a kind of circular speech. “This is not plan A” is a catchy line, which he acknowledges, but it’s also a strong theme that works not only for this incredible, weird moment right now, but also life in general. Not unlike Conan’s speech, this feels like something Birbiglia would have said anyway, even in better circumstances, because really, we rarely get what we want. Life is about learning to love what we have, a point Birbiglia makes in his signature gentle style. Mike Birbiglia should be a WAY bigger deal than he is (his comedy specials are on Netflix, look him up, if you’re unfamiliar).
Power ranking: Late night study session in the library
Jennifer Coolidge – Emerson College
National treasure and Emerson College alum Jennifer Coolidge (class of 1985) delivers a powerful speech to a roomful of deeply haunted dolls, in the starkest visual metaphor for 2020 realized yet (equal parts absurd and damning). Coolidge confronts Emerson class of 2020 with harsh truths, that life is a series of conflicts and desperate cries into the void, and the only hope is to cling to courage and forge on, even if that means braving a horde of possessed children’s toys. Still, she urges graduates to embrace the chaos and ride the storm to victory and oh god those dolls, those terrible, terrible dolls, their eyes are following me…
Power ranking: The faces of these nightmare dolls will haunt me for all eternity