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7 Strange Commencement Speeches

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ThinkStock

Author and mental_floss contributor John Green cracked a joke during his Butler commencement address that “these speeches only come in two varieties: short and bad.” One more category should get squeezed in with those first two: bewildering. For every short speech and bad speech, there’s one that leaves graduates scratching their heads. Here are seven of those just plain out-there addresses.

1. Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke, University of Vermont, 2012

For a class of graduates born into the Spongebob generation, the prospect of Nickelodeon’s porous, yellow celebrity and his sidekick, Patrick Star, sending off the class was probably a thrilling one—even if it meant watching the show’s middle-age voice actors bantering back and forth on stage. The Kenny/Fagerbakke duo stayed in character for the entire speech, which concluded with a hip-hop cover of Vitamin C’s (spelled Vitamin S-E-A in the speech, because, you know, nautical puns) seminal “Graduation (Friends Forever).”

Here’s one choice couplet, rapped by Kenny as Squarepants:

I keep thinking about life on Lake Champlain
And how much I miss Squidward, who called me a pain.

2. Billie Jean King, University of Vermont, 2011

The tennis legend served up advice ranging from relationships (“you never know how you’re going to touch another person’s life or how they will touch yours”) to dealing with pressure (“champions in life adjust and adapt”). And then, in true Billie Jean King form, she pulled out a hidden racket and served up tennis balls too, lobbing at least 12 into the audience while Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” played on the speakers.

She had explained that Sir Elton wrote the song in her honor earlier (her friendship with John was a centerpiece of the speech), but didn’t offer any explanation for showing off her wicked forehand by pelting a crowd of about 8000 with tennis balls.

3. Theodor Geisel, Lake Forest College, 1977

“He reached under his academic gown, announcing loudly for all to hear that it was ‘a bathrobe,’ pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and turned to the microphone,” Lake Forest President Emeritus Eugene Hotchkiss III recalled in 2004. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Thirteen years before penning perennial grad gift “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” Dr. Seuss (who actually was a doctor—Lake Forest awarded him a Doctor of Humane Letters degree) read the Class of ‘77 a poem he titled, “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers.” The poem is about exactly what it sounds like: popovers as metaphors for surviving the real world.

As you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
That’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.

4. Richard T. Jones, University of Maryland, University College, 2011

When the actor who stars in the Why Did I Get Married? films was charged to write the commencement address for UMUC, the smart move would’ve been to actually write a speech. Instead, Jones stumbled through 10 minutes of awkward improvisation, punctuated with bursts of awkward silences. “I had this great speech ready for you guys,” he says early on in the address, “but then they put me behind a bunch of doctors…and they said everything I was going to say. So I figure I’ll just keep talking until I say something.”

The bumbling speech was caught on tape—251,000 thousand views and counting—and for ten minutes long on awkwardness and short on applause, Jones kept talking until he said something.

5. Will Ferrell, Harvard, 2003

Ferrell’s speech, like several of his classic Saturday Night Live sketches, goofed on then-president George W. Bush. The former SNL star recycled his claim-to-fame impression of Bush’s Texan twang to read a letter he promised his audience was a “message from the President of the United States.”

Ferrell jumped from one bit to the next, capping his speech with a rendition of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” singing, “Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the Harvard alumni endowment fund.” At Harvard’s commencement, Ferrell was Saturday Night Live’s cold open, monologue, and musical guest all in the span of one speech.

6. Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University, 2012

The screenwriter must have loved the speech he wrote for SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts convocation in 1997. When he gave the Orange’s commencement speech 15 years later, not much changed. He regaled the audience with some anecdotes from his previous address—casting “A Few Good Men” being one—pretty much verbatim.

Besides revisiting his speech wholesale, Sorkin also lifted quotes from his own shows. One line (“It seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less from each other, and I think that should change”) appeared in the second season of both “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” and again in the speech. Quote-ception?

7. Sacha Baron Cohen, Harvard, 2004

The speech started with Baron Cohen walking up to the podium sporting his character Ali G’s trademark red sweatsuit and beanie. It ended with Cohen in the handcuffs of a Harvard University Police Department officer (the arrest was fake).

Transcripts from Ali G’s teleprompter include faux-gangster slang like, “U iz clever and quite fly, if u don’t mind me sayin,” and “Normally da only public-speaking that me does is to 12 people.” Ali G wasn’t awarded any honorary degrees, but it’s not that Sacha Baron Cohen needed one: the comedian/actor is a Cambridge University alumnus.

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Paradise Found Around, YouTube
A Very Special History of The More You Know
Paradise Found Around, YouTube
Paradise Found Around, YouTube

For the past 29 years, NBC has devoted a portion of airtime that could otherwise be sold for substantial advertising dollars to provide brief reminders about basic human decency, teen issues, and social controversies. Efficiently packaged in 30-second increments and featuring recognizable faces, The More You Know campaign has become synonymous with lessons in ethics. Wrap up a serious conversation with your kid about drug use and they’re likely to respond by humming the campaign’s theme song. (“Da-da-da-dahhh.”)

But how did the network find itself the messenger for these widely celebrated (and widely parodied) spots? And did they really have any impact?

 
 

The idea of a public service announcement—a philanthropic use of airtime on television or radio to serve a greater good—started in the United States back in the 1940s, when stations allocated some of their commercial or program time to remind people about the war efforts under the guidance of the newly-formed War Advertising Council. The idea had been imported from the UK, which had long featured film reels on public safety tips, like how to cross a road. PSAs relied on truncated, catchy messages (“Loose lips sink ships”) to impart ideas with the limited time they had available.

After the Allied victory, the War Advertising Council became the Ad Council, and the scope of their mission changed from world-altering events to comparatively mundane topics. Aligned with mandates from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), public service announcements attempted to balance special interests with objective information. In the late 1960s, for example, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine took aim at tobacco advertising, with one PSA on the dangers of the habit airing for every three cigarette spots. The number of smokers in the U.S. actually declined before the FCC banned such advertising from airwaves altogether in 1971.

By the 1980s, the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) narrowed their PSA efforts by giving them a unique identity. ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock was among the most popular, using catchy songs to illustrate points about government or science. NBC aired One to Grow On, a series of cautionary messages about everything from chewing tobacco to finishing your homework, with Mr. T. and Michael J. Fox sharing their scripted wisdom.

 
 

In the late 1980s, Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's vice president of broadcast standards and practices, was approached by several nonprofit educational groups to see if the network might want to get involved in raising awareness for the teacher shortage affecting the country. Weinman reached out to former NBC creative director-turned-ad executive Steve Lance, gave him a slogan (“The More You Know”), and asked him to produce five test spots centered around the importance of teachers and education. While NBC wasn't crazy about the campaign, Weinman had support from her own team and from some marketable names working for the network.

“She said she had a few stars of NBC series willing to do PSAs. What I absolutely didn’t want to do was a talking-head campaign," Lance tells Mental Floss of not wanting to shoot videos where actors would stand or sit on a spare set and deliver their message. "Talking heads were absolute death.”

Instead, Lance wrote a series of spots focusing on bolstering the public perception of teachers by acknowledging famous educators throughout history like Aristotle and Albert Einstein and stretching Weinman’s slogan to “The more you know, the more you can teach.” Miami Vice co-star Saundra Santiago appeared in one of the spots, which began airing in 1989; so did news anchors Tom Brokaw and Deborah Norville, as well as L.A. Law co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.

To help give the campaign a visual identity, Lance was paired with Steve Bernstein, a graphic designer who came up with the shooting star illustration that signaled the end of the segment. Bernstein tells Mental Floss he wondered why NBC was reaching out to freelancers rather than in-house employees. "Nobody else [at NBC] would do it," he says. "They were too busy, so Rosalyn had to go outside the network." Bernstein came up with a star that fit neatly under the "W" in the slogan.

Originally, the logo was filmed so it looked like it was in motion, not animated. “We didn’t have the budget for that,” Lance says. The familiar melody was composed by two-time Emmy winner Michael Karp, who also created the theme for Dateline NBC.

The spots garnered praise: Lance wrote a total of 17 that first year, all of them centered around the importance of educators—but Lance left after finishing that first batch when Weinman decided to go in a different direction: NBC was apparently concerned viewers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between set-decorated spots and actual commercials, so Weinman reverted to the “talking head” premise.

 
 

Despite Lance's departure and the change of format, the series continued just as successfully as before. Its minimalist approach was attractive to actors who enjoyed delivering their lines in a loose and informal setting, and by 1996, director David Cornell herded in actors (including Courteney Cox, Jonathan Silverman, and Eriq La Salle) over a single weekend to tape spots for the entire year, often asking them to pare down their delivery so that it would fit into a 25-second block of time. (The last five seconds were reserved for the star graphic and Karp’s melody.)

The Ad Council, which had seen its role minimized over the years, would later take issue with the proprietary campaigns launched by networks, arguing that they were little more than stealth ads for their programs. To their point, NBC did appear to use at least half the casts of ER and Seinfeld. But the spots could sometimes net tangible results: In 1995, after a series of The More You Know spots on domestic violence, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline went from 228 calls daily to quadruple that amount. The network earned a Public and Community Service Emmy for its efforts, and the campaign—which still airs on NBC—grew to include spots by the cast of Friends and a comedic take courtesy of The Office, as well as appearances by sitting presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. You can watch some of the more well-known (and rather dated) spots below.

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Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
A New Game Show Helps Contestants Pay Off Their Student Loans
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV

Most game shows offer flashy prizes—a trip to Maui, a million dollars, or a brand new car—but TruTV’s latest venture is giving away something much more practical: the opportunity to get out of student loan debt. Set to premiere July 10 on TruTV, Paid Off is designed to help contestants with college degrees win hard cash to put towards their loan payments, MarketWatch reports.

The show gives college graduates with student loan debt "the chance to test the depth of their degrees in a fun, fast-paced trivia game show,” according to TruTV’s description. In each episode, three contestants compete in rounds of trivia, with one contestant eliminated each round.

One Family Feud-style segment asks contestants to guess the most popular answer to college-related poll questions like “What’s the best job you can have while in college?” (Answer: Server.) Other segments test contestants' general trivia knowledge. In one, for example, a contestant is given 20 seconds to guess whether certain characters are from Goodfellas or the children’s show Thomas & Friends. Some segments also give them the chance to answer questions related to their college major.

Game show host Michael Torpey behind a podium
TruTV

Based on the number of questions they answer correctly, the last contestant standing can win enough money to pay off the entirety of their student debt. (However, like most game shows, all prizes are taxable, so they won't take home the full amount they win.)

Paid Off was created by actor Michael Torpey, who is best known for his portrayal of the sadistic corrections officer Thomas Humphrey in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Torpey, who also hosts the show, says the cause is personal to him.

“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because—true story—I booked an underpants commercial,” Torpey says in the show’s pilot episode. “But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans? Sadly, there just aren’t that many underpants commercials. That is why I made this game show.”

The show is likely to draw some criticism for its seemingly flippant handling of a serious issue that affects roughly one in four Americans. But according to Torpey, that’s all part of the plan. The host told MarketWatch that the show is designed “to be so stupid that the people in power look at it and say, ‘That guy is making us look like a bunch of dum dums, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Paid Off will premiere on Tuesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern time (9 p.m. Central time).

[h/t MarketWatch]

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