Graduation week: the 5 best celebrity commencement speeches

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“I didn’t go to college…  And I’m not saying you wasted your time or money, but look at me; I’m a huge celebrity.”

Thank you, Ellen DeGeneres.

Practically speaking, that is not the most helpful thing to say to a graduating class. But let’s face it; most students would rather listen to Ellen’s blatantly honest and downright hilarious words than to a corporate leader sharing about his by-the-book college days and journey to success.

American schools have certainly taken note of this trend, and the most well-known universities in the country have had absolutely no problem booking movie and television stars for their graduation ceremonies. Just take a look at 2015.

This year, said celebs include:

  • Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman at Harvard University (her alma mater)
  • director Christopher Nolan at Princeton University
  • Oscar-winner Robert De Niro at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts
  • actor Ed Helms at the University of Virginia
  • television host Stephen Colbert at Wake Forest University
  • actress Maya Rudolph at Tulane University

But if you think that 2015 is a star-studded year, you will not believe the roster of celebs that America’s top colleges clinched in 2011. That year featured:

  • actress Amy Poehler at Harvard University
  • actor Tom Hanks at Yale University
  • actress Brooke Shields at Princeton University (her alma mater)
  • television host Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth College
  • actor Denzel Washington at the University of Pennsylvania
  • television host Stephen Colbert at Northwestern University

Yes, 2011 saw the Ivy League and other top colleges going on a Hollywood shopping spree.

And before you head off to YouTube to watch an endless stream of these commencement videos, we have compiled 5 of the best speeches by celebrities that you definitely need to check out:

We begin with the funny ones.

1. Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth College, 2011

This has got to be one of the most hilarious speeches (commencement or otherwise) ever given on the planet.

We all know that Conan O’Brien has great comedic timing and lightning-quick wit, but it is still impressive that the talk show host remains consistently funny for his entire 25-minute speech. Trust us when we say that this is not an easy thing to do.

And not only does O’Brien make his speech interesting for its entire duration (seriously, someone should give him an award for it.), amidst the jokes and humour, he includes plenty of meaningful life advice for the graduates.

See for yourself:

2. Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane University, 2009

Yes, everyone’s favourite Ellen DeGeneres is a television talk show host and former stand-up comedian. Or “professional lady talker”, as she calls herself. Of course her speech would be great.

At her “common-cement” address, DeGeneres began and concluded her speech on a high and very funny note, even ending with her trademark dance-walk through the audience. But the main body of the speech shows a different side of DeGeneres; she opens up about a life tragedy, her struggle with her sexuality and how it had a negative impact on her early career.

You will certainly have an even greater respect for the comedian after watching this:

3. Will Ferrell at Harvard University, 2003

 He’s Will Ferrell. The guy already had the Harvard students laughing before he even said a word; he made a particularly lively entrance while groovin’ to Kool & The Gang.

Like O’Brien, Ferrell was funny throughout his speech, half of which was spent doing an uncanny impersonation of then-President George W. Bush.

In the end, it is not really clear what Ferrell’s main message was, besides the fact that the real world is hard and, statistically speaking, 4 Harvard grads would join the porno industry. But still, these are the speeches that we always remember.

Trivia: Natalie Portman was amongst the sea of graduates listening to Ferrell; she is a member of the Harvard College Class of 2003.

(Speech begins at 01:26:40)


Laughter aside, some celebrities have also also adopted a more serious tone for their speeches. And their messages were so profound that they will no doubt grab your attention and stay with you for years to come.

4. J.K. Rowling at Harvard University, 2008

When the official literary legend and unofficial life guru that is J.K. Rowling says anything (anything, at all), you take out your phone/paper and you take notes.

You pay even greater attention when she says that her commencement speech is titled “The Benefits of Failure”.

Of course, Rowling is terrific with words, and so even her speech (in all its seriousness) has plenty of humour and memorable quotes.

There is no way to describe how insightful her speech is. Just listen for yourself. And, seriously, take notes.

5. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the University of Southern California, 2009

The governator looks like he could crush any obstacle with one bicep alone. But Arnold Schwarzenegger’s road to global stardom was full of hardship and rejection. And he has certainly learnt many lessons from the School of Hard Knocks.

The highlight of his speech was undoubtedly his “6 Rules of Success”, which has since become an online sensation.


Honourable mentions:

John Legend at the University of Pennsylvania, 2014

At the beginning of his speech at his alma mater, John Legend poked fun at the repetitive nature of radio music by parodying his hit song “All of Me”.

Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) at Harvard University, 2004

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is known for appearing at press junkets and events as one of his many absurd onscreen characters. Naturally, his entire commencement speech as Harvard University was given in character as rapper Ali G.

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