Campus & Community

Late Night humor on Class Day

4 min read

It was almost as if someone dropped laughing gas on Harvard Yard.

Following a series of emotional and inspiring student speakers on Class Day, Conan O’Brien ’85, a two-time president of the Harvard Lampoon during his student days, and the current host of NBC’s Late Night, lit up the Tercentenary Theatre stage Wednesday afternoon with his sparkling, colorful, and animated humor – poking fun at everyone and everything from President Rudenstine to Mather House.

Introduced as the entertainer who has helped “many students through many late nights,” O’Brien quickly took aim at the Harvard mystique. “The last time I was invited to Harvard, it cost me $110,000, so I was reluctant to show up,” he lamented.

The keynote speaker, a Brookline native who concentrated in history and literature, reminisced about the College. “I do miss this place,” he said. “I especially miss Harvard Square … Nowhere else in the world will you find a man wearing a turban and a Red Sox jacket working in a lesbian bookstore. I’m just glad my dad’s working.”

O’Brien also poked fun at his freshman photograph, calling it the “ugliest picture in the Harvard face book … I looked like a mackerel that had been in a car accident.” He joked that Mather House, where he lived as a student, had been “designed by the same firm that built Hitler’s bunker.”

Members of the Harvard Alumni Association didn’t escape O’Brien’s barbs. “Let me assure you that you never really leave Harvard,” he told the graduating students. “The Harvard fundraising committee will be on your ass until the day you die … These people just raised $2.5 billion, and they only got through the B’s in the alumni directory.”

Recounting his post-Harvard days, O’Brien focused on the bad as well as the good – getting fired from his first job, working for a temp agency, receiving his first “big break” writing for Saturday Night Live, then leaving the show to write for a failed sitcom pilot. “The Simpsons saved my life,” he told the students, referring to his very successful run as writer and producer for the animated comedy show. “I was finally putting my Harvard education to good use.”

O’Brien chuckled when he spoke of his early days hosting Late Night, when he was panned by the critics (“He’s the whitest white man in Hollywood,” wrote the media critic for the Washington Post). The comedian told the audience that he’s taken his falls and learned his lessons along the way, and would hope that the graduates do the same as they make their way in the world.

“I’ve been praised and I’ve been criticized, but my mistakes have been necessary… 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,” he said. “Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo – you feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.

“[My failures] have been bruising and tumultuous. Despite every failure, today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good. So that’s what I wish for all of you – the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your unique way of getting where you need to be.”

That message appeared to resonate well among the Class of 2000, many of whom, in between their fits of laughter, seemed to grasp the meaning of the message given by one of their own, one who had sat in their place just 15 years ago.