Campus & Community

Class Day Address June 5th, 2002: Al Franken ’73

long read

I was all set to give a speech today entitled, “American Jihad.” But after receiving several complaints, I’ve decided instead to give a less controversial speech entitled: “The Case for Profiling Young Arab Men.”

Before I go any further, I would like to thank the University and President Summers for conferring upon me an honorary degree, an honorary doctorate, in Afro-American Studies. And especially for offering me a chair as a professor in that Department–an offer I hereby most heartily accept.

I don’t know much about Afro-American Studies. But I can assure you that I can use the summer to get myself up to speed.

But seriously, it is an honor to speak here today to you, the graduating class of 2002, and to congratulate all of you–for getting into Harvard in the first place. Because let’s face it, once you get in here, as long as you don’t kill someone or embezzle $100,000 from your student organization, you’re going to graduate.

And to those of you who are graduating with honors–congratulations on doing some of the reading and on going to many of your classes, and getting notes from friends on the classes you didn’t go to, and on handing in most of your papers on time. Way to go! Good work!

To those of you who did not graduate with honors–“Wow! Whoa!” But then again, congratulations on your hockey season.

As Jeremy [Bronson, who gave the Ivy Oration “Macroeconomic Theory in a Globally Integrated Economy”] said, most of you will be going out into the real world of law school, med school, or investment banking, and you will meet graduates from other colleges, who had slightly better educations. Schools like Amherst, Haverford, Wesleyan, Ohio Wesleyan, and pretty much all the other Wesleyans.

But you will all have your Harvard degree. And you should never let others forget it!

There are ways to let people know you went to Harvard without just blurting out “I went to Harvard.” First and foremost, remember–you didn’t go to school in Boston, you went to school in Cambridge.

But if you really want to perfect the technique of slipping Harvard into a conversation, just consult your parents–they’ve been working on this from the moment you got your acceptance letter. My daughter is a junior here. Let me show you how I do it.

“Oh yeah, my daughter is 21. She’s a junior in college.” (Please ask, please ask, please ask, please ask.) “Well, you know, it’s great, because, you know, like, she’s only really an hour from New York. And you know, we can take the shuttle up to visit her. We took the shuttle, actually, last week to Cambridge.”

So, I went here. Class of ’73. Graduated cum laude. In general studies. Harvard was in many ways a different place in those days. It was much whiter, much more male, and much more preppy. I remember the first person I met when I arrived. I had flown in from Minneapolis, taken a taxi directly to the Yard, and–lugging a duffel bag and an electric typewriter–found my freshman hall, Mower. And in the entryway was a guy wearing khakis and a polo shirt. He extended his hand in a very friendly manner–and this is an absolutely true story–and he said, “William Sutherland Strong. I’m from Northern New Jersey, but my family moved from Massachusetts.”

“When?” I asked.

“In the late eighteenth century.”

Bill Strong and I became very good friends.

So, it was much preppier and much whiter. This disturbs some people. A while back Pat Buchanan said that Harvard should reserve 75% of its places for white Christians. As a Jew, I was offended, but looking around the Yard today at all the Asians, I kind of see what he’s talking about. I mean they’ve got to stop admitting you people based on merit.

I spent three great years at Dunster House. One of the big changes in Harvard life has been the randomization of the housing process. In my day, each house had its own distinctive character. Dunster House was known as the music-drug-theatre house. Mather House was known as the drug-jock house. Adams was the artsy-drug house, Mather House, as I said, was the drug-jock house. Quincy was also just the drug house. As were Leverett, Kirkland, Winthrop, and Lowell. Eliot was considered the preppy-drug house, but was also sometimes just thought of as the drug house. There was no quad, as such, back then, but people used to sneak up there to do drugs.

When I came to Harvard from Minnesota, I was a complete idiot. I remember freshman year thinking about becoming a visual studies major. And I needed to get into VES 40, which was the introductory course in visual studies, VES 40. And it was limited enrollment and you had to interview. And in the course catalogue it said VES 40, Carpenter Center, room whatever, Dr. J.(with a dot) Mendelsohn. So I go to the Carpenter Center and go to the room ready to impress Professor J. (dot) Mendelsohn and the professor introduced herself to me. She says, “I’m Dr. Janet Mendelsohn.” And I say, “Oh, I expected a man.” So, I didn’t get into Visual Studies major and resigned myself to actually having to work for my degree.

I remember being in your place twenty-nine years ago, although I have to tell you I almost didn’t graduate. My senior year, I took a course, Soc Sci 134 “The Social History of the United States,” taught by one of the universities most illustrious professors, Daniel Bell, who had coined the phrase “post industrial society” and been on the cover of Time Magazine. The problem was the class was at nine in the morning and that semester I was in a play at Dunster House–we really were the theater house–and rehearsals tended to go very late. I did manage to go to all the lectures which were in Williams James, but the building, at least at that time, was very overheated, and I would routinely fall asleep in Professor Bell’s lecture.

When the run of the play ended, we had a cast party which lasted through the entire night and I’m embarrassed to say I got a little drunk. And when 9AM rolled around, having not slept, I for some reason thought it was a good idea to show up at Soc Sci 134 wearing a pajama top. I fell asleep and then at the end of the lecture, I stood up and I kind of passed out, falling into Dr. Bell’s arms.

It occurred to me soon after that I might be in danger of flunking Soc Sci 134. And I needed to pass it in order to graduate. So, I went to my T.F. and asked him what I needed to pass. And he told me that Dr. Bell thought I was drug addict. So he suggested I talk to Bell and ask him what I could do to make sure I passed the course.

So, I made an appointment with Dr. Bell for noon the next day. When I got to his office, he was meeting with a grad student, so his secretary asked me to go out in to the lounge and wait for him, where I sat on the couch and immediately fell asleep. The next thing I saw was Dr. Bell, leaning over me saying, “Do you want to sleep or do you want to talk to me?”

I said, “talk with you!” So we met in his office and I explained to him about the play and the rehearsals going late and the building being overheated, and Dr. Bell told me he felt it was a student’s responsibility to stay conscious during class. Then he told me that the final exam–and the whole grade was based on the final exam, there were no papers, no quizzes, no tests, no midterms–the final exam was based solely on the reading. If I did all the reading, I’d be fine. So, I thanked him and went back to my room and looked at the reading list for the first time, and it was the longest reading list I’d ever seen at Harvard. No one could possibly do all this reading. So, I spent the entire reading period in Lamont reading the reading list. And actually, it was great. The entire social history of our country unfolded before me there in Lamont. It was inspiring really and it made me wish I had stayed awake for the lectures.

So, then on the way to the exam, it was in Sever, it occurred to me that maybe Bell was screwing with me. You know, why wouldn’t he screw with a drug addict? I mean, what if the exam isn’t on the reading? What if it’s on the lectures? So I get into Sever and I get my blue book and I get the exam and I look at the first question, and it’s directly from the reading. Second question, directly from the reading. They’re all–everything on this exam–directly from the reading.

So a few days later I go to the T.F.’s office to pick up my exam, and he says, “Bell’s pissed. You got the highest grade of anyone in the entire class.” It’s a lecture of about 120 people. Of course. I was the only one who did all the reading. So now Bell thinks that a drug addict got the highest grade in his class. So, I’m laughing until I remember that I took the course pass-fail.

To this day, I believe if I had gotten an A in Soc Sci 134 instead of a pass, my Stuart Smalley movie would have been a huge hit, and I’d be a big movie star today.

I want to take this moment to congratulate today’s Ivy Orators, Taii Bullock and Jeremy Bronson, on your very funny remarks. You’re terrific. Where are you? Taii? (APPLAUSE) I was, ironically, the Ivy Orator twenty-nine years ago. And I’m afraid I used the “f” word quite a few times in my speech. It was 1973. And a couple weeks later I received a note through the class marshal’s office from an outraged parent, saying, “We came to watch you graduate from college, not from kindergarten.” I’ve always felt kinda bad about that, and I was hoping to be invited back so that I could apologize.

Now I know I wasn’t the first choice to speak here this afternoon. I know this because the Crimson article announcing I’d be the class day speaker made a point of underscoring that fact many times. Allow me to quote from the front page of the Harvard Crimson of April 16th:

“Author and comedian Al Franken ’73 will offer words of wisdom to graduating seniors on Class Day senior class marshals announced yesterday…Last year rock superstar Bono spoke to an audience ofabout 30,000–and some students hoped for a non-Harvard celebrity this year as well. “I’m disappointed it’s not Madonna,” said Dorothy Fortenberry ’02. The list of favored candidates included Madonna, as well as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Robert DeNiro, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and former New York City mayor Rudolf Guiliani. Franken was not on the initial list of candidates, but members of the Class Day Committee said he was not a last resort. “We went into this realizing that most people on the list are extremely busy and have hectic schedules,” said Chad G. Callahan, ’02, first class vice president.”

So, yes, I was available. Actually, I had to reschedule an audition for a voice over for a hemorrhoid commercial, but it’s not really worth getting into.

And I must say it’s a little intimidating following Bono. In order to feel less intimidated, I’m simply telling myself that last year’s speaker was Sonny Bono.

Actually, if you want to talk about intimidating, as was mentioned earlier, Mother Teresa was the Class Day speaker in 1982. But I read her speech, and I have to tell you, I don’t think she was funny at all. “Sanctity of life”? Ha, ha. I’m sorry, Mother Teresa, but I don’t get it. I’m not laughing.

So why me? Other than the availability issue? Well, if you think about it, in a way, I’m the perfect person to be up here dispensing advice. First of all, I am not a hopeless failure. There’s no point in getting advice from hopeless failures.

On the other hand, enormous successes such as Bono and Mother Teresa have little to offer in the way of practical advice for ordinary people. Take Mother Teresa. Though I don’t want it to seem like I’m beating up on her, I think you’d have to agree that Mother Teresa did not live a very balanced life. While what she did for the poor of Calcutta was commendable, she gave up a number of very important things, such as having a family and exploring sides to her personality other than just “the self-sacrificing living saint” side.

No, the perfect person to be speaking here today is me, someone who’s had success, yet still knows what it’s like not to be your first, second, third, or even eighth choice. So what can I tell you today? Well, I’m not going to try to pass off glib aphorisms as actual knowledge like so many commencement speakers do.

Take, for example, bestselling author Anna Quindlen, who at a commencement address a while back said this: “If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” It’s cute, cute, but if you think about it, it’s really nothing more than an all-purpose excuse not to succeed. My version of that quote goes, “If you win the rat race, you will never have trouble feeding your family.”

For some reason, commencement speakers, almost all of whom have been selected because of their notable achievements, love to warn about the fraudulence of success. This spring countless graduates of other universities have been told “It’s lonely at the top.” It’s not. Believe me. It’s much, much lonelier at the bottom.

Here’s another soothing but useless bromide. “Every time one door closes, another door opens.” That’s not true. And very often when one door closes, another does open: A trap-door leading directly to that lonely place at the bottom.

And no doubt on some campus somewhere proud parents who never made more than twelve thousand dollars a year had to listen to Donald Trump tell them that failure is a better teacher than success.

Here’s a line from late Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas that is often quoted at commencements. “No man on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’” How does he know that? I’ll bet someone on their deathbed said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office in my twenties and thirties, I would have had a much better life.” gurgle–dead. I’m sure that happens. And it’s quite possible that some former Enron or Arthur Anderson executive will use his last breath to say, “I wish I had spent more time at the office and less time in prison.”

Take risks, sure. And don’t be paralyzed by fear, especially by fear of failure. At least not until you’re thirty. Twenty-nine years ago, I left here in a ’65 Buick Le Sabre with enough gas money to get to Los Angeles, where I did stand-up comedy with my partner Tom Davis. After two years of struggle, playing dives and taking humiliating odd jobs, Tom and I were hired by Lorne Michaels to write for a new late night comedy show called Saturday Night Live. We were the only writers hired whom Lorne hadn’t met. To this day, we believe that had he met us, we never would have been hired.

Since those first glory days of Saturday Night Live, I’ve had my successes and I’ve had my failures, and I have to tell you, the successes have been more fun. But what has sustained me through all of it were the people closest to me: my parents, my wife, and my kids.

I have been married for twenty-six years. And I honestly believe I love my wife more right now than I did on our wedding day. But I know for sure that I love her more now than I did fifteen years ago, when we couldn’t stand each other.

Every marriage goes through a difficult phase. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying to you, lying to themselves, or is married to someone really fabulous.

But we were lucky. My wife shaped up, and we stayed together. And I’m proud to say that I think I have two very “together” kids. This is despite the fact that my son spends hours a day playing a video game called Grand Theft Auto III, in which the object is to pick up a prostitute in a stolen car and rape and murder her.

My daughter is a junior here at Harvard. And I don’t know if I mentioned that. No, my daughter goes to Harvard. She does. And she’s on track to graduate with honors.

Parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever love. First and foremost, being a good parent means spending lots of time with your children. I personally hate the phrase, “Quality Time.” Kids don’t want Quality Time, they want Quantity Time, big, stinking, lazy, non-productive Quantity Time. On the other hand it’s important for every parent to maintain balance in his or her life. Don’t be a slave to your child. No one respects a slave–unless he’s played by Morgan Freeman

Next year I plan to be seated where you are, a proud parent, next to my beautiful daughter Thomasin, listening, hopefully, to Madonna. All of you who are graduating today are here because of your parents. In many cases your parents have made tremendous sacrifices so that you were able to go to Harvard. Whether it be taking an extra job to pay for tuition, or simply spending hours helping you with your homework when you were younger. Or maybe their sacrifice was in the form of paying for a round-the-clock S.A.T. tutor. Or perhaps they just wrote a huge check to Harvard so that you could get in. You know who you are and the rest of us hate you.

So, what do we, the parents, expect of you? Well, it would be nice if you had a clearly defined career goal that we could easily explain to our friends. But most of all what we want from you is gratitude. Simple gratitude. And so today, I’d just like to conclude my remarks by asking the graduates here to take a moment to thank your parents.

I want you all to turn to your parents and say, “Thanks, Mom and Dad, I love you.” or “Thanks, Mom and Step Dad and Dad and Step Mom or…” You get the idea. And then I want you to hug them and kiss them. Go ahead. Don’t mind me.


Thank you.

So, congratulations, graduates. Congratulations, parents, friends, and relatives. Oh, yeah, “Go Forth Unafraid!”