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Stephen Colbert told Wake Forest University graduates Monday that he thought it was “entirely appropriate” that he was giving them their commencement address, since like them, he too was transitioning from a past life as the host of The Colbert Report and embodying the conservative commentator persona he adopted on that show, to a new job as host of CBS’ Late Show.
Indeed, his situation is somewhat like that of last year’s Wake Forest commencement speaker, Jill Abramson, who was embarking on a new future of her own at the time. However, her situation was unfortunately due to the fact that she lost her job as New York Times executive editor just five days before her speech.
After noting that, Colbert, troubled by what happened to last year’s speaker, asked the graduates, “Is there something you know about my new job that I don’t? Please just tell me. I really need that money. I have kids in college.”
That joke too hearkened back to a quip Colbert made earlier in his address, when he thanked the parents for all they’d done to get the graduates where they are today.
“We mustn’t forget the parents, who to get you students to this day have sacrificed so many things — primarily money,” he deadpanned. “I’m sure there are other things they’ve sacrificed but I’m going to guess money’s the one they bring up most often.”
As for his own transition and how it’s like the one the Wake Forest graduates are experiencing, Colbert said, “I just spent many years learning how to do one thing really well. I got so comfortable with that place, that role, those responsibilities that it came to define how I saw myself. But now that part of my life is over. It’s time to say goodbye to the person we’ve become, we’ve worked so hard to perfect, and to make some crucial decisions in becoming who we’re going to be. For me, I’ll have to figure out how to do an hour-long show every night. You at some point will have to sleep. I’m told the Adderall wears off eventually. Good luck.”
Colbert also advised the graduates to have their “own set of standards,” noting that in the real world there’s no objective measure, like grades, to evaluate the work you’ve done. And sometimes people might say that something you said or championed wasn’t good, Colbert explained, and having your own standards “will allow you to weather this. Having your own standards allows you to perceive success where others see failure.”
Colbert explained that he had developed his own standards and used those to decide which jokes to tell and to keep going if he thought they were a bit iffy or feared that the person he was interviewing on The Colbert Report might punch him.
“Over the years, I have given my work a lot of thought. I have my own standard for success now,” he said. “I have a pretty good idea of what jokes will get laughs and a pretty good idea of what jokes may be iffy, but I’m going to say them anyway because I kind of like how iffy they are. Those who’ve watched my show over the years know I have made that decision many times. But having my own standards is why I could keep going at times when no one laughed or when I thought the person I was interviewing might throw a punch at me. It’s probably why the epitaph on my tombstone will probably read, ‘Well, I thought it was funny.'”
Colbert continued: “Of course, any standards worth having will be a challenge to meet, and most of the time, you will fall short. What is nice about having your own set of standards is, from now on, you fill out your own report card. So do yourself a favor, be an easy grader. Score yourself on a curve. Give yourself extra credit. You have the power. You are your own professor now. I hope you find the courage to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong and then please expect as much of the world around you. Try to make the world good according to your standards.”
If that advice didn’t resonate with the grads, Colbert offered some wisdom from “a documentary [he] saw this weekend: Mad Max: Fury Road.”
“All you young people really need to succeed in the future is a reliable source of fuel and fanatical cadre of psychopathic motorcycle killers,” he said. “May you ride eternal, shiny and chrome.”
Earlier, Colbert congratulated the graduates and invoked the great dress debate.
“Congratulations to you, the class of 2015. You did it and you look amazing. Although it’s a little embarrassing you all showed up in the same outfit. Really, even all of the accessories are the same. Everyone has a black and gold tassel,” he said before pausing to ask, “Or is it blue and white?”
He then offered a helpful explanation for older members of the audience who hadn’t been caught up in the dress mania.
“Grandparents, just know that this was an issue that divided a generation. You had the Vietnam war, your grandchildren had an ambiguously colored Tumblr post.”
Colbert also recounted Wake Forest’s history, peppering his facts with a few jokes, like, “In 1962, Wake Forest had the distinction of being the South’s first major private school to integrate,” he said, before slowly scanning the crowd while saying, “Aaaaand…yes, they’ve kept it up. You don’t know these days.”
He also poked fun at the university’s traditions and its mascot, and took shots at nearby rivals UNC and Duke.
In particular, he found Wake’s habit of rolling the quad with toilet paper after big wins particularly amusing.
“It really sticks it to the trees. I mean covering a tree with the processed pulp of its relatives, that sends a harsh message,” he said. “That’s like throwing wallets at an alligator or flinging piano keys at an elephant.”
Colbert also received an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters. “I am a huge fan of humans,” he said. And he further showed off his own sense of humor as he was being awarded the degree, smiling and nodding as Wake Forest president Nathan O. Hatch praised him and then biting his lower lip as he waited to hear what degree he’d been recommended for before making a triumphant gesture with his hands after hearing it was “doctor of humane letters.”
Watch part of Colbert’s speech below.
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