Here is the full transcript of Jon Stewart’s 2004 commencement speech at The College of William and Mary held on May 21, 2004.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Jon Stewart 2014 commencement speech at The College of William & Mary
Timothy Sullivan – 25th President, College of William and Mary
In the years I’ve been associated with William and Mary, I have heard many graduation speakers, heads of state, authors, actors, successful business leaders, diplomats, even a cartoonist too. And I had the pleasure of introducing quite a few of them. Never before, however, have I had to worry about saying something in the introduction that would turn on me and be used against me in the speech.
Jon Stewart — now hold on, I’ve got some good stuff here, just give me a chance. Jon Stewart once observed that the only reason he would come back to William and Mary was for a hot Holly. I don’t know whether he’s raised or lowered his standards. But what is clear that today’s speaker is seriously funny. His Daily Show has been described as fearless, social satire. When the show won the Peabody Award according to Newsweek magazine, it was because beneath the jokes the show really does offer seriously intelligent analysis. Funny, absolutely but in Jon’s own words, the show’s grounded in passion, not cynicism. Jon Stewart definitely combines intelligence and humor. He makes us laugh and think, and he’s one of our own.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to introduce you a speaker who proves that there is something you can do with an undergraduate degree in psychology from William and Mary.
The host of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart, Class of 1984.
Jon Stewart – Comedian
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President, I had forgotten how crushingly dull these ceremonies are. Thank you.
My best to the choir. I have to say, that song never grows old for me. Whenever I hear that song, it reminds me of nothing.
I am honored to be here. I do have a confession to make before we get going that I should explain very quickly. When I am not on television, this is actually how I dress. I apologize, but this is — thank you. Thank you. There’s something very freeing about it. I congratulate the students for being able to walk even a half a mile in this non-breathable fabric in the Williamsburg heat. I am sure the environment that now exists under your robes are the same conditions that primordial life began on this earth.
I know there were some parents that were concerned about my speech here tonight, and I want to assure you that you will not hear any language that is not common at, say, a dock workers’ union meeting, or Tourette’s convention, or profanity seminar. Rest assured.
I am honored to be here and to receive this honorary doctorate. When I think back to the people that have been in this position before me from Benjamin Franklin to Queen Noor of Jordan, I can’t help but wonder what has happened to this place. Seriously, it saddens me. As a person, I’m honored to get it; as an alumnus, I have to say I believe we can do better. And I believe we should. But it has always been a dream of mine to receive a doctorate and to know that today, without putting in any effort, I will. It’s incredibly gratifying. Thank you. No, that’s very nice of you, I appreciate it. Thank you.
I’m sure my fellow doctoral graduates — who have spent so long toiling in academia, sinking into debt, sacrificing God knows how many years of what, in truth, is a piece of parchment that has been so devalued by our instant gratification culture as to have been rendered meaningless — will join in congratulating me. Thank you.
But today isn’t about how my presence here devalues this fine institution. It is about you, the graduates. I’m honored to be here to congratulate you today. Today is the day you enter into the real world, and I should give you a few pointers on what it is. It’s actually not that different from the environment here. The biggest difference is you will now be paying for things, and the real world is not surrounded by three-foot brick wall. And the real world is not a restoration. If you see people in the real world making bricks out of straw and water, those people are not colonial re-enactors — they are poor. Help them. And in the real world, there is not as much candle lighting. I don’t really know what it is about this campus and candle lighting, but I wish it would stop. We only have so much wax, people.
Let’s talk about the real world for a moment. We had been discussing it earlier, and I wanted to bring this up to you earlier about the real world, and this is I guess as good a time as any. I don’t really know to put this, so I’ll be blunt. We broke it. Please don’t be mad. I know we were supposed to bequeath to the next generation a world better than the one we were handed. So, sorry.
I don’t know if you’ve been following the news lately, but it just kind of got away from us. Somewhere between the gold rush of easy internet profits and an arrogant sense of endless empire, we heard kind of a pinging noise, and then the damn thing just died on us. So I apologize.
But here’s the good news. You fix this thing, you’re the next greatest generation, people. You do this — and I believe you can — you win this war on terror, and Tom Brokaw’s kissing your ass from here to Tikrit, let me tell you. And even if you don’t, you’re not going to have much trouble surpassing my generation. If you end up getting your picture taken next to a naked guy pile of enemy prisoners and don’t give the thumbs up you’ve outdid us.
We declared war on terror. We declared war on terror — it’s not even a noun, so, good luck. After we defeat it, I’m sure we’ll take on that bastard ennui.
But obviously that’s the world. What about your lives? What piece of wisdom can I impart to you about my journey that will somehow ease your transition from college back to your parents’ basement?
I know some of you are nostalgic today, filled with excitement and perhaps uncertainty at what the future holds. I know six of you are trying to figure out how to make a bong out of your caps. I believe you are members of Psi U. Hey that did work. Thank you for the reference.
So I thought I’d talk a little bit about my experience here at William and Mary. It was very long ago, and if you had been to William and Mary while I was here and found out that I would be the commencement speaker 20 years later, you would be somewhat surprised, and probably somewhat angry. I came to William and Mary because as a Jewish person I wanted to explore the rich tapestry of Judaica that is Southern Virginia. Imagine my surprise when I realized “The Tribe” was not what I thought it meant.
In 1980, I was 17 years old. When I moved to Williamsburg, my hall was in the basement of Yates, which combined the cheerfulness of a bomb shelter with the prison-like comfort of the group shower. As a freshman I was quite a catch. Less than five feet tall, yet my head is the same size it is now. Didn’t even really look like a head, it looked more like a container for a head. I looked like a Peanuts character. Peanuts characters had terrible acne. But what I lacked in looks I made up for with a repugnant personality.