Special Feature: Commencement 2011

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Colbert Addresses Northwestern Nation

Stephen Colbert wows new grads, shares life lessons from his improv days

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June 17, 2011 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Stephen Colbert, the political satirist who delights the “Colbert Nation” nightly with his take on the news, came home to his alma mater this morning to address the “Northwestern Nation” during the University’s 153rd commencement ceremony.

Northwestern’s commencement ceremony in Ryan Field took place on a perfect 70-plus degree day, and from the moment that Colbert and Northwestern President Morton Schapiro made their way up the aisle during the opening procession, the crowd was almost giddy with applause. 

As expected, Colbert treated the newest members of Northwestern’s alumni to the type of “truthiness” that defines Stephen Colbert the character. But, as he thought about it out loud, he was fairly confident he was invited to address the graduates as the real Stephen Colbert, because, after all, he, rather than Stephen Colbert the character, was the one who graduated from Northwestern’s School of Communication in 1986. 

Colbert the character, he said, graduated from Dartmouth. “So he was there last weekend and heard Conan [O’Brien] speak,” Colbert said. “It was a really good speech, but he was hoping it was going to be [Jay] Leno.” 

The crowd in Ryan Field was estimated at 20,000, and at its peak, Colbert’s talk received 1,900 views online.

His talk was filled with hilarious Northwestern-related references, including the yellow slip of paper with a note from the dean, instead of a diploma, he said he received during his commencement ceremony 25 years ago. “You are starting way ahead of me,” he told the graduates. 

He especially had fun at Northwestern’s expense about the University closing down in February for the first snow day in more than 30 years. “You were hoping I hadn’t heard about that,” he said as the crowd’s laughter egged him on. “I’m sorry, that is weak.”

During his first winter at Northwestern, Colbert said he endured what is still the coldest day in Chicago’s history, January 20, 1985. It was “negative 27 degrees, negative 83 with the wind chill,” he said. “Did NU close? No! We went to class. Well, not me. I was a theatre major, and I didn’t go to class that often, but we were supposed to.” 

Toward the end of the speech, he used the improvisation training he received in Chicago before and after graduation to offer serious words of advice to the graduates. 

“Now there are very few rules to improv, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene -- everybody else is,” he said. “And if everybody else is more important than you are, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. 

“But the good news is, you’re in the scene, too. So hopefully to them, you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win in improv. And life is an improvisation.” 

The host and executive producer of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” and one of the most popular comedians of our time went on to explain how that philosophy plays out in his work today.

“For instance, I have my own show, which I love doing, with very talented people who are eager and ready to serve me, and that is great,” he said. “But at its best, I am serving them just as hard, and together we serve a common idea, in this case, the character Stephen Colbert who, it’s clear, isn’t interested in serving anyone. And a sure sign that things are going well is that no one can remember whose idea it was or who should get credit for what jokes, though naturally I get credit for them all.”

Serving what you love, he emphasized, is the key to life. “If you love friends, you will serve your friends,” he said. “If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself -- and you will have only yourself. So, no winning! Instead, try to love others and serve others and hopefully find those who will love and serve you in return." 

During college, Colbert performed with an improv team that included Northwestern alumnus David Schwimmer, later of “Friends” fame. And he started out professionally as an understudy for Steve Carell at Second City, the Chicago institution that takes satire to a high art form and includes some of the biggest names in comedy as alums. 

Before getting to what he called “the meaningful part of the speech,” he also poked fun at Northwestern choosing him as the commencement speaker. 

"The clearest example of how this once great institution has failed you students,” he said, “in 1986 our commencement speaker was George Schultz, Secretary of State, fourth in line to the president. 

“You get me, basic cable's second most popular fake newsman. At this rate, the class of 2021 will be addressed by a zoo parrot dressed in a mortarboard, that has been trained to say, 'Congratulations.’”

Senior Sonya Elise Roberts, who introduced Colbert, said, “Exactly 25 years ago he was doing what many of you are doing today: graduating from Northwestern University.” If the laughter that filled Ryan Field and the smiling faces of the dignitaries on stage were any indication, the new alums are starting their post-Northwestern journey on a terrific high, especially regarding the fraternity of Northwestern alumni they are joining.

President Schapiro conferred honorary degrees on Colbert (Doctor of Arts) and three other distinguished individuals. The three are Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Barbara H. Liskov, whose achievements in computer science have provided the basis for virtually every software program underpinning today’s society (Doctor of Science); soprano Jessye Norman, one of the most celebrated opera singers of our time (Doctor of Arts); and the National University of Ireland Galway’s William A. Schabas, a leading authority on the death penalty and international criminal law (Doctor of Laws). 

In a first, President Schapiro also recognized four outstanding high school teachers as recipients of the inaugural Northwestern University Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award. Before asking the teachers to stand, he talked about the critical role they have played in the lives of the Northwestern graduates who nominated them for the new award.   

The teachers are Theresa Fischer (Ridgefield High School, Ridgefield, Conn.), John Holloran (Oregon Episcopal School, Portland, Ore.), Edwardo Johnson (University School of Nova Southeastern University, Davie, Fla.) and Georgia Stohr (LaSalle-Peru Township High School, LaSalle, Ill.). Each of the teachers and each of the high schools where they teach received an award of $2,500.

In his message to parents and family members of the Class of 2011, graduate Marc Snetiker had fun citing a litany of examples of why his fellow graduates probably could say whatever he said better. “And, let’s be real,” he said, “everyone else is thinking, ‘How is he going to follow Stephen Colbert?’” But by the end of his speech, Snetiker decided that he should be envied, rather than pitied, for the honor (rather than the burden) of speaking for “2,800 of the smartest undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students in the country.” 

What a day! School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe couldn’t have been prouder of Colbert, who serves on the school’s national advisory council. “His gift is deflecting what needs to be deflected and calling attention to what needs to be called attention to,” she said before the opening procession. “He definitely has a new way of engaging young people in politics and of communicating to them about public affairs.” 

And David Charles Whitney, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern who teaches a class on “truthiness,” was delighted with Colbert’s speech. “Colbert's ‘truthiness’ serves as a wonderful entrée into examining truth and fact in a hypermediated world,” he said. “Students get it: we have to learn to be responsible for truthfulness and to understand media. Stephen Colbert is a great guide to getting us there.”  

Bios of Colbert and other honorary degree recipients follow: 

Stephen Colbert is a satirist widely known for the outrageous political pundit he plays on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” A 1986 graduate of Northwestern’s School of Communication, Colbert is host and executive producer of the multiple Emmy and Peabody Award–winning series, touted by The New York Times as “one of the best television shows of the year.” At Northwestern, Colbert was planning a serious acting career when he fell in love with improv. Only two years out of college, he ended up with the Second City touring company. Colbert perfected the high-status idiot character at Second City and later through two early series on Comedy Central, “Exit 57” and “Strangers with Candy.” He first gained wide public recognition as one of the characters in Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Colbert’s book “I Am America (And So Can You!)” spent 29 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, occupying the number one spot for 13 weeks.

Barbara H. Liskov is Institute Professor and associate provost for faculty equity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she heads the program methodology group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Her achievements in computer science have provided the basis for virtually every software program underpinning today’s society. Named one of the 50 most important women in science by Discover magazine, she has been honored with the Association for Computer Machinery’s A. M. Turing Award and SIGPLAN Programming Languages Lifetime Achievement Award, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ John von Neumann Medal, a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Women Engineers and election to the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Liskov graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Stanford University.

Soprano Jessye Norman is one of the most celebrated singers of our time. Acclaimed for performing a wide range of leading roles with the world’s top opera companies, she appears in concert and recital with preeminent orchestras and at prestigious concert halls around the globe. Her numerous recordings have won five Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award. Norman’s many other honors include the U.S. National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, membership in the French Legion of Honor and nearly 40 honorary degrees. A board member for numerous nonprofit institutions, she also encourages emerging talent through the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in her hometown of Augusta, Ga. She directed and curated Carnegie Hall’s 2009 “Honor!,” a three-week festival celebrating the African-American contribution to world culture. A graduate of Howard University, Norman holds a master’s degree from the University of Michigan.

William A. Schabas is professor of human rights law and director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Considered the world’s leading authority on the death penalty and international criminal law, Schabas has written more than 300 book chapters and journal articles as well as 22 books, including the seminal “The Abolition of the Death Penalty in International Law.” He was a member of the 2002–04 Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is currently editor-in-chief of Criminal Law Forum, president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and chair of the board of trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Technical Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights. Named an Officer of the Order of Canada and a fellow of the Royal Irish Academy, Schabas earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Toronto and LLB, LLM and LLD from the University of Montreal.

Topics: Campus Life