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Northwestern sends off the Class of 2016

Comedian and alumnus Seth Meyers offers serious, hilarious words to live by

Highlights

  • Meyers urged graduates to ‘be people of action’ and ‘vote in this election’
  • ‘Every success I’ve had in my life has been thanks to the people around me’
  • ‘Not a day goes by when I don’t think about my time at Northwestern’
  • ‘You’ve been surrounded by the best for the last four years,’ continue to do that

Northwestern University alumnus Seth Meyers, the host of NBC’s “Late Night,” told graduates at the University’s 158th commencement ceremony Friday that he “learned to love to write here” and to see himself as a comedian. 

One of the nation’s best-known comedians, Meyers had the stadium of graduates and their loved ones laughing out loud throughout his address in Ryan Field.

On a sunny day with temperatures hovering in the mid-70s, Meyers received an honorary degree and delivered Northwestern’s commencement address.

Approximately 21,500 people attended the 90-minute ceremony honoring about 2,550 undergraduate and graduate students.  

Meyers talked about his love of Northwestern, seriously as well as hilariously, stressing that some of his closest friendships began during his days here, his love of writing was greatly nurtured here and his love of improv began here. 

Meyers overcame his nerves about writing the address, he said, after recalling the talk that Robert Redford delivered in 1996, the year Meyers graduated, assuring himself that no one would remember a word.

“I don’t remember a single word Robert Redford said,” he said. “And that was Robert Redford!”

Meyers wrote his speech in the modus operandi he employed regularly at Northwestern and that served him well during his 12-year tenure at “Saturday Night Live (SNL)” — quickly and at the very last minute. 

In the process of writing, he decided “to honor the kind of student I was at Northwestern: Wait until the last minute, pull an all-nighter and pull this bad boy out. Mess with the margins and use a big old font,” he said, getting the biggest applause of the day from his newly minted alums.

The excitement of the occasion was highlighted earlier in the program during Northwestern President Morton Schapiro’s beloved tradition of recognizing the families and loved ones of the graduates who filled the stadium.

“Not a single graduate would be here today without the support and encouragement of so many of you in the audience,” President Schapiro said, first calling out to the parents and step-parents of graduates to stand and be recognized and then, as they did, asking the graduates “to turn around and give them the applause they deserve.”

He then called out successfully to grandparents, siblings, spouses, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, other family members and friends to stand up — his enthusiasm and the crowd’s applause building as each group rose to be recognized.

In his introduction of Meyers, Class of 2016 member Justin Marquez cited his fellow alum’s household-name credentials, saying that his “parents fall asleep almost every night” watching “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”

Marquez proudly reminded fellow graduates that Meyers, a School of Communication graduate, started in comedy right here on Northwestern stages, as a member of the “The Mee-Ow Show,” for which he learned to write comedy sketches and perform onstage — formative experiences for his later success.

With great mock arrogance, Meyers suggested the honorary degree that President Schapiro conferred on him today has given him entry to the highest levels of the academy, and he now sees his procrastination in a very different light.

“Northwestern procrastinating had actually been practice,” Meyers said. “I wasn’t procrastinating at all, I was propractice-ating. You might say that’s not a word, but I think I should know because, remember, I’m a doctor of arts.”  

He had great fun with the notion of becoming a doctor. “My wife’s family is Jewish, and her mother is so happy that she can finally tell people her daughter married a doctor,” Meyers said with that impish grin of his. “This is for you, Joanne!”

All joking aside, talking about Northwestern is easy, he said. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about my time at Northwestern. I learned to love to write here.” That love has taken him on a journey that includes serving as the head writer at SNL.

“I love this school,” Meyers said. “I truly believe I would never have been on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and would never have hosted a talk show if it hadn’t been for my time at Northwestern, because when I performed in ‘The Mee-Ow Show’ and people laughed, I thought I just might possibly be funny because these people are smart.”

But more than anything, he said, he “wouldn’t physically be anywhere if it wasn’t for Northwestern,” starting off with a sweet story of his father, “an engineering major from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” and his mother, “a theater major from Marblehead, Massachusetts,” meeting in a poetry class at Northwestern.

“And my mother still remembers the first thing my father said to her,” Meyers said. “‘Let’s make a baby who will one day speak at commencement.’”

Everyone laughed at the absurdity of that response only to realize that the punch line was still to come: “And she said to him: ‘Will they remember his speech?’ And he said ‘no.’ ”

As most commencement speakers, Meyers, too, shared many heartfelt words about what really matters in life.

“Remember, the worst things that happen in this country don’t happen because of hate or rage or fear,” he said. “They happen because of apathy. So I encourage you to be people of action, to do the most you can, while remembering the least you can do is vote. So vote. This election.”

Family and friends truly make all the difference in a life well lived, he told the graduates.

You’ve been surrounded by the best for the last four years, and there’s no better favor you can give yourself than continuing to do that,” he said. “Every success I’ve had in my life has been thanks to the people around me.”

Representing the Class of 2016, Sandeep Bharadwaj of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science delivered a “big thank you” to all who made the day possible, from parents and other loved ones to faculty and staff.

“The best thing Northwestern gave to us was the opportunity to NOT be the smartest person in a room,” said Bharadwaj, who also was enrolled in the Honors Program in Medical Education and this fall will continue to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor as a student at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“We finally learned that it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know,’” Bharadwaj said. “We’ve gained the humility to realize that though we’ve learned a lot here, there is still so much more to learn from so many … but we did not discover this on our own.” He thanked loved ones in the audience and everyone at Northwestern and elsewhere who helped the graduates reach one of the proudest milestones of their lives.

Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer recognized each honorary degree recipient and his or her faculty presenter, and President Schapiro conferred the degrees.  

The five honorary degree recipients are: Meyers; Robert Alter, a University of California, Berkeley scholar who has revolutionized the field of Biblical studies; Richard Lifton, a Yale School of Medicine professor who pioneered the identification of gene mutations causing extreme forms of common disease; Sara S. McLanahan, a Princeton University professor whose scholarship focuses on fragile families and child well-being; and Ruth J. Simmons, a former president of Brown University who has provided path-breaking leadership and scholarship in higher education.

For the sixth year in a row, President Schapiro acknowledged five high school teachers in the audience who were honored with Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards. The honor recognizes the extraordinary role the teachers played in the lives of the 2016 graduates who nominated them for the award.

Meyers, whose mother was a public school teacher, gave a special shout-out to the teachers. “It was an honor to share the stage with my fellow degree recipients and an even greater honor to share it with recipients of distinguished secondary teacher awards,” he said. “So wonderful to be up here with you.”

At Northwestern, Meyers initially thought he would work behind the camera, but ended up falling in love with improv. He perfomed with “The Mee-Ow Show,” as did fellow alumni and SNL stars such as Ana Gasteyer and Seinfield’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, honing comedy talents. Meyers also performed with Chicago’s ImprovOlympic, and after college, he got his his big break when he got hired by NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” after he was noticed during a European tour of Boom Chicago, an Amsterdam-based improvisational comedy group founded by Northwestern alumni.

He joined the cast of SNL in 2001, became its co-head writer in 2006 and its sole head writer beginning with the 2008-09 season. He anchored SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment from 2006 until 2014. He is the recipient of an Emmy Award and several Writers Guild Awards and a 14-time Emmy nominee. Meyers has appeared in feature films, hosted the 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards, given the keynote speech for the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and is the co-creator and executive producer of the current IFC series “Documentary Now!”

Known for his smart, newsy perspectives on “Late Night,” Meyers played off his latest public jousting with Donald Trump to offer words of wisdom by other prominent people who delivered commencement speeches this year.

He first “stole” the words from talks by First Lady Michelle Obama and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the runaway hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” before getting one of the biggest laughs of the day.

“My favorite inspirational quote came from Donald Trump,” he said, “who said to the graduates of Trump University, ‘If you want your money back, you're going to have to sue me, you losers.’”

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