What you’ll need: funny bone, nerves of steel
Further reading: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
When I graduated from Dartmouth three years ago, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was tapped to share with us the wisdom she’d gained as the first female president of an African nation. Instead, for her commencement address, she decided to share with us wisdom we’d heard a million times before: she quoted Mother Teresa, MLK Jr., Gandhi.
Yesterday, the Dartmouth Class of 2011 received their commencement address from Conan O’Brien; George H. W. Bush received an honorary degree at the same ceremony. Conan started his speech by saying,
Before I begin, I must point out that behind me sits a highly admired President of the United States and decorated war hero while I, a cable television talk show host, has been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today.”
The rest of Conan’s address was in turns hilarious and serious, the kind of speech that would not, unlike Sirleaf Johnson’s address, put a person to sleep (it was hot, ok? And I was wearing black!) When it comes to imparting wisdom, a very funny person is always more adept than a Very Distinguished Person.
In seventh grade I took a improv theater class. We had a great teacher who seemed to live as if in a continuous sketch (he brought his cordless phone to school and kept checking for reception, impervious to our objections that cordless phones do not act like cell phones). What’s more, he thought I was funny. My friends and family knew me to be funny, but his judgment seemed like real validation.
Thinking that I’d found a new outlet for my creativity, I continued with improv theater in eighth grade. The old teacher was gone, though, on paternity leave (he’d carried his cordless phone around when his wife was close to her due date), and we had a new teacher and a huge class. This new teacher had a method of mentally narrowing down the class: boys had the potential to be funny, while girls did not. It’s hard to get noticed in a group of forty when you’ve already been cancelled out.
I never tried improv comedy again, but I have the utmost respect for those who are able to make a living out of humor. No matter the situation, I can always think of an appropriate Mitch Hedberg joke. No matter how bad the latest political scandal, I can always turn to Jon Stewart to make me feel better. And no matter how jealous I am that the Dartmouth ’11s got Conan as their speaker, I’m also intensely proud that he came to Dartmouth at all. His “Conan Doctrine” is the best wisdom I’ve heard in a long time:
All bachelor degrees will be upgraded to master’s degrees. All master’s degrees will be upgraded to PhDs. And all MBA students will be immediately transferred to a white collar prison.”