University of Virginia
May 18, 2013
Good Morning. I’m Stephen Colbert and I would like to thank or “thank” the class of 2013 for inviting me here today. Thank you very much. It’s an honor. [Retrieving the 2013 Class Gift from Teresa Sullivan] I have to say, this is way more than I expected. I would have done it for free. It was incredibly generous. Thank you.
Now before we get started, just one little bit of business. Out of courtesy, if anyone has a cell phone, please take a moment to make sure that it is turned on. I wouldn’t want any of you to miss a text or a tweet while I’m giving my speech. In fact, you might want to take a minute right now, if you’ve got the Twitter app, take a moment right now and follow my Twitterfeed. It’s @StephenAtHome just in case I tweet anything during the speech.
And now then, it is an honor to be speaking at your 2013 Valedictory Exercises. I believe that means I am this year’s valedictorian. And I am as shocked as you are because I didn’t make it to many classes this year. You guys must have really tanked your finals. Thank you for that. I’d also like to thank President Teresa Sullivan. Thank you very much, President Sullivan. You are way better than that last president, Teresa Sullivan. She was terrible. I am so glad they cut her loose. Good riddance, I say. No, you are clearly the woman for this job.
I’d also like to thank the Board of Visitors. Board of Visitors, of course that name goes all the way back to your founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was just trying to put the local Indians at ease. “Just visiting. Should be going home any century now.”
And that’s just one of the many unique, dignified terms that sets UVa apart from other universities. Instead of freshmen, you have first years. Instead of a quad, you call it a Lawn. Instead of saying we are members of a proud educational tradition dating back to our nation’s founders, you say “Wahoowa!” Which begs the eternal question, “Wahoowhy?”
Now, I went to Hampden-Sydney College. Thank you, thank you. Please sit down. And I used to come up here for as much as I could because you had these things back then, I’m not sure what you call them now…. girls. We did not have those at Hampden-Sydney. And when I could not find one of those here, I would head over to the White Spot to get a “Grills with” to fill the void in my heart. Literally my cardiologist recently found one lodged in there.
And early this morning I had a tour around your beautiful campus and I just asked myself, “Why are you leaving? You know what it’s like out there, right?” Plus, this could be the most spectacular place you’ll ever live. It is the only campus in America that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I believe that means if you try to carve your name into a desk, U.N. will send in ground troops. And you’re not going to top these living conditions unless your post-college plan involves subletting the Taj Mahal.
And I just want to say the students at UVa are incredible. The men are all gentlemen and the women are all the most beautiful and intelligent in the world. And I’m not saying that because I dated a UVa girl. I’m saying that because I married her.
You are graduating from one of the most highly ranked universities in the nation. U.S. News and World Report named you the #2 public university. Princeton Review named the #1 best value of a public college, especially for those of you who showed the initiative to be born in Virginia. Let’s give it up, a round of applause for those paying out-of-state tuition, shall we? Because without those people tomorrow, instead of wearing gowns and mortarboards, you’d be graduating in ponchos made of hefty bags with used pizza boxes on your head.
But as has been stated before, the most impressive ranking of all has got to be Playboy once again naming you the #1 party school in America. Now, to be clear, I only read Playboy for the rankings. But I am not surprised by this honor because I have seen you in action. When I used to visit back in the day, I spent a fair amount of time at the Phi Kap[pa] house. Which at the time had no doors because apparently, they kept getting partied off the hinges. And I won’t go into more about those days because I do not remember them.
And you know this is an impressive institution because it rejected my application. Yes, in spring of 1984, I applied as a transfer student. And at the time, you could send your essay in after the rest of the application. Well apparently the admissions board took issue with the content of my essay which was none because I never sent it. So today, President Sullivan, I would like to submit this address as my essay. And since this is a smart school, let me just toss in some SAT words: Syzygy, heterodox, Benedict Cumberbatch. Am I in?
Aside: [Responding to a comment from Teresa Sullivan]
Sullivan --- “Are you a Virginia resident?”
Colbert --- No, I am not a Virginia resident. [Laughter]
But perhaps the real reason that UVa is so great is that it trusts its students. You have the nation’s oldest student-run honor code. Say it with me, “On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received help on this assignment, so help me Adderall.”
But my favorite thing about UVa has got to be your secret societies. That’s sexy. You got the Z’s. You got, I think, the Illuminati and the Masons and Shields. I think some of you are members of Shields. But of course, the most secretive of all is the Seven Society. Nobody knows who’s in it. I’m not going to say that I’m a Seven. I’m not that I’m going to say that I’m not a Seven. I’m just going to say, “Ewige blumenkraften...Benedict Cumberbatchen.” Now I have to have all of you killed.
Now of course many of you, you already know this but for the uninitiated let me explain. When a member of the Seven dies, a wreath of black magnolia shaped like a seven appears at their grave. And the University chapel chimes at seven second intervals on the seventh dissonant chord at seven past the hours. All the groups’ donations contain the number seven. Like it’s $777,777.77 grant to fund the Mead Endowment. So it appears that the way you qualify for the Sevens is by having crippling OCD. And you know what’s good for that? Adderall.
Now what is not a secret is the list of distinguished UVa alums, which is as impressive as it was easy to copy and paste from Wikipedia. You’ve got Woodrow Wilson, Robert Kennedy, Janet Napolitano, Katie Couric, Tina Fey, the painter Georgia O’Keefe. I love her paintings. They remind me of something I rarely saw at Hampden-Sydney.
And of course, Edgar Allan Poe. Or as his roommates called him, “Creepy Eddie.” I don’t understand why Lenore couldn’t have just given him a pity date. Or just said, “I’m busy Saturday night.” She didn’t have to say “Nevermore.” Like most students, young Mr. Poe had a way of signaling to his roommates if he had a date over. He would hang a sock on the door or bury a still beating heart under the floorboards. Whichever he had handy.
But of course, the greatest figure associated with U.Va. is your founder, Thomas Jefferson. TJ. Prez Tommy Jef. The freckly anti-Federalist. Louisiana purchy. Old bible-slicer. Or as most Americans know him, the inventor of the six-inch wooden cipher wheel. In founding this great institution Jefferson wrote, we wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia a university on a plan so broad and liberal and modern as to be a temptation of the youth of other states to come a drink the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us. And according to Playboy, you have lived up to that vision.
But there’s one thing about Jefferson that I take issue with and it’s this: the scope of his beliefs was too broad. Jefferson’s hard to nail down. These days we like politicians to fit into neat categories. You are either a conservative or you are a liberal. But not Jefferson. He’s not like that. No matter what your political leanings you can find something he said that backs it up. If you don’t trust the financial industry, he said, “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If you’re suspicious of the federal overreach, he said, “When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” If you question religion, he wrote, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” And if you’re an advocate of fiscal austerity, he said, “I’m gonna pop some tags, only got $20 in my pocket, I’m I’m a-hunting, looking for a come-up, this…” [Holding his hand up to his ear for audience to complete the Macklemore lyrics] I’m not saying that on camera. That, of course, was in a letter to Secretary of State Ryan Lewis.
Also, on the one hand, in Jefferson’s public life as a founding father, we often see him as the embodiment of the white male patriarchy. But in his private life he was known for, shall we say, embracing diversity. Very affirmative in his actions. Am I right? I am right, they did the DNA tests. I’m right in that one. You know what, I’m not going to say any more on that. You’ve heard too much about that in the past. Instead, I’ll just tweet it. [Tweeting] Okay, there it goes.
Now, while that’s arriving on all of your phones right now, I’m going to take this opportunity to move on to the advice section of the speech. If you young folks will take advice from anyone. After all, I don’t know if you’ve seen it [holding up a recent issue of Time magazine] this week’s Time magazine called you lazy, entitled narcissists who are a part of the ME-ME-ME generation. So self-obsessed, tweeting your Vines, hashtagging your Spotifys, and snapchatting your YOLOS. Your generation needs everything to be about you. And that’s very upsetting to us baby boomers because self-absorption is kind of our thing. We’re the original ME generation. We made the last 50 years all about us. We took all the money. We soaked up all the government services. And we’ve deep-fried nearly everything in the ocean.
It may seem that all that’s left for you is unpaid internships, Monday-Tuesday mail delivery, and thanks to global warming, soon Semester at Sea will mean sailing the coast of Ohio. Now in our defense, in my generation’s defense, how were we supposed to know that you were coming? We thought it went like this: every successive generation of mankind and then US. Ta-da! Roll credits.
But while we may be leaving you with an economy with fewer job opportunities for the new graduate to slip into; while traditional paths may seem harder to find, that also means that you may learn sooner than most generations the hard lesson that you must always make the path for yourself. There is no secret society out there that will tap you on the shoulder one night and show you the way. Because the true secret is your life will not be defined by the society that we have left you. To paraphrase Robert Bolt, “Society has no more idea of what you are than you do because ultimately, it has only your brains to think with. Every generation must define itself. And so make the world that suits itself.”
So, if you must find your own path and we have left you no easy path then decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world that you want. And don’t worry if we don’t approve of your choices. In our benign self-absorption I believe we have given you a gift; a particular form of independence because you do not owe the previous generation anything. Thanks to us, you owe it to the Chinese.
So have the courage to follow the example of your founder, Thomas Jefferson, the greatest mind of that most daring generation, to create something new for yourselves and lay its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to you shall seem most likely to affect your safety and happiness. And know that though he wrote these words 237 years ago, that this generation, no less than his generation, has their own opportunity to recognize and seize that moment when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the bands that have connected them with another and assume among the powers of the earth your separate and equal station and for the support of this, mutually pledge to each other your lives, your fortune, and your sacred honor. If anyone can do this, it is the graduates of the university Jefferson founded. You are his intellectual heirs. In fact, some of you may be his actual heirs. We’re still testing the DNA. So thank you for this honor and congratulations to the Class of 2013. Wahoowah!