Graduation season is upon us. University graduates are completing a crazy four years – including two against the backdrop of a global pandemic – and many can’t wait to sit in their seats, waiting for
Graduation season is upon us. University graduates are completing a crazy four years – including two against the backdrop of a global pandemic – and many can’t wait to sit in their seats, waiting for their names to be announced and receiving words of wisdom from someone remarkable in a rite of passage known as the Commencement Speech. This week, for example, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has been busy giving commencement speeches for Bunker Hill Community College and UMass Boston.
One of the most famous opening speeches in recent years was by actor and screenwriter Charlie Day of the popular show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” The 2014 commencement speech he gave at his alma mater, Merrimack College, went viral for his wit and life lessons. The following is a slightly edited transcript of a conversation with Day on GBH Morning edition.
Paris Alston: It makes you wonder, what does it take to write a good opening speech? One that doesn’t make the crowd yawn, or fall asleep, or – worst – get up and walk out. For an answer to that question, my co-host Jeremy Siegel, reached out to someone whose keynote speech has stood the test of time.
[cut to 2014 speech recording]
Charlie Day: I sat in these uncomfortable chairs. I dressed like some sort of medieval pastry chef. And I, too, was desperately hoping that my hangover would pass.
Alton: Of course, it’s Charlie Day from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Her hysterical and encouraging 2014 commencement speech at her alma mater, Merrimack College in North Andover, has more than two and a half million views on YouTube. Jeremy found out how it happened.
Jeremy Siegel: OK cool. So to get started, what was your process for creating a start address?
Day: I had had breakfast here in Los Angeles with some folks from Merrimack College, and they asked if I could give a start address. And I sort of quickly said, “Yeah, sure, that sounds like fun.” And then reality started to set in on me where I thought, “Oh my God, wait a second, there are going to be people with their families with them. I have to think of something to say. And I really didn’t know how to approach it.
So I opened up one of my screenwriting apps — it’s called Final Draft, you know something I’d write an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” with — and I wrote the character “ Charlie”. And I wrote, like, “Charlie is on the catwalk.” And then I started writing the speech little by little.
Headquarters : So you were doing it in your character, as Charlie?
Day: More or less in character, yeah, Charlie Day character. And so I just wrote it like it was dialogue for a movie or something.
And then I thought, too – I’m not a comedian, but I guess there was some expectation that I would make the students laugh, right? So I thought, “OK, I need to start with some jokes, then I need to work on some meaningful material and see how it goes.
[cut to recording]
Merrimack Announcer: I now have the honor to introduce this year’s keynote speaker, Mr. Charlie Day.
Day, in speech: You come today from an excellent school. Alumni have become CEOs, politicians, professional athletes. However, this year you will receive wisdom, life lessons, knowledge from a man who made his living pretending to eat cat food.
“I wrote the character ‘Charlie.’ And I wrote, like, ‘Charlie is on the podium.’ And then I started writing the speech little by little.
Siegel, speaking over the recording: You mentioned watching videos of past addresses – like you said, Conan O’Brien, Steve Jobs.
Day, in speech: I posted on YouTube opening speeches given by Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, Steve Jobs. It was a terrible idea.
Headquarters : And you mentioned in your speech the comments they received on YouTube.
Day, in speech: And YouTube comments. Oh, the world of sarcastic comments we live in.
Headquarters : Saying you don’t give – a word I won’t say on public radio – what they say in the comments of yours.
Day, in speech: I don’t give a [bleeped expletive].
Headquarters : Have you read any comments on your speech since?
Day, today: Oh, I sure think so. Yeah, I think after the fact. And it kind of surprised me, I didn’t expect the speech to reach as wide an audience as it did. And then, you know, I couldn’t help but take a look, I think, at the time.
But it’s interesting, I have no desire to do it again. It kinda feels like walking a tightrope through skyscrapers. I’m like, “OK, I did it. I got to the other side. I don’t need to go back to this.”
Headquarters : Well, I was reading some of the comments recently. Some of the best are, “Look up to Steve Jobs, and Conan is awesome. But I think Charlie Day’s speech was the best opening speech I’ve seen. Another person wrote, “That’s crazy awesome! I wish Charlie Day gave my college commencement speech! The most voted one, which is probably my favorite, is “the actual written speech was just symbols and drawings” – which, for people who don’t know, it’s a reference to “It’s always sunny in Philadelphia”.
[cut to “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” clip]
Glenn Howerton, as Dennis Reynolds: It looks weird. What do you guys think about this?
Kaitlin Olson as Dee Reynolds: It looks like a drawing of a pair of jeans, a plus sign, and a chicken.
Day, as Charlie Kelly: Go on! All right, guys, see what I’m talking about! “Illiteracy.” You know, what does that word mean?!
Day, today: It would have been impressive, if it were true. Well, you know, those are flattering comments and good company to keep. I think when people think of me, they often think, “Steve Jobs, you know. Just that they’re like, one in the same.
Headquarters : Well, I mean, thinking back to when you gave that speech – and even further before. You know, I mean, you gave that speech in 2014, you mentioned back then that “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” was one of the longest-running comedies on television. That was nearly a decade ago. You always leave. I mean, even thinking back to Merrimack, when you were in college, how do you think you feel about where you are right now?
Day: You know, I’m – I love what I can do, and I’m grateful that I could do it. At the same time, you know, I still have a part of me that’s like, “Okay, but let’s go and achieve more. I have a lot more that I want to do and things that I feel like I haven’t accomplished that I could or should. So, you know, it’s that balance.
But I’m sure when I was at Merrimack College, if you had told me that all of this would have happened, I would have been really happy.
[cut to recording]
Day, in speech: Now listen. You can’t let fear of failure or fear of comparison or fear of judgment stop you from doing what will make you great. You cannot succeed without this risk of failure. You cannot make your voice heard without risking being criticized. And you can’t love without risking loss.
Headquarters : You gave that address we were talking about back in 2014. The kids at school have obviously been through a lot since then. What would be your message to graduate students today?
Day: Are you asking me to give an impromptu graduation speech?
Headquarters : Yeah. Yeah. After saying you never want to do one again.
Day: I mean, I didn’t want to do it, and I spent a lot of time writing it. Oh, man.
I feel so much sympathy for these children. I have a son and he is about to finish fourth grade. And that [pandemic] started for him in the second year. And I really feel how much of his childhood he dealt with that – in the shutdowns and the hiding and Zoom and everything.
But look, what are you gonna do? You kind of have to keep going. And for kids today, I would say don’t get up and keep going. Look, you could have grown up in the Great Depression. You could have grown up in World War II. You could have been sent to Vietnam. You are facing the pandemic. So it’s your burden to bear.
But this stuff isn’t going to stop. I mean, ever since I graduated from college, I was living in New York on 9/11. I lived through this pandemic. You know, things happen. You see things. It’s just a part of life. So I would just say, just keep going and keep going – because there will be dark times, but there will be plenty of bright times. And, you know, you just have to keep going.
Headquarters : Well, Charlie, you said in your talk that you wanted to go through Dr. Charlie Day.
[cut to recording]
Day: And although I recognize that “Dr. Charlie Day” sounds like a kind of club DJ, I assure you, I intend to wear this title from now on.
Headquarters : I’ll address you by your full title here: Dr. Charlie Day, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Day: Thank you for watching “It’s Sunny” and for being a fan and enjoying the talk. Listen, doing all of this is the gift that keeps on being given, so thank you very much.