Colbert, De Niro and More: 6 of the Best Commencement Speech Zingers of 2015

College commencement season is in full swing, and graduates across the country are bracing themselves for the uncertainties of the world beyond the ivory tower. A 20-minute lecture from a celebrity is a pretty small consolation for those who are saddled with a lifetime of crushing student debt, or hemmed in by a lack of opportunity, or just dreading the prospect of moving back in with their parents, but this year’s commencement addresses went straight for the jugular with their unsparing assessments of life after college in “the greatest country on earth.” Below, we take a look at six of the best zingers from this year’s crop of speeches.


1. Stephen Colbert, Wake Forest University

Zinger: “In 1962, Wake Forest had the proud distinction of being the South’s first major private school to integrate. And [scans the crowd] yes, they’ve kept it up. All right.”

For anyone afraid Colbert would lose his edge after retiring his late-night alter-ego, this year’s speech to the (evidently predominantly white) graduating class of Wake Forest University in North Carolina dispelled any lingering doubts. Colbert was in fine form throughout, taking aim at the exorbitant tuitions of private colleges and even Wake Forest’s sacrosanct basketball team, but this line got the biggest laugh of the afternoon. As with all of Colbert’s best material, it works not just as comedy but as a trenchant piece of social commentary, highlighting the abysmal diversity in private colleges and universities and the lack of substantive progress since integration.

2. Robert De Niro, NYU Tisch School of the Arts  

Zinger: “Tisch graduates, you made it, and you’re fucked.”

It’s always refreshing to have a commencement speaker tell it like it is. None of that kumbaya BS, just a straightforward truth bomb. De Niro went on to list all the graduates who will have jobs upon leaving school: “The graduates from the college of nursing? They all have jobs. The graduates from the college of dentistry? Fully employed. The Leonard M. Stern School of Business graduates? They’re covered.” Those fortunate ones at least have a chance to repay the loans they may have taken out to attend exorbitantly priced NYU. Not the arts graduates. But De Niro’s blunt reality check was actually the preamble to an inspiring speech about pursuing passions in spite of obstacles. Still, there is a dishearteningly large grain of truth in De Niro’s opening statement. We’re turning into a nation of philistines, and only the already extremely rich can even think of pursuing the arts. Leave it to one of our finest living thespians to deliver that grim prognosis with impeccable timing.

3.  Maya expand=1] Rudolph, Tulane University

Zinger: “This is a great, great day for you. Except for those of you leaving college with any student loan debt.”

Massive student loan debt has become a perennial topic at commencements since it’s prominent in the mind of any graduate who is rightfully worried about the viability of his or her future. Still, the topic is generating more punchlines than political action. Rudolph, comedienne and SNL alum, brought an extra dose of caustic wit to Tulane’s commencement proceedings with this line, acknowledging how bittersweet it must be to receive a diploma from the same school that is thrusting you out into the world thousands of dollars in debt. (As an added bonus, check out the Tulane president’s reaction to Rudolph’s joke. His tentative laughter pretty much says it all.)

4. Salman expand=1] Rushdie, Emory University

Zinger: “Opinion polls regularly show that the most trusted news network in the USA is Fox News. The American appetite for bad fiction seems limitless.”

Rushdie is no stranger to controversy, and here, he puts his audacity and his literary reputation to good use, dismissing Fox News as nothing more than “bad fiction.” He even goes so far as to compare it to the works of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. Well, let’s see: they all promote retrograde, out-of-touch views of the world, offer no literary nourishment whatsoever, and have spawned a cult of braindead adherents. Rushdie’s right on the money.  

5. Michelle Obama, Tuskegee University

Zinger: “As potentially the first African-American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations, conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud or too angry or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”

It wasn't really a zinger, yet one of the first public expressions of frustration from the usually reticent First Lady couldn’t have come at a better time. With the all-out conservative assault on women’s economic and reproductive freedoms, and the head-scratching of the Wolf Blitzers of the world at the “unprecedented” racial unrest sweeping the nation, the First Lady’s words were both a stinging rebuke to the media and a rousing clarion call to all women and African Americans who find their aspirations being second-guessed by hostile reactionaries. 

6. Bill Nye, Rutgers University

Zinger:Everything you and I do affects everyone else on Earth because we all share the air. So that’s why our climate is changing. Denying this is in no one’s best interest. If you know any climate deniers, I’m sorry.”

The Science Guy is enjoying a much-deserved resurgence in fame, thanks to his tireless crusade against creationists and climate deniers. So it’s hardly surprising that his commencement speech centered on the terrifying threat climate change poses to this year’s graduating class and future generations. And much to the chagrin of the cartoon-villain Koch brothers and their puppets in Congress, he even managed to sneak in this little jab at climate deniers, which was met with roaring approbation from the crowd. 

(Dis)Honorable Mention: George W. Bush, Southern Methodist University

Zinger: “To those of you graduating with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And as I like to tell the C-students, you too can be president.”

It’s nice to know that after annihilating the economy with retrograde fiscal policies, plunging the Middle East into a Hobbesian bedlam, and bungling the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which cost thousands of lives, our former president can poke fun at himself, and with an inspiring message to fellow mediocre intellects to boot. Of course, Bush failed to mention that belonging to a modern political dynasty and having a biased Supreme Court to override the electoral process don’t hurt presidential chances, either. While we’re on the subject, has anyone taken a look at Jeb’s college transcripts yet?

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