USC Commencement Address
Delivered by Will Ferrell
May 12, 2017
“WE ARE SC! WE ARE SC!”
It is such an honor for me to deliver this year’s commencement address to the University of Southern California’s graduating class of 2017! I would like to say thank you graduates for that warm welcome and I would also like to apologize to all the parents who are sitting there saying, “Will Ferrell? Why Will Ferrell? I hate Will Ferrell….I hate him…I hate his movies…. He’s gross. Although he’s much better looking in person. Has he lost weight?”
By the way, that discussion is happening out there right now.
Today, I am also receiving an honorary doctorate, for which I would like to give my thanks to President Max Nikias. I also would like to take the time to recognize my esteemed fellow honorary doctorates. Suzanne Dworak-Peck, a great humanitarian and visionary in the field of social work. Dr. Gary Michelson, who’s innovation as one of the country’s leading orthopedic spinal surgeons has revolutionized this field. Mark Ridley Thomas, a pillar of local and state government for the last 25 years. David Ho, who’s work in AIDS research led him to be Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1996. And one of the great actors of our time, Academy Award winning actress Dame Helen Mirren….and then there’s me.
Will Ferrell, who’s achievements include running naked through the city of Montrose in Old School. Running around in my underwear and racing helmet thinking that I’m on fire as Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. Running around in elf tights and eating gum off the ground. I think my fellow doctorates would agree, based on our achievements, we are all on equal footing.
I want the university to know that I do not take this prestigious honor lightly. I’ve already instructed my wife and children that from this point on, they have to address me as Doctor Ferrell, there will be no exceptions. Especially at our children’s various school functions and when we opening Christmas presents. “Yay, we got the new X-box! Thank you Dad…I mean, Doctor Ferrell”.
I’ve been informed that I can now perform minimally invasive surgery, at any time or any place, even if people don’t want it. In fact, I am legally obligated to perform minor surgery at the end of today’s ceremonies or my doctor’s degree will be revoked. So if anyone has a sore tooth that needs to be removed or wants hernia surgery, please meet me at the “surgery center”.
And by “surgery center” I mean a windowless van I have parked over by the Coliseum. The next time I’m flying and they ask if there is a doctor on board, I can now confidently leap to my feet and scream, “I’m a doctor!! What can I do! Yes, no problem…I can absolutely deliver that baby!” Hopefully it will be on United Airlines and I will be immediately subdued and dragged off the aircraft, which we will all know, will be recorded on someone’s iphone and put on Youtube. You will hear me say, “Call Max Nikias, President of USC! He told me I’m a doctor!!” Rest assured President Nikias, I will use my powers wisely.
Although this is the first commencement address I have delivered to a university, this is not my first commencement speech. The institutions to which I have spoken at include Bryman School of Nursing, DeVry Technical School, Debbie Dootson School of Trucking, University of Phoenix, Hollywood DJ academy and Trump University. I’m still waiting to get paid from Trump University, in fact, it turns out I owe Trump University money, for the honor to speak at Trump University.
You are the graduating Class of 2017 and by every statistical analysis, you are collectively considered the strongest class ever to graduate from this university. All of you excelled in various courses of study….all of you, except for four students and you know exactly who you are. If you would care to stand and reveal yourself that would be great.
It is incredibly surreal, one might even say unbelievable, that I get to deliver this address to you. As a freshman, in the fall of 1986, if you were to come up to me and say that in the year 2017 you will be delivering the commencement address for USC, I would have hugged you…with tears in my eyes. I then would have asked this future person, “Does that mean I graduated? Yes you did,” says this person from the future. “What else can you tell me about the future?” Future person turns to me and says, “I can tell you that you will become one of the most famous alumni of this university, mentioned in the same breath of John Wayne, Neil Armstrong and Rob Kardashian. You will be referenced in rap songs from Kanye West to Lil’ Wayne to Drake. Nas will say: “Get me real bonkers like Will Ferrell on cat tranquilizer.”
Is that it?” I would ask. “Yes that sums it up, except on other thing, there will be something called Shake Shack and it will start in New York and then come to L.A. and people will wait hours for a milkshake, that is definitely good but not that good that you should wait two hours.” So yes, if I had heard all of that I would have been incredulous at best. It turns out I did graduate, in 1990, with a degree in Sports Information….yes you heard me, Sports Information. A program so difficult, so arduous, that they discontinued the major 8 years after I left. Those of us with Sports Information degrees are an elite group. We are like the Navy Seals of USC graduates. There are very few of us and there was a high drop-out rate.
So I graduate and immediately get a job right out of college working for ESPN right? Wrong. No I move right back home. Back to the mean streets of Irvine, California. Pretty great success story, right? Yes I moved back home, for a solid two years, I might add. I was lucky, actually. Lucky that I had a very supportive and understanding mother, who let me, move back home. She recognized that while I had an interest in pursuing sportscasting, my gut was telling me that I really wanted to pursue something else. That something else was comedy. For you see, the seeds for this journey were planted right here on this campus. This campus was sort of a theatre or testing lab.
I was always trying to make my friends laugh whenever I could find a moment. I had work study job at the humanities audio-visual department that would allow me to take off from time to time. And so I would literally leave my job if I knew friends were attending class close by and crash a lecture while in character.
My good buddy Emil told me one day that I should crash his thematic options literature class one day. I cobbled together a janitor’s outfit, complete with work gloves, safety goggles, a dangling lit cigarette and a bucket full of cleaning supplies. I then proceeded to walk into the class, interrupting the lecture informing the professor that I had been sent from physical plant to clean up a student’s vomit.
What Emil had neglected to tell me was that the professor of his class was Ronald Gottesman who co-edited the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Needless to say a big time guy. A month after visiting my friend’s class as the janitor, I was walking though campus when someone grabbed me by the shoulder. It was Ron Gottesman. I thought for sure he was going to tell me to never do that again.
Instead what he told me was, that he loved my barging in on his class and thought it was one of the funniest things he had ever seen and would I please do it again. So on invitation from Professor Gottesman, I would barge in on his lecture class, from time to time, as the guy from physical plant coming by to check on things and the professor would joyfully play along. One time I got my hands on a power drill and just stood outside the class room door, operating the drill. Vmmmm! Vmmmm! For a good minute. Unbeknownst to me, Professor Gottesman was wondering aloud, to his class, if we were about to get a visit from our “physical plant guy”.
I then walked in, as if on cue and the whole class erupted in laughter. After leaving, Professor Gottesman then weaved the surprise visit into his lecture on Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass.
Moments like these encouraged me to think that maybe I was funny to whole groups of people who didn’t know me. And this wonderful professor had no idea how his encouragement of me, to come and interrupt his class no less, was enough to give myself permission to be silly and weird. My senior year I would discover a comedy and improve troup called the Groundlings located on Melrose in Hollywood.
This was the theatre company and school that gave starts to Lorraine Newman, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovits, Pee Wee Herman, Conan O’Brien and Lisa Kudrow to name a few. Later it would become my home, where I would meet the likes of Chris Kattan, Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, Will Forte and Kristen Wiig. I went to one of their shows during the spring semester of senior year and in fact, got pulled up on stage during an audience participation sketch. I was so afraid and awestruck at what the actors were doing, that I didn’t utter a word. Even in this moment of abject fear and total failure, I found it thrilling to be on that stage.
I knew then that I wanted to be a comedic actor. Starting in the Fall of 1991, for the next 3 ½ years, I was taking classes and performing in various shows at the Groundlings and around LA. I was even trying my hand at stand-up comedy. Not great stand-up, mind you but enough material to get myself up in front of strangers. I would work the phones to invite all my SC friends to places like Nino’s Italian restaurant in Long Beach, San Juan Depot in San Juan Capistrano and the Cannery in Newport Beach….and those members of my Trojan family would always show up. My stand-up act was based mostly on material derived from watching old episodes of Star Trek.
My opening joke was to sing the opening theme to Star Trek. Not even funny, just weird. But I didn’t care. I was just trying to throw as many darts at the dart board hoping that one would eventually stick. But don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t extremely confident that I would succeed during this time period. There were many a night where I would sit down to a meal of spaghetti topped with mustard, with only twenty dollars in my checking account and I would think to myself, “Oh well, I can always be a substitute school teacher.” And yes I was afraid, you’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid.
I was afraid to write this speech and now I’m just realizing how many people are watching me right now and it’s scary!! Can you please look away while I deliver the rest of this speech?? But my fear of failure never approached, in magnitude, my fear of “what if?” “What if”, I never tried at all. By the spring of 1995 producers from Saturday Night Live had come to see the current show at the Groundlings theatre. After two harrowing auditions, two meetings with executive producer Lorne Micheals, which took place over the course of six weeks, I got the word. I was hired to the cast of SNL for 95-96 season.
I couldn’t believe it and even though I went on to enjoy seven seasons on the show, it was a rocky beginning for me. After my first show one review referred to me as “the most annoying newcomer of the new cast”. Someone showed this to me and I promptly put it on the wall of my office, reminding myself that to some people, I will be “annoying,” some people will not think I’m funny….and that’s ok.
One woman wrote to me and said she hated my portrayal of George W. Bush. It was mean spirited, not funny and besides “you have a fat face”.
I wrote her back and said that “she was entitled to her opinion but that my job as a comedian, especially on a show like Saturday Night Live, was to hold up a mirror to our political leaders and engage from time to time, in satirical reflection. As for my fat face, you are one hundred percent right and I’m trying to work on that. Please don’t hesitate to write me again if you feel like I’ve lost some weight in my face.”
The venerable television critic for the Washington Post, Tom Shales, came up to me during my last season of the show. He told me congratulations on my time at the show and then he apologized for things he had written about me in some of his early reviews of my work.
I paused for a second before I spoke and then said, “How dare you, you son-of-a-bitch!” I could tell this startled him and then I told him I was kidding and that I had never read any of his reviews. It was true, I hadn’t read his reviews, in fact I didn’t read any reviews because once again, I was too busy throwing darts at the dart board. All the while facing my fears.
Even as I left SNL, none of the studios were willing to take a chance on me as a comedy star. It took us three years of shopping Anchorman around before anyone would make it. When I left SNL all I really had was a movie called Old School that wouldn’t be released for another year, and a sub-par script that needed a huge re-write about a man raised by elves at the north pole. Even now I still lose out on parts that I want so desperately. My most painful example was losing the role of Queen Elizabeth, in the film The Queen. Apparently it came down to two actors, myself and Helen Mirren. The rest is history. Dame Helen Mirren! You stole my Oscar!
Now one may look at me as having great success, which I have, in the strictest sense of the word and don’t get me wrong I love what I do and feel so fortunate to get to entertain people. But to me, the definition of success is my 16 ½ year marriage to my beautiful and talented wife Viveca. Succes are my three amazing sons Magnus 13, Mattias, 10 and Axel, age 7. Success to me is my involvement in the charity Cancer for College which gives college scholarships to cancer survivors…started by my great friend and SC alum Craig Pollard, a two-time cancer survivor, who thought of the charity while we were fraternity brothers at the Delt house up on West Adams. Craig was also one of the members of my Trojan family, sitting front and center at my bad stand up shows…cheering me on.
No matter how cliché it may sound, you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself.
Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence and that’s what Viv and I try to teach our boys….Hey Mattias get your hands off of Axel! Right now, I can see everything from up here!
To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you would like to do with your life, congratulations. For most of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, that’s ok. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of results…trust your gut……keep throwing darts at the dart board…..don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.
Class of 2017, I just want you to know will never be alone on whatever path you may choose. And if you do have a moment where you feel a little down just think of the support you have from this great Trojan family and imagine me, literally picture my face, singing this song gently into your ear.
I WOULD ONLY BE IN, YOUR WAY
SO I’LL GO….
BUT I KNOW…
I’LL THINK OF YOU…
EVERYSTEP OF, THE WAY
AND I……WILL ALWAYS, LOVE YOU
WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU
AND I……WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU
WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU…LOVE YOU!!!
Thank you and Fight on!