“I was told that the purpose of this speech was to be lighthearted,” Jay Katsir ’04 told those attending Class Day his senior year. “But when I looked at the Commencement schedule, I realized … most of the events had so much natural comic value, [like] the salutatorian’s address, delivered entirely in Aramaic with English subtitles.”
As funny as that Latin salutatory speech might be (Latin, Aramaic … it’s all Greek to most of us), student Class Day speeches long have been the favored time for laughs in the emotional roller coaster of a Princeton graduation.
The tradition of short, typically lighthearted speeches from two or three graduating seniors at Class Day began in 2001, when class president Justin Browne ’01 added them to the program, along with a “celebrity” guest speaker (this year, Katie Couric). “A lot of the [Commencement events] are just pomp and circumstance,” Browne said, “so we wanted to make Class Day speeches something fun that students get to do for themselves.”
Student speakers are selected based on auditions before Thomas Dunne, associate dean of undergraduate students; class government officers; and the student Class Day committee. Though it is “not a requirement” that the speeches be funny, Dunne said, the committee does tend to select those with comic value.
In fact, sometimes “comic value” has seemed an understatement: Katsir’s speech was so funny that that year’s guest speaker, Jon Stewart, instantly offered him a job. Other speeches have been organized around clever hooks: Patrick Cunningham ’05 wrote his speech as a letter to his high school self, while Mark Burr ’08 focused his address on the experience of the Commencement check-out fair (“Not a single clown, funnel cake, or Ferris wheel in sight – Commencement unfair!”)
This year, the two speakers were chosen for their ability to be both irreverent and nostalgic, Dunne said. In addition to joking about Dean’s Date all-nighters and revelry on the Street, Jackie Bello ’09 included in her speech a collection of adjectives that her friends and classmates used to describe their Princeton experiences: “privileged, unanticipated, priceless, sleep-deprived, broadening, ridiculous.”
Bello also recalled the experience of receiving her Princeton acceptance letter and looked forward to all the letters the graduates have yet to receive – from “Dear applicant” to “Dear alumnus,” “Dear Mom,” and “Dear Nobel Laureate.”
Soon after Class Day, Bello said she was surprised to hear from Charles Gibson ’65, anchor of ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson and a University trustee, who wanted a copy of her speech. Gibson said that he admired Bello’s speech for its structure.
“It was a good way of saying that no matter how important that acceptance letter may have been in the young lives of her classmates, there are equally important letters to come,” Gibson explained.
Jason Gilbert ’09, meanwhile, talked of his own love for Princeton: “With respect to President Obama, when I thought of leaving college forever, three words resounded in my heart: No, I Can’t.”
In another timely joke, Gilbert envisioned what that dreaded post-Princeton future might look like: “How many food stamps will I have to donate to get a dorm named after me?” he asked, noting that he was an English major. “I hope it’s not a lot of food stamps, because I like to eat.”
Gilbert, by the way, says he’d liked to go into comedy writing. Hear that, Mr. Stewart?