2019 Class Day keynote address by Ellie Kemper
--Remarks as delivered--
Thank you! Congratulations, you guys. Is this on?
Yay, thank you. Thank you for that wonderful introduction. Congratulations to everyone here today. And good morning to the Class of 2019, your parents, your grandparents, President Eisgruber, the faculty, and to my husband, whom I forced to come here with me today so that immediately after my speech, he can tell me what a good speech it was.
Thank you, Michael.
Thank you so much to the senior class for inviting me to be your speaker. You could have asked anyone in the world, and the fact that you chose me, a modest New York actress, to address you today tells me that the university wasn't going to spring for airfare.
Got here by car. Fifty years ago, Princeton University began admitting women for the first time. Yay. Yes.
And 17 years ago, I graduated from this university. Now I know what you're thinking -- how could she have graduated 17 whole years ago when she looks like she's only 17 years old right now? What is this, a scam? No. It's not a scam. I know, it's hard to believe. But this face whose complexion was once described as gift wrap tissue paper-thin by my own dermatologist, and these hands, weathered, and cracked, and not infrequently compared to those of an arctic whalers, nabbed a diploma nearly two decades ago. Yes, 17 years ago, I sat exactly where you're sitting right now, smiling, and nodding, and secretly farting after a late night at Hoagie Haven.
While trying to cast suspicion onto the guy next to me by holding my nose and shouting, pee-u, what's that smell coming from the guy next to me? I sat captivated by the powerful words of my own Class Day speaker, former Secretary of State James A. Baker. Though he was, of course, addressing our entire senior class, it certainly felt as though the secretary were speaking only and directly to me. Believe me, I was surprised as anyone.
Who could have imagined that a 72-year-old former Marine captain had such valuable insight for a 22-year-old improv comedian whose greatest accomplishment, up until that point, was mastering an improv game called Party Quirks? A game where each player is at a party, and had something wrong with him, some sort of quirk. And the host had to guess what quirk it was. I was pretty good at playing any guest with any quirk, and also at playing the host.
Thank you. A very accomplished woman. From that day on, inspired by this unexpected and extraordinary bond between Secretary Baker and me, a bond, which he would later describe as half mutual, I vowed to recreate this connection with a future Princeton graduate. So perhaps my experience as an improv comedian will inspire one of you today to go into international diplomacy.
As an actress, I have chosen a career that is defined by unpredictability. This is difficult for me because I'm a person who likes to stick to a plan. So when I go from playing a ditzy receptionist on "The Office" to jumping into the challenge of playing a ditzy bridesmaid in "Bridesmaids," to making a sharp right turn to playing a ditzy Kimmy Schmidt on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," I have to learn to be adaptable.
Let me give you an example that might strike closer to home. In an earlier draft of the speech, I had an entire section on wabolis. For those of you who don't know, a waboli is a stromboli that used to be sold by the Wawa Market down by the train station. The waboli section of my speech contained all sorts of hilarious riffs on, if I were a waboli, which one would I be? Or if life were a waboli, what would be the filling? Stuff like that.
You can imagine my dismay, of course, when I went online to confirm just to be sure that wabolis are still as popular now as they were when I was a student here, only to learn that the wabolis were discontinued in 2011. What in the hell, I said out loud to myself, since I was both alone when I made the online discovery and because I'd been waiting all day for an opportunity to swear.
I had to scrap that entire section of the speech, which really only left me with a section on James Baker. But even in that section, I had to scrap the hilarious riffs on, if James Baker were all waboli, which kind would he be?
What is my point in bringing up the Wawa and its ever-changing menu? To assure the parents here today that your children will retain some of what they learned here.
My other point is that things never go quite according to your plan. Maybe you've heard the saying, want to make God laugh? Make a plan. Now I'm not entirely convinced it's simply making a plan would make God laugh. I'd like to think God has a slightly more nuanced sense of humor than that. But I would like to tell you that yes, life is always changing, and we have to adjust accordingly.
Don't be afraid to change your course. What might seem to make perfect sense to you now might not be the only path to fulfillment. Because life is going to throw you some curveballs, OK? It doesn't take a Princeton degree to figure that one out. My 2-year-old already knows that. You think he planned on schlepping two hours on a train this morning to hear his sweaty mom reminisce about wabolis and to make a fart joke on the 50th anniversary of women being admitted to Princeton?
No, he did not. But guess what, he's already thrown three tantrums in protest. But boy, should you see how amazing he is at volleyball and sailing. Incoming dean of admissions Karen Richardson, have I got some doctored photos to show you. My 2-year-old is going to go here, guys.
Now if you're anything like me, you are constantly looking for a hand moisturizer that will finally, once and for all, heal your dry, cracked hands. You're also always making schedules, plans, outlines and anything that can make you feel in control in a world in which frankly, we only have a certain amount of control.
After I graduated from Princeton, a centuries-old, world-renowned university whose graduates typically go on to pursue medicine, politics, or their 71-year-old former English professors -- sorry, I read it, too. Yes, we all -- even the old people know about that.
I decided to tackle improvisational comedy in New York City. This seemed reasonable because it had been such a good fit for me as an undergraduate. I'd been a member of the campus improv group, Quipfire!, for three years, and I loved it. Yay, Quipfire! Out of college however, I quickly learned that just being good at something does not guarantee success. Nonetheless, my grandpa was weirdly proud of me. Ellie, we've always wanted to have a stand-up comedian in the family. Bless. Also, liar! What family has always wanted to have a stand-up comedian? It's like, the most undependable career, ever.
Also, I wasn't doing stand-up comedy. That would have held a little bit more promise and more money. No, instead, I was doing a strange multi-person performance art, where you couldn't really book paying gigs, and which required a preperformance explanation. "Everything you're about to see here is made up as we go along." I feel like most great things don't need to be explained before you do them. Like attending med school or marrying your 71-year-old former English professor.
Anyway, when your classmates and your friends are beginning promising careers in law and education, and you're working at a bakery called Crumbs while tutoring on the side, your ego takes a blow. I tried to structure those days as best as I could. I woke up at the same time every morning. I made sure to exercise. I bought Dinty Moore only when it was on sale. And I brought home day-old cupcakes for my two roommates.
The whole time I was doing this, I was also taking improv classes, submitting humor pieces to a website called McSweeney's, and performing with any ragtag student improv groups I could. I wrote two-person shows with my fellow Princeton grad, Scott Eckert. And we invited agents to come to those shows, but no agents ever came. I felt like I was making very little progress.
And one night, I was out with some Princeton friends and their co-workers. One guy, a recent Dartmouth grad, asked me what I did for a living. He happened to be in finance.
I told him I was trying to be an actress. This guy, a man I had met, oh, five minutes earlier said, wow, that's ridiculous. If I have a daughter, I'll never let her be an actress. Ladies and gentlemen, that man is now my husband.
No, I'm kidding.
I punched that man right in the kisser!
If you were alive in the '30s, you'd understand that expression. All right. The point is, I was having a very difficult time getting started and I felt like I was encountering roadblocks from all sides. So one morning, feeling particularly low, discouraged and a tad bloated from clearance-shelf Dinty Moore soup, I sent an email to my good friend and former Quipfire! teammate, Tommy Dewey. Tommy had been a year ahead of me at Princeton, and he was a working actor in L.A. by that point. But I felt ready to quit.
The title of the email, because I'm not dramatic, was "Despair."
Here are some excerpts. Tommy, I am really blue. Seriously, I am. Well, I'm not. I mean, I'm generally pretty happy. But I'm very frustrated with what I'm trying to do. I look at the women on "Saturday Night Live" and I think, I can do that. Incidentally -- side note -- I would audition for "Saturday Night Live" about five years after that, and not get a part. So in fact, I cannot do that.
Back to the email. I find out what these women did before getting that job, and they worked at YMCAs, or they were waitresses, or they did improv. And I, of course, understand that I have to be patient, but I feel discouraged. I'm really glum right now. And on Halloween of all days, maybe I'll dress up as Sorrowful the Sad for Halloween. Thank you for listening, Tommy. Sadly, Frowns McGloomy.
And here is what Tommy Dewey wrote back. Dear Frowns, first of all, I'm really glad that you wrote. People can go screw themselves. If you must provide an answer, tell them you're an actress in New York. Things aren't going gangbusters yet, but you're looking forward to when they do.
You've chosen a very difficult career path, but it's a great one. And all great jobs are really hard to get. And stop hanging out with people that make you feel bad about what you're doing. Chin up, kid. Let's talk soon. He's a good guy.
Tommy's words revived me. I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and I sharpened my focus. After many more setbacks, and many more small successes, and even more failures, I began to enjoy some steady progress. Then I suffered more setbacks, then another job. And so on.
I bring up this exchange between Tommy and me because I think that more important than any career accomplishment is your ability and inclination to help one -- to help one another. That might sound trite, but what graduation speech doesn't? Without support of friends and family, I might have gone to prison for punching too many Dartmouth guys in the kisser.
And this was back in the early 2000s before social media as we now know it. In the age of Instagram, you might sometimes see your classmates as your rivals, your competitors. You might feel pressure to have the best life ever. I mean, I joined Instagram last fall and every time I see Larry King yukking it up with Kristin Cavallari, I can't help but feel I'm on the outside looking in.
But you don't have to go down that hole. And yes, that is what she said.
Yep, don't have to go down that hole. None of this means anything if you don't have one another's backs. If you want your friend to succeed, then I think you're a successful person. Nurture -- yes -- nurture the friendships that you've made here, because they will sustain you for a lifetime. My college roommate remains my best friend to this day, which is awkward because my husband's always telling me I'm his best friend, and I think, oh, my best friend went to Princeton.
No, I love you. I do -- I do.
And now the moment everyone has been waiting for, my inevitable quoting of Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers spoke at Dartmouth commencement in 2002, and he put this idea much more thoughtfully than I ever could. "It's not the honors, and the prizes, and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted. And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you."
After that, Fred Rogers drove into the mosh pit that had developed in front of the stage. But right up until then, the speech had been pretty on brand. Also, "Won't You Be My Neighbor" should have won the Oscar for Best Documentary. I know -- yes, I know that the "Free Solo" lady went to Princeton. But come on, anyone can climb a rock without a harness. Only one person can ever be Mr. Rogers.
I wanted to include his words because we are all driven, competitive, intelligent people. We wouldn't be here if we weren't. But being sensational is not the same thing as being happy. Trust me on this, I've lived longer than you. Not that much longer, I'm still incredibly young. But long enough to tell you that trying to be a kind, thoughtful, hardworking person will ultimately make you much happier than trying to be an impressive person.
So Class of 2019, go be nice to one ano -- I have to get this one right. Class of 2019, go be nice to one another. And please, repair the world that all the old people here and I have destroyed. I'm serious. Do it for my son. Do it for his sailing team.
Please. Congratulations to all of you and good luck.
Yay! Thank you. Thank you very much.