In 1984, Jon Stewart graduated from The College of William & Mary. In 1999, he began hosting Comedy Central’s news program The Daily Show. In 2004, he returned to his alma mater, immeasurably more influential than he’d left it, to give its commencement address. Despite a dated crack or two — this was the heyday of George W. Bush, the President who arguably gave Stewart’s Daily Show persona both its foil and raison d’être — the speech’s core remains sound. You, Stewart tells the massed graduates, have the power to become the next “greatest generation,” though the chance appears especially clear and present because of how the last generation “broke” the world. “It just kind of got away from us,” he half-jokes, his grin compressed by seriousness. That admission follows a stream of self-deprecation hitting everything from his tendency toward profanity to his unusually large head as an undergraduate to how his presence onstage devalues William & Mary’s very reputation.
Whether or not you find the world broken, or whether or not you believe that a generation could break or fix it, Stewart still packs a number of worthwhile observations about the place into fifteen minutes. He perhaps delivers his most valuable words to these excited, anxious school-leavers when he contrasts the world to the academic environment they’ve just left: “There is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective.” Stewart communicates, as many commencement speakers try to but few do so clearly, that you can’t plan your way directly to success in life, whatever “success” might mean to you. He certainly didn’t. “If you had been to William and Mary while I was here and found out that I would be the commencement speaker 20 years later, you would be somewhat surprised,” he admits. “And probably somewhat angry.”