Robin Williams Uses His Stand-Up Comedy Genius to Deliver a 1983 Commencement Speech

Law school grad­u­ates always ask them­selves the same ques­tion: after all this, what have I learned? The com­mence­ment speak­er at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Hast­ings Col­lege of Law’s class of 1983 told them exact­ly what they’d learned. “You’ve learned to hear at twice the speed of sound, lis­ten­ing to the crim­i­nal law lec­tures of Amy Wil­son,” he said, to loud applause and laugh­ter. And “who will ever for­get pro­fes­sor Rudy Schlesinger? They say the man is a won­der­ful com­bi­na­tion of Wal­ter Bren­nan and Otto Pre­minger.” He then launch­es into not just an impres­sion of the pro­fes­sor call­ing on one of his stu­dents, but the stu­dent as well.

Few com­mence­ment speak­ers can keep their audi­ence in stitch­es, much less throw out a wide range of cul­tur­al ref­er­ences at the same time — and do all the voic­es. Robin Williams could, and while the stu­dents to whom he deliv­ered the ten-minute talk above receive it as a tour de force, the rest of us can study it as an exam­ple of how to craft a speech with your audi­ence in mind. Not only did the young San Fran­cis­can come­di­an, then just out of his career-mak­ing role on Mork & Mindy, quick­ly estab­lish his local cred­i­bil­i­ty (at one point refer­ring to the school as “UC Ten­der­loin”), he filled his remarks, swerv­ing from high to low and dialect to dialect, with jokes only a Hast­ings stu­dent would get.

“ ‘He spent sev­er­al days on cam­pus prepar­ing,’ remem­bers one alum­na,” accord­ing to the video’s notes, “and offered up flaw­less, hilar­i­ous par­o­dies of both stu­dents and fac­ul­ty mem­bers as part of a mes­sage about the val­ue of edu­ca­tion and the impor­tance of the legal sys­tem in soci­ety.” Hast­ings’ grad­u­at­ing class­es get to choose their own com­mence­ment speak­ers, and 1983’s chose Williams with vir­tu­al una­nim­i­ty. Know­ing his com­ic per­sona from tele­vi­sion, movies, and stand-up, they sure­ly knew he’d turn up and make them laugh. But how many could have imag­ined that he would so hand­i­ly demon­strate that knowl­edge is, indeed, pow­er? All of them can now rest assured that Williams, who died two years ago today, has become the most in-demand speak­er in that great San Fran­cis­co Civic Aud­to­ri­um in the sky.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Steve Mar­tin & Robin Williams Riff on Math, Physics, Ein­stein & Picas­so in a Heady Com­e­dy Rou­tine (2002)

Robin Williams & Bob­by McFer­rin Sing Fun Cov­er of The Bea­t­les’ “Come Togeth­er”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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