For nearly 30 years, Conan O'Brien has basked in the spotlight of American late-night television. Known for his spontaneous hosting style, O'Brien began his career off-screen as a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. When he was tapped to replace David Letterman as the host of Late Night in 1993, he was virtually unknown to audiences. Although it took a while for his first talk show to pick up steam, the towering redhead eventually became a juggernaut in the entertainment industry, adored by millions who tuned in nightly to catch his charming blend of awkward and self-deprecating humor. Aside from his late-night gigs, the award-winning comedian has hosted such events as the Emmy Awards and Christmas in Washington. In 2010 he was part of the TIME 100 Most Influential People.
Before the multi-million-dollar contracts, O'Brien cut his comedy teeth at Harvard University, enrolling in 1981. Starting his freshman year, O'Brien snagged a position as a writer for the prestigious Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, which allowed for his sense of humor to develop. During his junior and senior years, he was even elected president of the magazine for an unprecedented two consecutive terms in 1983–84. In addition, O'Brien kept busy by playing drums for a band called Bad Clams, participated in campus pranks of questionable legality, and even crossed swords with fellow student Jeff Zucker, who would later be his boss at NBC. By all accounts, O'Brien became well known around campus and greatly enjoyed the fame. A top student his whole life, O'Brien graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1985 with a B.A. in American History.
Like many celebrities, O'Brien eventually returned to his alma mater, explaining that he was reluctant to show up on campus again because the last time he did so it “cost me $110,000." Luckily though, he made it in time to deliver the 2000 commencement speech for the University. Naturally, his remarks were filled with his trademark self-effacing humor, but the real gems came out in the second half of his speech, where he urged graduates to follow in his path and leave the "cocoon of Harvard" in order to achieve success in their adult lives. Likewise, O'Brien brought a similar message in 2016 when he returned for an entertaining chat with the school’s President, urging Harvard students to resist the temptation to take the safest route.
But earlier this year the comedian and musician was singing a different tune to Harvard students. "Stay in your cocoon! Stay! The cocoon. Stay in it! I had no idea about the virus!"
O'Brien was perfect for the 2020 commencement speech, humorously acknowledging the extenuating circumstances that led to Harvard's first-ever virtual graduation ceremony. Delivered from a podium set up in his backyard, O'Brien’s words captured the joy, poignancy, and humor of the day. He finally broke from his comedic tone to address the theme of resilience, a theme which has played a big part for not only the 2020 graduates, but also O'Brien, and his historic University which has been handing out degrees for nearly 400 years.