Trojans, including Will Ferrell, honor Class of 2017: more than 17,000 graduates
Will Ferrell and Trojans honor Class of 2017: more than 17,000 graduates
USC’s 134th commencement ceremony on Friday, May 12, drew more than 60,000 people to the University Park Campus, where a very famous and well regarded USC alum took to the stage. From treading the sidelines of USC football games to returning for campus charity events like Cancer for College, Will Ferrell ’90 has a long history with the university.
Still, no one knew what character Ferrell would bring to his commencement speech, given his often animated caricatures over the years across all platforms of entertainment. Would he channel President George W. Bush or Chicago Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray?
As Ferrell began his speech, the answer became clear: He was unapologetically being himself, Will Ferrell, comedy star, husband, father, philanthropist and proud member of the Trojan family.
Ferrell attributed his success to “trying to throw as many darts at the dartboard hoping one would eventually stick.”
The Trojan family’s 17,144 new graduates represent more than 115 countries across the globe.
While Ferrell, the Mark Twain Prize winner, recounted a great American comedy journey rooted at USC, President C.L. Max Nikias emphasized to those graduating of their own duty exhibit Trojan Family values across the globe, like so many that graduated before them.
“The sun never sets on the Trojan Family. This is the greatest and most dedicated family of its kind: hundreds of thousands of women and men who serve as leaders from Southern California to San Francisco, from Tokyo to Hong Kong, from New York to London to Mumbai and beyond,” Nikias said.
From lectures to SNL
Ferrell graduated from USC with a degree in sports information (“a program so difficult, so arduous, that they discontinued the major eight years after I left”). He credited his experience at USC with nurturing his early comedy instincts.
“For you see, the seeds for this journey were planted right here on this campus. This campus was a theatre, a testing lab, if you will,” Ferrell said.
Ronald Gottesman, a longtime USC English professor who co-edited the first two volumes of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, had an important role in developing Ferrell’s talent while at USC.
“My good buddy Emil … told me one day that I should crash his Thematic Options literature class. So I cobbled together a janitor’s outfit, complete with work gloves, safety goggles, a dangling, lit cigarette and a bucket full of cleaning supplies.
“And then I proceeded to walk into the class, interrupting the lecture, informing the professor that I had just been sent from physical plant to clean up a student’s vomit.”
Despite his serious subject matter, Gottesman loved the act and asked Ferrell to come back in character several times, fostering Ferrell’s first recurring role years before Craig, the student cheerleader on Saturday Night Live. In one lecture, Gottesman even found a way to relate Ferrell’s antics back to Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass.
Ferrell said, “Moments like these encouraged me to think that maybe I was funny to whole groups of people who didn’t know me. And this wonderful professor had no idea how his encouragement of me, to come and interrupt his class no less, was enough to give myself permission to be silly and weird.”
Talent, luck and the Trojan Family
Ferrell’s journey after USC, like the fictional Ron Burgundy’s own tale, wasn’t without its adversity. The first two years after college, Ferrell moved back to his childhood home in Irvine. He focused on stand-up comedy and improv theatre. However, the Trojan family always gave him the encouragement to fight on.
“I would work the phones to invite all my ’SC friends to places like Nino’s Italian Restaurant in Long Beach, the San Juan Depot in San Juan Capistrano and The Cannery in Newport Beach. And those members of my Trojan Family would always show up.”
My fear of failure never approached, in magnitude, my fear of ‘what if.’ ‘What if’ I never tried at all?
Among those comedy venues was Los Angeles’ famed Groundlings Theatre, where Ferrell would be discovered by Saturday Night Live producers in 1995.
The world then got to know Will Ferrell, but even then, he would be challenged, when critics first doubted his performance in Saturday Night Live and then as major film actor. Ferrell pushed and proved them wrong by continuing to take heartfelt chances and he encouraged the USC Class of 2017 to do the same.
He advised, “For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s OK. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard, don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”
Ferrell capped his own campus valedictory by urging the 2017 class to “Fight On!” complete with a completely Ferrellian rendition of I Will Always Love You (minus the cowbell), which definitely moved the honored graduates, their family, friends and other gathered guests.
Honorary degree recipients
Ferrell was one of six attendees presented with honorary doctorates from the university. The others were:
- Suzanne Dworak-Peck, the social work pioneer and philanthropist whose 2016 gift endowed the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
- David D. Ho, founding director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center.
- Biomedical pioneer Gary Michelson, whose 2014 gift created the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience.
- Mark Ridley-Thomas PhD ’89, chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
- Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren, whom Ferrell claimed narrowly beat him out for her Oscar-winning role in 2006’s The Queen.
“As a group, they represent excellence in a broad variety of endeavors, but they share a passionate commitment to bettering the lives of others through their work,” Nikias said. “Their collective contributions stand as an inspiration to us all.”