‘Don’t lose your humor’: Actor, comedian Jerry Seinfeld advocates for loving work, life in 2024 Commencement address

Actor and stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld spoke about the role of humor in leading a meaningful and successful life during his Commencement address to the Class of 2024.

President Vincent Price introduced Seinfeld as “a true cultural icon.” He noted that Seinfeld is best known for co-creating and starring in the long-running, critically acclaimed sitcom “Seinfeld,” in which he plays a fictionalized version of himself.

Seinfeld and his wife, Jessica Seinfeld, currently serve as national chairs of Duke’s Parents Committee, and as parents program chairs for the Duke Annual Fund. They are also parents to a current Duke student and a Duke alumna. 

Seinfeld received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree at Sunday’s ceremony alongside three other honorary degree recipients. Rose Marcario — former president, chief executive officer and board member of Patagonia, Inc. — was unable to attend the event to receive her honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters, and Price noted that the University “hope[s] to award her degree at a future Commencement.”

As Seinfeld took the stage to receive his honorary doctorate and deliver his address, a number of students began booing. Duke has faced criticism in recent weeks around the decision to host Seinfeld as the Commencement speaker in light of his public support for Israel amidst the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Seinfeld traveled to Tel Aviv, Israel in December to meet with the families of some of the hostages, later attributing the decision to visit to feeling “very close to the struggle of being Jewish in the world.” His wife recently sparked controversy for contributing $5,000 to help fund a pro-Israel counterprotest at the University of California, Los Angeles, where violence broke out at a pro-Palestinian encampment.

About 100 graduating students participated in a silent walk-out as Seinfeld’s address began in condemnation of the event. However, others began chanting “Jerry! Jerry!” to show their support.

Seinfeld opened his remarks by noting he was speaking “at the gracious invitation of President Price and the Duke Board of Trustees.”

“Because after spending four years at what is considered one of the finest institutions of higher education in the world, they apparently feel that perhaps some light entertainment will get you all to the final realization: ‘You know, I think I've really had enough of this place,’” Seinfeld joked.

He continued the punch line, adding that the decision to bring in a comedian was motivated by a desire to “bring the sophistication and erudition of the Duke experience down a couple notches.”

Nevertheless, Seinfeld commended the University’s ability to set its students up for success, referring to the institution as “the square handicap button that opens the Brodhead doors to your life.”

“Unless it’s those heavy wooden doors at the West Union — those will kill you,” he quickly clarified.

Seinfeld hoped to disabuse the graduates of the notion that they need to identify one thing to become their passion and pursue it for the rest of their lives. Instead, he advocated for working hard and finding “fascination” over passion.

Seinfeld then took a break from telling jokes to share his “three real keys to life” with the graduates: “bust your ass,” “pay attention” and “fall in love.”

He added that identifying the level of “torture you’re comfortable with” — the balance between loving the good parts and not minding the bad parts — would lead students down the “golden path to victory in life.”

Seinfeld took a brief moment to acknowledge the disapproval of graduates who walked out of the ceremony.

“A lot of you are saying, ‘I can’t believe they invited this guy.’ Too late!” he joked, garnering laughs and cheers from the audience.

He then shifted his remarks to discuss the controversial idea of “privilege,” which he referenced experiencing in his own life as a Jewish, aspiring comedian from New York. He added that he now joins the Class of 2024 in the “unbelievable privilege” of holding a degree from Duke.

He encouraged the graduates to let people take that uncomfortable and hard swallow after you tell them you went to Duke.

“We’re embarrassed about things we should be proud of, and proud of things we should be embarrassed about,” Seinfeld said. “… You didn’t fake your fabulous education — you earned it. Be proud of it.”

He went on to say that those in the audience who don’t have a clear plan for life after graduation are “the luckiest ones here.”

“Those of you that think you know what you want to do are very likely wrong and perhaps even overestimating your ability to do it,” Seinfeld said. “… The less secure and confident you feel in the direction, the more surprises and excitement you will have in store — that’s good.”

Seinfeld also spoke about the critical importance of maintaining space for humor in life.

While he qualified that he “totally admire[s] the ambitions of your generation to create a more just and inclusive society,” he noted that “the slightly uncomfortable awkward feeling of humor is okay.”

“I know all of you here are going to use all of your brains and muscle and soul to improve the world, and I know you’re going to do a bang-up job. And when you’re done, as I am now, I bet the world — because of you — will be a much better place,” Seinfeld said. “But it will still not make a whole hell of a lot of sense. It’ll be a better, different, but still pretty insane mess. And it is worth the sacrifice of educational discomfort to have some laughs.”

Seinfeld moved to conclude his speech, encouraging the graduates to remember humor, and to forget their education, degree and privilege since “[you all] would do fantastically without it.”

“That is the one thing at the end of your life you will not wish you did less of,” Seinfeld said. “Humor is the most powerful, most survival-essential quality you will ever have or need to navigate through the human experience.”

Correction: This article has been updated with a revision to the estimated number of graduates who participated in the walk-out. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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Zoe Kolenovsky | News Editor

Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and news editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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