Will Ferrell is an American actor and comedian who rose to fame after appearing on Saturday Night Live in 1995. Below is a transcript of his speech that she delivered at the 2017 University of Southern California Commencement.
For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay.
As a freshman in the fall of 1986, if you were to come up to me and say that in the year 2017 you, Will Ferrell, will be delivering the commencement address for USC, I would have hugged you with tears in my eyes.
I then would have asked this person from the future, ‘Does that mean I graduated?’
It turns out I did graduate in 1990 with a degree in Sports Information. A program so difficult, so arduous, that they discontinued the major eight years after I left. Those of us with Sports Information degrees are an elite group. We are like the Navy Seals of USC graduates. There are very few of us and there was a high dropout rate.
So I graduate and I immediately get a job right out of college working for ESPN, right? Wrong. No, I moved right back home. Pretty great success story, right? Yeah, I moved back home for a solid two years, I might add. And I was lucky, actually. Lucky that I had a very supportive and understanding mother, who let me move back home. And she recognized that while I had an interest in pursuing sportscasting, my gut was telling me that I really wanted to pursue something else. And that something else was comedy.
My good buddy Emil, who’s also here today – Emil, in the house – Emil told me one day that I should crash his Thematic Options literature class one day. 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’d just been sent from Physical Plant to clean up a student’s vomit. True story.
What Emil neglected to tell me was that the professor of his class was Ronald Gottesman, a professor who co-edited the Norton Anthology of American literature. Needless to say a big-time guy. A month after visiting my friend’s class as a janitor, I was walking through the campus when someone grabbed me by the shoulder and it was Ron Gottesman. I thought for sure he was going to tell me to never do that again. Instead what he told me was that he loved my barging in on his class and that he thought it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen and would I please do it again? So on invitation from Professor Gottesman I would barge in on his lecture class from time to time as the guy from Physical Plant coming by to check on things, and the professor would joyfully play along.
Moments like these encouraged me to think 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.
Starting in the fall of 1991, for the next three and a half years I was taking classes and performing in various shows at the Groundlings and around Los Angeles. I was even trying my hand at stand-up comedy. Not great stand-up, mind you, but enough material to get myself up in front of strangers.
I was just trying to throw as many darts at the dart board, hoping that one would eventually stick. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t extremely confident that I would succeed during this time period, and after moving back to LA there were many a night where in my LA apartment, I would sit down to a meal of spaghetti topped with mustard, with only $20 in my checking account and I would think to myself, ‘Oh well I can always be a substitute schoolteacher.’ And yes, I was afraid. You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech. And now, I’m just realizing how many people are watching me right now, and it’s scary. Can you please look away while I deliver the rest of the speech?
But my fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what if. What if I never tried at all?
By the spring of 1995 producers from Saturday Night Live had come to see the current show at the Groundlings. After two harrowing auditions and two meetings with executive producer Lorne Michaels, which all took place over the course of six weeks, I got the word I was hired to the cast of Saturday Night Live for the ‘95-‘96 season.
I couldn’t believe it. And even though I went on to enjoy seven seasons on the show, it was rocky beginning for me.
Even as I left SNL, none of the studios were willing to take a chance on me as a comedy star.
Even now I still lose out on parts that I want so desperately. My most painful example was losing the role of Queen Elizabeth in the film The Queen. Apparently it came down to two actors, myself and Helen Mirren. The rest is history. Dame Helen Mirren, you stole my Oscar!
For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. 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.