Patton Oswalt Has Three Words for Grads: You Poor Bastards

Oswalt offers positivity, despite grads ‘about to enter a hellscape where you will have to fight for every scrap of your humanity and dignity’
Patton Oswalt Has Three Words for Grads: You Poor Bastards

The graduating seniors at William & Mary were likely expecting some laughs when they heard that alumnus Patton Oswalt (class of 1991, represent!) was going to be their commencement speaker. Oswalt delivers on the yuks, but his hearty congratulations are tinged with acid. In his ceremonial cap and gown, Oswalt addresses the students with a pained introduction: “To the graduating class of 2023, I say three words: you poor bastards.”

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“Don’t think of me as your commencement speaker,” Oswalt jokes. “Think of me as your shift manager at the Walmart.” If he was giving this same speech back in 2013, Oswalt says it would be the Walmart manager equivalent of a pep talk — clean up the spill near sporting goods, let’s set up the Halloween display. Easy, manageable tasks expected of any employee. But it’s not 2013, and Oswalt knows that a “go get ‘em” pep talk won’t work anymore. The environment in 2023 is as if a tornado has ripped the roof off the store while an 18-wheeler has overturned and set loose a truckful of rabid, white nationalist possums in the gun department. 

“Your concerns as you stumble out into reality tomorrow are massive,” Oswalt tells the graduates. “Democracy is crumbling. Truth is up for grabs. The planet's trying to kill us and loneliness is driving everyone insane.” The comedian paused for a moment to let the new reality sink in. “Let's hear it for the nihilists out there, huh?” 

When Oswalt graduated, he “basically breezed into a world full of trivia and silliness and fun.” The new grads, on the other hand, “are about to enter a hellscape where you will have to fight for every scrap of your humanity and dignity.” At this point, Oswalt stops to check his notes. In the margins, he wrote, “Say something positive here.”

And he does! After all, he says, “Im a comedian; Ill get out of this hole. Watch this. This will be amazing.” And so, he looks the grads in the eye and informs them, “You do not have a choice but to be anything but extraordinary.”

“It's been truly amazing to see how your generation has rebelled against every bad habit of mine and every generation that came before me,” Oswalt continues. “Everything that we let calcify, you have kicked against and demolished. You’ve rejected that whole 24/7, no-days-off grind. You’ve rejected apathy. You’ve rejected ignoring your mental health because ‘you’ve got to muscle through it no matter what.’ You’ve rejected alienation and cruelty. You’ve rejected not trying to include everyone. You’ve rejected not looking out for each other. And those are hard things to reject because accepting them sometimes makes life way easier.” 

As for advice? Oswalt has some for the 4.0 students from the 2.8’s like himself — i.e., the daydreamers, the confused, the seekers. “Obviously you should work hard and play hard, but you should also wander easy, all right? And by the way, in the spirit of my 2.8 GPA, the last two pages of my speech I finished an hour before I gave this.” 

Everything extraordinary in Oswalt’s life was a result of wandering, he explains. He leaves the new grads with a goofy anecdote from Blade Runner because he's Patton Oswalt, then sends them off into the future: “Be human in all of its bedlam and beauty and madness and mercy for as long as you can and in any way you can. It’s time to live.”

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