What does Mindy Kaling have to say to Harvard Law School’s Class of 2014? Not much, she admits: “Mindy Kaling? Why did they ask her? She’s just a pretty Hollywood starlet,” the comedian and creator of “The Mindy Project” joked. Kaling barely got to the point of her commencement speech, and when she did, it wasn’t that revolutionary.
Nevertheless, watching her ramble about asparagus and “weird virgins” (stay tuned) was a rare joy. Perhaps graduates could have done with some practical advice, but in all honesty, the only commencement speakers I remember are the ones who made me laugh, and I know I’m not the only one.
Three cheers to a speaker who got a bunch of lawyers to take themselves less seriously.
First off, Kaling lampooned Ivy League college culture, a culture many of the audience members were likely familiar with. Having graduated from Dartmouth College in 2001, she brought some of her knowledge of Dartmouth frat culture to her speech:
“Even though I have no idea why I was asked to speak here today, I’ve prepared a speech very carefully, the way that any good Dartmouth-educated graduate would. I drank a 40 of Jägermeister, then I called my dad to see if he would get me out of it—he’s here today, he could not get me out of it—so I tried to hire a college freshman to write it for me in exchange for a $200 gift card to Newbury Comics. That didn’t work out. Finally, seeing that I absolutely had to do this and couldn’t get out of it, I rolled up my sleeves, sat down at my computer, and tried to buy a commencement address off of MovingCommencementSpeeches.com. My credit card was declined, so I had to write the thing myself, and here we are today.”
The audience was a little quiet during this part. Did Kaling go too far? Did she hit too close to home? Maybe she just went too far off-topic, because when she returned to the question of what she was doing at Harvard in the first place, she got more laughs. Kaling was sharing the stage with Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York; she pointed out that while Bharara has prosecuted the Times Square bomber, in the next season of “The Mindy Project,” her character might get a puppy. “Clearly, Harvard wanted you to see the full range of what India can produce here,” she deadpanned.
Kaling got even more laughs when she began making fun of the graduates instead of herself, which says great things about Harvard Law’s newest graduating class:
“And now, with this diploma in hand, most of you will go on to the noblest of pursuits, like helping a cable company acquire a telecom company. You will defend BP from birds. You will spend hours arguing that the well water was contaminated well before the fracking occurred. One of you will sort out the details of my pre-nup. A dozen of you will help me with my acrimonious divorce.”
After those cutting remarks, she threw the graduates a bone by talking about how much better they are than the graduates of the other Harvard schools. The business school? Crooks. The divinity school? “Weird virgins” (there it is). The policy school? People who are boring at dinner parties. And the medical school? Nerdy Indians. “I can say that, by the way,” Kaling quickly said. “Hey, hey, Preet can say that. The rest of you—you are out of line. That is racial.”
Before Kaling finally reached the point of her speech, she went off the rails a few more times. She joked that there are three bunches of asparagus on the Harvard crest because “asparagus is the tallest and the proudest of the vegetables.” She said that the Harvard name will follow the graduates everywhere, even if they run for office and try to act normal: “You won’t be able to buy a pickup truck rusty enough to distance yourself from this place.” She even touched on the Harvard Law vs. Yale Law rivalry. “From where I stand, from an outsider’s perspective, here’s the truth: You are all nerds,” she said. “All of you.”
So what was her point, exactly? It’s couched in a classic (and touching) story of immigration. Kaling’s parents immigrated from India, and “their romance with this country is more romantic than any romantic comedy that I could ever write,” she said. They love America because they believed in its inherent fairness; they saw it as a place where anyone could succeed. “That fairness that my family and I have come to take for granted and all Americans take for granted is in many ways resting on your shoulders to uphold,” Kaling told the graduates.
Of course, she followed the comment with a backhanded compliment: “Your dedication to meticulous reading is a tedium that I find just so admirable,” she said. “You take words and you turn them into the infrastructure that keeps our world stable.”
Essentially, Kaling made the point dozens of commencement speakers have already made: Harvard Law School graduates have the power to make a difference, and she hopes this batch will use that power responsibly. “People are going to listen to what you say, whether you’re good or evil—and that probably scares you, because some of you look really young, and I’m afraid a couple of you are probably evil,” she said. “That’s just the odds.”
The full speech: