Franken, who rose to fame as a writer and actor on “Saturday Night Live” before becoming a bestselling author, on-air political satirist and Grammy-winning comic, said he was thrilled to be selected.
“To me it’s a big deal, it’s a big place,” Franken said. “Do I get to wear a robe?”
Past Class Day speakers have included Coretta Scott King in 1968, actor Rodney Dangerfield in 1978 and Mother Teresa in 1982. In 2000, comic Conan C. O’Brien ’85 delivered the address.
Last year rock superstar Bono spoke to an audience of about 30,000—and some students hoped for a non-Harvard celebrity this year as well.
“I’m disappointed it’s not Madonna,” said Dorothy A. Fortenberry ’02. “In addition to being an advocate for all sorts of great causes, she’s, well, Madonna. I sort of hoped that after Bono, Class Day would be an institutionalized way of recognizing pop stars.”
The list of favored candidates included Madonna, as well as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, among others.
Franken was not on the initial list of candidates, but members of the Class Day Committee said he was not a last resort.
“A lot of the input we got from the class was that people wanted comedy,” said Gerard P. Hammond ’02, the first class marshal.
The search for a speaker began in November, when the Class Day Committee, made up of class marshals and other seniors, drew up a long list of celebrities and asked each of their classmates to vote for five candidates.
The committee then drew up a final list of candidates based on their potential availability, their celebrity, their connections to the University and their appeal as a speaker.
Those involved with the selection process said the quality of the speech was more important than the speaker’s fame.
“We got lucky with Al because he’s pretty famous, and he’ll definitely give a quality speech,” said Vedra D. Chandler ’02, a member of the committee.
A number of circumstances helped last year’s senior class land Bono—including the star’s connection to Professor of Economics Jeffrey D. Sachs ’76 and his band’s tour schedule, which placed him in Boston in time for Class Day.
Class marshals would not go into detail about this year’s search process, but they said Franken’s connection to Harvard as an alum and parent of an undergraduate helped their cause.
“We went into this realizing that most people on the list are extremely busy and have hectic schedules,” said Chad G. Callaghan ’02, first class vice president.
Robby J. Bershow ’02, who has an autographed poster of Franken on his bedroom wall, said he was elated by the choice.
“I really wasn’t a big fan of the other candidates, and I’m glad they went with someone funny for Class Day,” Bershow said.
Incidentally, graduation advice is the subject of Franken’s latest book, Oh, the Things I Know!: A Guide to Success, or Failing That, Happiness, which will be released soon. “It’s a good thing,” he joked, “because [the speech] dovetails well with my book promotion.”
As a political satirist, Franken has appeared on countless talk shows and is a regular guest on ABC’s “Politically Incorrect.” And at his own Class Day in 1973, the young comedian delivered the Ivy Speech, traditionally a humorous speech by a student, before playwright Arthur Miller delivered the keynote address.
Franken said that this time around he might keep things simple and deliver the exact same speech.
“No, I’m joking,” he said. “I’m just going to thank everybody for my honorary doctorate.”
Franken expects to dole out a healthy dose of graduation wisdom.
“I’ll give some good advice,” he said, “but I’ll also give a little bad advice, just to keep people on their toes, so they don’t lose those valuable critical skills they learned at Harvard.”