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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

O'Brien Will Be Class Day Speaker

By Erica B. Levy, Crimson Staff Writer

When the Class of 2000 officially celebrates the beginning of its 100-day countdown until graduation at the Hong Kong restaurant tonight, the location of the party will be especially significant: it was the favorite hangout of Conan C. O'Brien '85, who class officials confirmed will be this year's Class Day speaker.

O'Brien, who is the host of NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," will return to his alma mater to speak at the June 7 event--15 years after he himself graduated from Harvard.

His selection as speaker comes after more than three months of discussions by the Class Day speaker committee, composed of class marshals and House representatives.

In comparison to other Class Day predecessors over the past five years--former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wy.), former Mass. Gov. William F. Weld '66, Quincy Jones, Tom Brokaw and Hank Aaron--O'Brien is a significantly younger and less traditional choice.

But some students involved in the selection process said his youthfulness is what made his candidacy for speaker so intriguing.

"There's no reason that the speaker has to be a gray haired man," said Justin M. Krebs '00, first class marshal and co-chair of the selection committee. "Not too long ago [O'Brien] was an undergrad who didn't know what he was going to do with himself--he went off with the same mixture of hope and apprehension that most of us probably have."

In addition, students said they expect O'Brien's work as a comedian will allow him to offer Harvard undergraduates a different kind of inspirational message than older, generally more serious speakers.

At O'Brien's own class day ceremony in 1985, for example, then- New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo touched on tax reform issues in his address to the senior class.

Sameera Fazili '00, another class marshal and co-chair of the class day speaker committee, said O'Brien was chosen in part because the group hoped he could set a lighter tone for the day--in contrast to the more "somber" nature of Commencement.

"We wanted someone who could speak to us and relate to us, but also entertain." Fazili said. "It's supposed to be a day of fun for our class."

Fazili said that she thought students would appreciate O'Brien's balance between the professional and student worlds.

"He's at this great stage--he's very much an adult and amidst the adults, but in his work he relates to today's youth," Fazili said.

Despite his youthfulness, the comedian's career has blossomed quickly.

O'Brien is on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 funniest people alive. His late-night talk and variety show has been nominated for an Emmy award every year since 1996.

Before coming to NBC, O'Brien worked in Los Angeles for the HBO network's "Not Necessarily the News."

In 1988 he began working as a writer for NBC's "Saturday Night Live," after which time he wrote for and produced "The Simpsons" on the Fox television network.

When he was an undergraduate, O'Brien served for two terms as president of the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.

He told The Crimson earlier this year that if the Lampoon did not directly teach him how to be "funny," it at least allowed people--however ironically--to take him seriously in the business.

According to O'Brien's publicist, the comedian will stay true to his days in improvisational comedy and will not plan too far ahead for his speech.

"He's not planning to prepare anything until the night before when he's going to pull an all-nighter," NBC's Marc Liepis said yesterday.

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