One of the hardest things to teach, at least I have found, is “funny.” Watching my fair share of stand-up comedy and having taught satire to English classes, I know how hard comedians and satirists work to perfect their craft (and if you don’t, listen to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast), and I also know that when you are trying to introduce something like satire–wtih all of its nuances–it often falls flat because sometimes students do not get hte jokes or even take the satire at face value, and if you have to explain said jokes, they aren’t really that funny anymore.
Such is the case with Mary Schmich’s 1997 op-ed for The Chicago Tribune “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.” Schmich, her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, offers her audience a send-up of the standard commencement address. She begins by essentially stating her purpose, saying:
inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who’d rather be Rollerblading. Most of us, alas, will never be invited to sow our words of wisdom among an audience of caps and gowns, but there’s no reason we can’t entertain ourselves by composing a Guide to Life for Graduates. I encourage anyone over 26 to try this and thank you for indulging my attempt …
She then indulges herself, offering advice that is sometimes witty but meant to reflect the trite sort of advice given to students who are sweating out on football fields in multi-colored polyester, waiting to go to the first post-graduation party. The one thing she insists that rings true is this piece of advice: wear sunscreen. Now, if this seems familiar to you as a reader, then you are probably familiar with the spoken-word song with accompanying music video, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen),” which was produced by Australian movie director Baz Lurhman, which adapts all but the beginning of Schmich’s piece into a fake graduation speech for the class of 1999. As he doles out advice, there is text, photography, and video animation that while it predates YouTube by about four years, still would probably go viral today because it uses elements not unfamiliar to today’s YouTube amateurs. In fact, this video kind of stems from Schmick’s piece going viral without her realizing it.
Around the time of the song’s release in spring 1999, the text of “Everybody’s Free” sans intro and author identity was making the rounds on the Internet via the old standby of an email forward (this was probably around the time when those things were still effective and not what your mother and only your mother seems to send on to her entire address book every chance she gets), and some versions of it attributed the text to Kurt Vonnegut–specifically, a speech he supposedly gave at MIT. I’m not sure who attributed this to Vonnegut or why that person thought he gave the speech at MIT; perhaps he or she thought it was kooky enough for a Vonnegut speech.
To his credit, Luhrman, who first read the piece via its viral incarnation, took the time to get permission from Schmick to use her text and she gets a songwriting credit on his album. Furthermore, the video reflects her tongue-in-cheek tone. The images are meant to make you chuckle, and the framing around the advice to wear sunscreen is obviously meant to be a silly overall point. And I’m sure that a number of teenagers got the joke, too, when they saw it on MTV (and this is another historical note: in 1999, MTV was still showing videos).
My students obviously got it when we read the piece and watched the video, and as I was covering it, I got the impression that they understood it for what it was intended–a chuckle over a morning cup of coffee and not much more. And the lesson I was using it in was a “one and done” anwyay: we were in the midst of a creative project where they could write and perform anything they wanted (I called it “open mic night”) and this was among a few selections that we read and watched as a way to illustrate how performance can affect a piece. It was also a good tool for a quick and dirty introduction to satire itself–because it’s not only obvious that Schmich is making fun of graduation speakers (and adults who dispense advice), but it’s relevant. My students may have even been to a few graduation ceremonies already but they more than likely will wind up listening to some adult dispense pretty useless advice at a ceremony at one point in their lives. So yeah, we can all laugh at it (“It’s funny because it’s true”).
As an interesting personal postscript to this, I am a card-carrying member of the class of 1999, having graduated from Loyola College in Maryland (now Loyola University Maryland) that May. Our commencement address was given by NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell, who did what too many people tend to do with stuff liket his–pass the joke on. I don’t remember too much of her actual speech, but I do remember her opening witha mention of the song/video (which was climbing the charts) and closing with the same “wear sunscreen” joke. Unfortunately, being that there is a law of diminishing returns on jokes, it was met with a half-chuckle and some quiet groans fromt he mostly hungover crowd. Mitchell obviously got the joke, although I am sure that there were plenty who didn’t get it because satire, like intelligence, can often be just wasted on the dumb.