Commencement 2006 - Mike O'Malley

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Today, all across this country, Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners are addressing graduates like you. 

UNH brings you the guy from “Guts.”  

Your lives will only improve from this moment.

My trusty referee Mo was going to join me, but she’s giving the commencement speech at Oxford.   

For those of you who haven’t heard, "Guts" was a sports show I hosted on Nickelodeon during the previous millennium.   I am not ashamed of this.  When you stand in the shadow of a presence as powerful as the Aggrocrag, you cannot deny your allegiance to it. 

I am honored and grateful that the commencement committee chose me to be here with you.  After the news sank in, I called President Hart and asked her why she thought that instead of the usual pomp and prestige that a poet or astronaut might bring to this event, why I topped the list.  She said:  "Mike, we live in a time where hope often seems to be in short supply.  Our committee concluded that if a guy with a 2.89 gpa can make his dreams come true, anybody can."

Class of 2006!   I don’t care what your GPA is.   Graduating is an incredible achievement.   Congratulations. 

I want to begin by addressing those of you who actually were expecting a poet or astronaut.  Or maybe someone whose yearnings, you felt ran more in step with your own.   I can tell you that 18 years ago my yearnings were not that different than yours.

18 years ago, I sat in this stadium trying to conjure up a viable future for myself.   18 years ago, I wanted to make a contribution to the goodness of the world rather than subtract from it.

18 years ago, I wanted to find work that gave my life meaning and someone to love with whom I’d share triumphs and struggles.  18 years ago, I wanted to stay close with the friends who had filled my college years with depth and vitality, because 18 years ago I was swamped with the sadness that comes from the realization that once I left Durham I would no longer be a five minute walk from twenty of my closest friends. 

I loved my time at UNH.   UNH is where I learned to stand on my own two feet, and there is nowhere I feel more comfortable than standing before you here today.  I was one of you.

People ask me why I became an actor and the truth is that once you get cut from the baseball team you need another angle to get women to pay attention.  What better way than getting cast in a play, where they’ve paid to watch you speak funny dialogue on an elevated, brightly lit platform?   What better way, you say?  I know…be good looking and rich.  But I had neither of those weapons in my arsenal.

If I became an actor to meet women, it was not why I chose it as a major.  I chose it as a major because at UNH I found a theater department that encouraged people, with professors like Gay Nardone, Carol Burns, Gil Davenport and John Edwards who forced me to try different things.  I augmented that with classes in writing after Professors Tom Newkirk and Bruce Ballenger taught me to learn how to express myself and that writing is its own worthwhile pursuit.   I owe these people so much.   They are the reason I am here.    I honor them today.

There are others at UNH I have to thank.   One professor in the sociology department taught me that I should not have a career in math.   He taught me that I shouldn’t leave a Gen Ed requirement Social Stats class for Tuesdays at 8 a.m. in a senior year where my primary focus was staying out late, and sleeping in.  His name escapes me but I thank him for bringing my 3.0 down to the 2.89.  18 years later, I take responsibility for that C minus.  Seriously, thanks, thanks a lot.  Seriously.   I hope you got tenure.

With the encouragement of my parents and the professors I had here at the U, I decided it would be an actor’s life for me.

So, 18 years ago, I moved to New York City.  Before leaving, for my graduation present, my grandmother gave me a St. Jude necklace.  For those of you who don’t know, St. Jude is a Catholic Saint whose particular area of intercessional expertise is in the very general category called “Lost Causes.” 

Now, when you’re moving to New York to pursue a one in a million shot, the most inspiring way to leave NH is not wearing a medal that says it could be a Lost Cause.  But my grandmother knew that despite my good intentions, I would need to rely on more than just hope and enthusiasm. 

You will too.   No matter what you do.   You will need your family, your friends, and your faith—no matter how you define those things.   If those things are askew, work on making them right.   Please. 

On that note, I would like to talk to you about two things that have defined my life.

Failure and friendship.

First, a disclaimer:

I realize that—on the ladder of definitions of the word struggle, that the struggle of the actor is the bottom rung.  Unlike very real struggles that are put upon people because of their race, color, or creed, the struggle of the creative person is a struggle in which I invited myself to partake.   After being considerably warned by many people of the difficulties I might encounter, I still pursued it. 

Armed with my St. Jude necklace, I went to New York, studied at an acting program for two years, worked as a typewriter salesman, and then toiled, writing plays, auditioning, doing commercials, trying to get jobs, hosting kids shows, being "The Rick," all the while pining for my chance at a title shot, my own prime time series that I created where I could prove to people that there was more to me than had yet met their eyes.   Eleven years later, I got my shot.

The show was called "The Mike O’Malley Show."  I spent an incredible amount of time on the title.  All through the summer of 1999 it was promoted like it was going to be the next link in NBC’s hit sitcom legacy.     My name and face were everywhere.

In September of that year, it premiered to horrible reviews, worse ratings and was cancelled after two episodes.   The velocity with which this happened was devastating.  The muscularity that went into the criticism, mind altering.  

I learned the hard way that if you offer yourself up for people to have an opinion of you, they will have an opinion.   If you make yourself so noticeable that people will be asked their opinion of you, they will respond in the manner in which they see fit.   I was schooled in the ways of the printed word with swift and lasting effects.  I learned that Freedom of Speech doesn’t guarantee kindness.  Or encourage it.  I had thought if I opened myself up and shared my passions, that there would be reciprocity and appreciation from everyone.  But that’s a rah-rah theater company mindset that doesn’t apply in a business where ad rates determine who wins.  And this time it wasn’t going to be me.

The cancellation was front-page news on New Hampshire’s biggest newspaper, The Union Leader.  Front Page, in the middle of the paper!   Local boy makes bad.

It was a fall on your face flat-out bomb of a show that I had spent my twenties building toward and there I was at 32, thinking I was out of the business.  I had put all my chips on the table and failed.  I was crushed, ashamed, bitter.  I wanted to leave the country, forget who I was, give up.

I still can’t help but wonder how things would have gone had I named it American Idol.

I stand here, on the other side of that debacle, for one reason.  My friends.  I include my family in that category, because I have made my family my friends, and I tell you that my devotion to my friendships and the devotion that they in turn have shown me is the only reason I was able to continue.   My friends circled the wagons, flew into town to lift my spirits, sent me messages of hope that reminded me of their love, and their loyalty gave me perspective as I was swirling.

I had since the day I left UNH made it my mission to tend to my friendships, and to say that it paid off is to turn something sacred into a commodity.  Still, it paid off.

With the help of my wife Lisa and my friends, and St. Jude, who still hung around my neck,  I dusted myself off, and five months later I got cast in "Yes, dear."  We made six seasons of the show and shot 122 episodes.   I appreciated every second of it.  

Since "Yes, dear" has begun, my wife and I have been blessed with two children, Fiona and Seamus.

Every inch of our house is safety proofed for them.  Edges of tables have pads to prevent injury, sockets have been plugged with plastic to prevent electrocution, staircases gated, cabinets locked, furniture braced, food cut into un-choke-able sizes. 

And still my children stumble and fall, scraping faces and knees.   They throw items not created for throwing at one another.   They pick up small stones not meant for swallowing and stick them in their mouth faster than The Flash.   It is a miracle that anyone makes it past the age of two.

When you look at your parents, and see the lines in their faces and the grey in their hair, what you are seeing is their love for you.  Thank them today.  Whether you understand them or not, whether they "get" you or don’t, whether they put you through school or didn’t, they got you past the age of two.  And that alone is worth your gratitude.

They love you, I'm sure, like I love my children.  And their excitement about your achievement today comes with, no doubt, their concerns for your continued well-being.

I love my children so much I wish I could give them what a friend of mine calls a "Helmet for life."  An indestructible, wearable item that will protect them from the pain they will experience not from Life but from people. 

For the pain they will inflict on other people.   For the pains they will absorb.   For the mean things people will say to them, and the mean things they will say to others.   I wish for them a life helmet, and I wish the same for you, but I don't know how to make one.

So since I cannot outfit you with a life helmet, I will, in a time honored tradition, pass along some advice you will forget by tonight's first cold beverage.  I'm sure you'll be able to read this online when you have time.   These are some lessons I've learned from the many blunders I’ve made in my own life. 

First off, if you really mess something up, begin referring to it as a blunder.   It will immediately lower your self-loathing quotient.

Find a way to minimize cruelty.   I'm not telling you what kind of cruelty to rally against, because cruelty manifests itself in many ways.   You may not think you can make an impact.   You can.   If the only initial gesture you can make is to refrain from this day forward from muttering unkind remarks about others, then you’re ahead of the majority of us.

In all matters of the heart, try, try, try to be kind.  Relationships are mysterious, joyous and difficult, but if you carelessly mess them up you will cause yourself and others more pain than necessary.  Try not to dent them deliberately.   Be careful with one another.   Life will serve you up with enough brand name concerns, please don't try to create your own from scratch. 

Before uttering the phrase "I’m following my heart," watch a medical show where they perform open-heart surgery.  You know how much has to happen before they even get into the heart?    They have to put you under, numb you up, then slice your skin, peel it back, cut through tissue and muscle and then after making sure all that is stabilized they get out a saw and hack through your ribs.  That's what it takes to get into the heart.  It should take at least as much effort to discover what you think you're feeling before you follow it.

Do not let life pass you by without learning how to give a good toast, or acknowledge a great shared moment.  Mark occasions.  Try as often as you can to give tribute to your friends, to stay in contact, to be at their momentous occasions.  Drive across the country and go into debt to go to their weddings, fly across the country and be with them when their parents pass away. 

You cannot make any new old friends. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself."   He obviously didn’t get out very much.  There's plenty to fear.

The world, as you know, can be a sinister place.   You hold in your pockets devices that can give you up-to-the-second bad news from around the world.  It's the kind of bad news that can stagger the stoutest among us.  

So how do you have hope when such despair constantly hovers? 

I have no idea.  Other than this:

Be a good person.  It would be trite advice if it weren’t so difficult to do.  Be a good person.   You know what that means.   And if you don't, run it by your conscience.   It will seldom, if ever, confuse you.   Be a good person, be a good person, be a good person.  It is so so so so hard to do all the time.  

Try as much as you can in all your endeavors to be one of the greatest human beings you have ever met.  Because you have it in you.  To be the shirt-off-your-back kind of person.  If you want an example, go to Nashua and look up my mother.  She is an inspiration.  And her example has been my cross to bear.   All that goodness in one person.    It's downright maddening.  My father's no slouch in that department either.   But you too, are made up of it!   Ask yourself what you can do to add to the sum total of goodness.   And then do it.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelieus wrote in his meditations:

To what, then, must we aspire?  This and this alone:  the just thought, the unselfish action the tongue that utters no falsehood…"

Of course after he meditated on this, he probably fed his pet lions a couple of Christians…so do with that what you will.  
Here’s the good news.   College was not the best four years of your life.  They were the best four years of you life so far.  

In the days and years ahead, there will be people you will fall in love with, great friends you have yet to meet, children you will have that will bring you immeasurable joy, and goals that you will set that will provide you with purpose. 

You will stand on your own two feet and together with your friends you will try to fix what is wrong with this world.  And you will move the ball down the field in the direction of goodness.

You have living to do, friends to keep, problems to solve and blunders to turn into advice.  And if ever you find yourself questioning your journey I want you to think of me.  I want you to think of me in the summer of 2004 when I was in Canada.  I was there shooting a movie called "The Perfect Man" with Hilary Duff and Heather Locklear.

I was playing Lenny, a man who was vying for the affections of Heather Locklear.  For those of you who don't know Heather Locklear, 18 years ago when I sat here she was already a success.   So I was thrilled to be playing her boyfriend.   And at the end of one scene, on a wet street one Toronto summer night, Heather Locklear and I kissed.   Granted it was scripted, but that's neither here nor there.  We kissed.

So if over the next eighteen years, you find yourself down on your luck, I want you to remember that there's plenty of time to turn things around, that there are people on your side, and that the great part of life is the people who are in it with you helping you find meaning in it. 

And if there's something you really want to do with your life, and you're at a crossroads where you’re questioning your ability to continue, just remember:

If a former kids game show host who grew up in Nashua, got cut from the junior high baseball team, left college with a 2.89 gpa and starred in one of the quickest cancelled shows in sitcom history could find himself on a quiet night in Canada kissing Heather Locklear, you too can make your dreams come true…

I wish you all the very best.    

Thank you.