(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
This is the time of year when it starts to get hot, when the swimming pools fill up and when so many students graduate from so many schools in so many caps and gowns.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
Whether it's graduation episodes of our favorite series, high school songs or movies about the last wild night of high school, we're here to commence a show about commencement. I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about graduation in pop culture on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HOLMES: Here with me and Stephen from his home studio is Glen Weldon of NPR's Culture Desk. Hi, Glen.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
Hey. I'll bring the pomp. You bring the circumstance.
HOLMES: All right. And also here from her home is Aisha Harris. Hey, Aisha.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
Hey there. Here with the circumstance.
HOLMES: Well, it is always good to have everybody here together. We are going to dive right in. We will each offer up two examples of graduation-related culture. Aisha, let's start with you.
HARRIS: Well, I am not the type of person who cares much about the actual graduation ceremony. I was part of five of them because our culture is obsessed with graduation. So if you count elementary school, middle school, high school and then undergrad and grad, that's a lot of graduating.
HARRIS: I barely remember what happened at them. That's not important to me. What I love about pop culture when it deals with graduation is more about the feeling, the ambiance, what it means to either graduate or have graduated recently and what that experience is like and what it does to you. It's about the transition period, the change.
And so my first pick is going to be a movie that deals very, very delicately and gracefully with the idea of transitioning and moving on from being a young teen into becoming a young adult. And that is "Superbad," the 2007 film...
HOLMES: Oh, yes.
HARRIS: ...Directed by Greg Mottola. And it is sort of the breakout movie - I mean, people knew who Michael Cera was because of "Arrested Development," perhaps, but this was sort of his breakout. And Michael Cera and Jonah Hill star as Evan and Seth, two best friends in high school. It's senior year. They're a few weeks from graduating. Evan is planning to go to college. Seth did not get into that college. And that's sort of the fissure. They're trying to figure out what it's going to be like because they are inseparable.
Now, this is made in 2007 at the height of, like, you know, the old school "Knocked Up" era. It has all of the Apatow adjacent-ness of it. So is there casual misogyny? Yes. Is there casual homophobia? Absolutely. Are there lots of jokes about penises? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And it's very vulgar. I still watch this movie, and for all of that, there is still a spark to it. I think a lot of the jokes do hold up, even though a lot of them don't. There's just the delivery. There's this sense of both Jonah Hill and Michael Cera really riffing off of each other in a way that feels just lived in. And it's just kind of silly in a way.
And when I talk about this sense of like what it means to be transitioning, one of the scenes I think about most is another one that, to me, shows Jonah Hill's, like, really great comedic timing. This is an early scene where he is annoyed by his home ec teacher. He doesn't have a partner for, like, their next project, and he's complaining. And she's giving him a hard time. And he's like, come on now. Like, why are you making me do this? So I want to play a short clip of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUPERBAD")
JONAH HILL: (As Seth) We all know home ec is a joke. No offense. It's just, like, everyone takes this class to get an A. It's bull****. And I'm sorry, I don't want to sit here all by myself cooking this [expletive] food. No offense. And I just think that I don't ever need to cook tiramisu. When am I going need to cook tiramisu? Am I going to be a chef? No. There's three weeks left in school. Give me a [expletive] break.
HARRIS: I remember being a senior and taking these classes and just being like, why are you still trying to make us do projects? What is this? And I think this whole film captures that sense of both being so over it and also being afraid of what's next. You know, if you can stomach all of the caveats that I've already listed and you want to revisit this film, so much of it still is fun. And in the classic vein of, like, this is our last big party hurrah - also, we're trying to get laid - all these things, I will still defend "Superbad" as one of the classics of the teen movie genre, especially one as it relates to the end of being a teen and being a senior. So that's "Superbad."
HOLMES: Yeah, I liked "Superbad," although, you know, I think I share in all your caveats. All right. Glen, what is your first pick?
WELDON: Well, speaking of caveats, I went with the mayor's commencement speech from "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," the season three finale, episode 22, called "Graduation Day, Part Two." Now, look. One can permit oneself all kinds of complicated feelings about the Joss Whedon of it all and his behavior on and off set. But what I want to focus in on here is the character of the mayor, specifically the performance by the great Harry Groener. The mayor of Sunnydale was the season three big bad. He had an elaborate plot that involved a lot of rituals, and - so he could ascend to a higher demonic life-form. This ascension was scheduled to happen during an eclipse that would take place during Buffy's graduation ceremony from Sunnydale High School.
If you go back and look at this now, this was as climactic a moment as you could get on a TV budget. Don't look too hard at the stunts. Don't look too hard at the special effects. This is all about Groener, who managed throughout the season to find a way to balance this outwardly affable, ingratiating, kind of funny, corny, smarmy politician persona with something much darker. So in the climactic scene, as he steps up to the podium, he begins to talk and say, what is a journey? And it becomes clear that he's not just going to ascend right away. He's going to give his entire boring speech because that's how evil he is, but he doesn't quite get a chance to.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER")
HARRY GROENER: (As Mayor Richard Wilkins) It has begun - my destiny. It's a little sooner than I expected. I had this whole section on civic pride, but I guess we'll just skip to the big finish.
WELDON: Now, that performance - I just love everything about it. Groener is a Broadway legend. And if you go back and watch this speech, you notice how he's just doing so much in his face. He is singling out Buffy and Willow at one point in the audience and lets them know with a look that he knows that they know that he knows that they know. And after this moment, this big finale, Buffy heads off to college.
And there's going to be other high points in the show. But the show's original organizing principle, which is to take all kinds of fantastic horror elements and use them to kind of dramatize a lot of more prosaic horrors of adolescence - it gets away from that because it had to because, you know, Buffy aged out of being in high school. So what you lost was not how good the show was, but the immediacy of its metaphor. The inevitability of that metaphor was gone. So this is the high point, I think, of one very specific aspect of that show.
HOLMES: Thank you very much, Glen Weldon. Stephen Thompson, what is your first pick?
THOMPSON: Well, I'm going to start with one for music. You know, you can go online, and you can find, you know, your lists of the greatest songs about graduation, songs to play at graduation, songs to sum up the messy bundle of contradictions that is high-school life.
HOLMES: Is it "Pomp and Circumstance"?
HARRIS: Is it Vitamin C, "Graduation"?
THOMPSON: Well, you know, that's the thing. You know, you look at these lists and you see, like, "Graduation - parentheses - Friends Forever" by Vitamin C or "Good Riddance - parentheses - Time Of Your Life" by Green Day...
THOMPSON: ...And you get a lot of these kind of maudlin songs about, like, what a time we had. And they're wistful. And, you know, there's a note of uplift to them. But they often have this note of, like, is this as good as it gets? And no, it is not. High school is terrible. High school is full of bullies and way too much homework and not enough sleep.
And for kids graduating right now - like, my daughter is about to graduate from high school - they've gone through Zoom classes and all sorts of modern-day horrors. Look, there are fond memories you can take away from high school. Yes, this is a major pivot point in your life. It's not unfair or wrong to say that school really, genuinely can suck. And so my first graduation pick is a song that came out almost exactly 50 years ago. It came out 50 years ago in April - "School's Out" by the great Alice Cooper.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCHOOL'S OUT")
ALICE COOPER: (Singing) School's out for summer. School's out forever.
THOMPSON: First of all, it's applicable to the end of every school year and not just the completion of your education. But that forever has an extra ring and an extra kick to it when you were done with high school completely. The other thing about "School's Out" is it still kicks ass. Like, it is still a great rock 'n' roll song 50 years later. It kind of hasn't aged a day, in a way. This song played on the last day of school every year I was in elementary school. I heard it in junior high and high school.
My daughter got into Alice Cooper when she was probably 8 and has always had a big soft spot for Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper is eternal. You can watch Alice Cooper on "The Muppet Show." You can experience, like, the full range of, like, just these big theatrical rock songs beyond "School's Out." But to me, for a graduation song, this one has never been topped. That's "School's Out" by Alice Cooper.
WELDON: Yeah. This is a masterclass in marketing...
WELDON: ...In knowing your niche, identifying your niche and aiming right for it and having it be an evergreen.
HOLMES: It's also been used in - when I say many, many, many, many movies and shows and...
HOLMES: ...You know, not necessarily about graduation, but, like, boy, is this a ubiquitous song in terms of licensing.
HARRIS: You can just see all the students, like, emerging from the school, like, at the last day, just throwing their books in the air and...
THOMPSON: Yeah. Just, like, whipping their papers on the ground.
HOLMES: I feel like, how many times have I seen students, like, bursting through the double doors out of a school while this plays? I mean, it just feels - it feels eternal. Thank you very much, Thompson. That's a great pick.
So my first pick - the 1989 movie "Say Anything" is one of my favorite movies. It is one of the romantic comedy-adjacent stories that I love the most. This is John Cusack and Ione Skye and John Mahoney and the great and good Lili Taylor - a lot of other people. And the story is about Lloyd, who is a - kind of a confused and lost kid graduating from high school. And he has kind of this dream girl, who is the smartest girl in his class. And in an early scene, she is the valedictorian, I suppose, and is giving the speech at their graduation.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAY ANYTHING")
IONE SKYE: (As Diane Court) But I have something to tell everybody. I've glimpsed our future. And all I can say is, go back.
JOHN MAHONEY: (As Jim Court, laughing).
HOLMES: That is supposed to be her laugh line, and nobody laughs except her father. That's John Mahoney. You can hear him. So she feels like the speech is bombing, but it makes Lloyd love her so much. And he watches her with such tremendous awe. And it's one of the things I love about the movie. So I absolutely love that graduation speech. I love that graduation scene in which her very supportive father is the only person who laughs at her joke. I just love that scene. I love that scene.
Aisha, we are going to go to you for your second pick. What is your second pick?
HARRIS: Well, my last pick was about leaving high school, and my next pick is actually about leaving college and what that feels like. And this will be another caveat pick, although I think it holds up maybe slightly better, but that would be "Avenue Q," the off-Broadway/Broadway smash that premiered in 2003. It is one of the first musicals I fell in love with as a kid. And, in fact, when I was thinking about our topic today, I was like, I've never really thought of this as, like, a graduation type of show, but it very much is because the lead character, Princeton, is a recent college graduate. One of the first songs is "What Do You Do With A BA In English?", the eternal question.
HARRIS: I was a theater major. So I usually just sub it in and sing, what do you do with a BA in theater? Same issues. It's like, I have this degree. He's talking about, like, four years of college and plenty of knowledge have earned me this useless degree. I can't pay the bills yet because I have no skills yet. I just love it. I think it's great. And he's moving into New York City on one of the cheaper ends of the of the city, Avenue Q. He meets all of these characters. And throughout the show, he's kind of wrestling with what he's going to do with his life. Now, there's another song that I want to play a clip from. It's called "I Wish I Could Go Back To College." This is a song sung by Princeton, his neighbors, Nicky and his love interest sort of, Kate Monster. They're all singing about how much they miss college.
And what I love about this song is the fact that, like, they're talking about it sort of in these very superficial ways, in some ways, like wanting to hang out on the quad and all those other things. But it's also a song about just kind of looking back and thinking, oh, things were better then even though that doesn't necessarily mean that's the case. It's just your life sucks right now. That's another theme of the show, everything sucks and everyone's a little bit racist. And I think it's a really powerful graduation song, post-graduation song. So let's hear a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH I COULD GO BACK TO COLLEGE")
JOHN TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton, singing) I wish I could go back to college. In college, you know who you are. You sit in the quad and think, oh, my God, I am totally going to go far.
JOHN TARTAGLIA, STEPHANIE D'ABRUZZO AND RICK LYON: (As Princeton, Kate and Nicky, singing) How do I go back to college? I don't know who I am anymore.
HARRIS: It's a wistful song. And as someone who graduated right after the last recession before this current one (laughter), it really struck home for me. And I think that in terms of graduation-related pop culture, I think it's probably underrated. Of course - spoiler alert - by the end of the show, they have kind of concluded, well, everything kind of sucks, but I guess I'll make the best of it. And then it ends with another very exuberant college just-post-grad being like, I'm going to change the world. And Princeton is like, yeah, OK...
HARRIS: ...Which feels very real. So that would be "Avenue Q," but specifically "What Do You Do With A BA In English?" and "I Wish I Could Go Back To College."
HOLMES: Great picks. Great picks. And by the way, if you heard Aisha say Kate Monster and you're thinking - did she say Kate Monster? - I don't think Aisha said explicitly...
HOLMES: ...That the characters in this are puppets.
HARRIS: Yeah, half the characters are puppets. Also, one of them is Gary Coleman, who is usually played by a woman.
HARRIS: It's like a vulgar "Sesame Street," basically. Yeah.
HOLMES: Exactly. Exactly. It's delightful. I love that show also. Thank you very much, Aisha. All right, Glen, give me your second pick.
WELDON: I graduated from Southampton College in 1990. It was part of Long Island University at the time. And Southampton College was known as one of the best schools for marine biology in the country. You had this gorgeous campus on the Shinnecock Bay just outside of Southampton, N.Y. And it was my lifelong dream to be a marine biologist. But I really just wasn't equipped for it because it required a lot of math. And if you ever been out with me while I try to calculate a tip, you know I was doomed from the start. It was kind of a nightmare. But it was also the Hamptons in the 1980s, where a lot of New York writers would repair to in the summer months. And they needed to make some cocaine money somewhere...
WELDON: ...So they would teach writing in the summer on campus. And I was so desperate to not do any more quadratic equations that I took every summer creative writing course I could manage. So I got through it somehow with a degree in marine biology and the conviction that I wanted to be anything else and that maybe writing could be a thing. So it gave me that at least. But my graduation ceremony from that college was nothing to speak of. It was some profoundly unpleasant, rich person who kept hectoring us to become entrepreneurs. But just six years later, someone in the PR department hit upon the amazing idea to bestow an honorary doctorate and name as commencement speaker one Mr. Kermit T. Frog.
WELDON: Now, I have not been able to find any video of this, which is mystifying. But it made huge international news at the time. And you can find transcripts online. It's not a bad speech. It's very short, which is good. It's got some B+ jokes. It's got a Newt Gingrich reference in there for some reason because it was 1996. He thanked the graduates for their dedication to environmental sciences. And he concluded by saying, (imitating Kermit the Frog) and so I say to you, the 1996 graduates of Southampton College, you are no longer tadpoles. The time has come for you to drop your tails and leave this swamp.
WELDON: And, man, I so wish that had been my graduation.
WELDON: I certainly would have been more excited about it than a student who was quoted in The New York Times saying that she worked very hard for five years there, only to have her commencement speech delivered by a sock.
HOLMES: She should be so lucky. What?
THOMPSON: Oh, my God.
WELDON: It's a very aggressive stance that. It's very aggressive.
THOMPSON: I got former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger at my graduation.
THOMPSON: I would've killed to swap him out for Kermit the Frog.
WELDON: That's the thing. So if you can, you can go and find mister - I'm sorry, Dr. Frog's commencement speech because...
WELDON: It is a thing that happened in the world.
HOLMES: Absolutely delightful.
HOLMES: Absolutely love it. All right. Stephen Thompson, what is your second pick?
THOMPSON: Well, I'm going to go with a big favorite of this show, one of my favorite movies of the last few years and, really, I think, one of the best graduation movies - one of the greatest let's have big life experiences the night before graduation movies ever made - and that is 2019's "Booksmart."
THOMPSON: We have talked about this movie on this show, but I just rewatched it last night. My own daughter is graduating from high school, and I'm having a lot of feelings around that. And you have dopey parents in this movie also having big feelings. One of the reasons that this one works so well is because of how generous it is to so many of its characters, so many of the relationships between those characters. It stars the great, great Beanie Feldstein and the also great, great, great Kaitlyn Dever as best friends who have been high achievers all through their academic careers because it's going to get them into college. And they realize 24 hours before graduation that all their friends who've been partying and having a good time are also getting into those colleges. And so they could have been having fun all along. And so they decide to pack as many experiences into that last night as possible.
It is just a wonderful, wonderful movie, and I really loved how minor the graduation scene is in the overall narrative. So many of these movies build to this great big culminating moment with a big grand speech that ties everything together. This graduation speech begins with a sports car smashing through a chain-link fence and culminates in just this really sweet acknowledgement of, like, I see you now.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOOKSMART")
BEANIE FELDSTEIN: (As Molly Davidson) I may not have before, but I see you now. And you're all pretty great. Don't let college f*** it up. Congratulations.
THOMPSON: And I just think the way it just kind of ties up all those experiences as, like, this was nice, I think is kind of sweet because I don't like it when these things put too much pressure on graduation as an experience. Graduation itself is just a super boring ceremony.
HARRIS: So boring.
THOMPSON: It's everything else that matters. So anyway, that is "Booksmart." There are so many reasons not to envy this generation, but the fact that their coming-of-age movies are movies like "Booksmart" and "Whip It" and ours were not - that's at least one point in their favor.
HOLMES: Thank you very much, Stephen Thompson. My second pick also represents a graduation episode of a high school television show. I chose the end of Season 3 episode of "Beverly Hills, 90210," a "Commencement," parts one and two. And the thing that you have to understand about this is that graduation always presents such interesting challenges for a high school show because, first, you have to establish that everyone's going to go to the same college, usually nearby, so that they can all stay on the show. They did this on "Dawson's Creek." They did this on "90210." They have to take all the high school kids and keep them all together.
So even though it makes no sense that all these kids would go to the same school, they all did, and there's usually, like, one that doesn't go to college but just stays in the area, you know, because they're a rebel. The other thing that's amazing about this one is the kids on "90210" - when the show started, they were juniors. And then the next year, they were also juniors. Like, they just simply did junior year twice because they wanted obviously to milk as much as they possibly could.
THOMPSON: And when you think about it, the actors, they were aging from age 30 to age 31.
HOLMES: Right. Not necessarily all of them quite that badly, but yes, they were all over-aged anyway. And so if you go back and watch this - and again, it's the end of Season 3 - most of this episode is a clip show because again, they don't really know what a graduation episode should look like (laughter). But also it incorporates the senior prank. But the senior prank is only the kids that you know from the show. In other words, it's not the whole class. It's this little group of kids, seven or eight of them or something like that. And they talk through this entire, like, double episode about this big prank they have planned. And we're going to pull it off, and it's going to be amazing.
And it turns out in the end that they have covered up the Hollywood sign with giant letters that say W Bev High '93 because they went to West Beverly High School. And it's one of those things where they don't give you the pleasure of actually seeing how any of this would be accomplished because, spoiler alert, it wouldn't be, which would be the fun part of seeing this prank. They just talk about the prank and then you see the result of the prank and that's it - no logistics.
THOMPSON: I don't know, you throw a couple of bedsheets over it. What do you want?
HOLMES: And it is the most kind of by the numbers, we made a high school show, so we have to make a high school graduation episode kind of thing. And it also is, you know, you're getting to the end of the best era of that show already by the end of the third season. But anyway, I chose "Commencement" parts one and two from Season 3 of "Beverly Hills, 90210."
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HOLMES: All right. So tell us, what are your favorite graduation moments in pop culture? Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Aisha Harris, Glen Weldon, Stephen Thompson, thanks to all of you for being here.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
WELDON: Thank you.
HARRIS: I hope you have the time of your life.
HOLMES: All right. And before we go, I have one thing that I want to mention. I'm going to be on leave for a few weeks because my second book is about to come out. It is called "Flying Solo." It is sort of a cozy heist romance with a hot librarian. It will be out on June 14, so I'm going to be gone for a while taking care of that book launch. So everybody's going to hold the fort down here while I'm gone, and I'll be back after 4th of July weekend.
In the meantime, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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