Charlie Day to Merrimack Grads: ‘Your Degree Will Basically Do Nothing’

The television star delivered a speech at his alma mater that packed a few more punchlines than a typical address.

Graduates from all around Massachusetts have been soaking up advice from world leaders, business experts, and researchers during speeches at their respective commencement ceremonies this season, all of which have carried a similar tune: reach for the stars, be kind to others, and challenge yourself on the journey through life.

But Merrimack College heard a different message on Tuesday from Charlie Day, the comedian known for his role as the non-sensible character Charlie Kelly on the FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. They got to receive “wisdom, life lessons, and knowledge from a man who has made a living pretending to eat cat food.”

In an 18-minute speech to the class of 2014, Day didn’t stray far from the antics that he’s become known for on television, recalling his own nervous excitement when he first stepped onto Merrimack’s campus 20 years ago as a freshman, and the trouble he got into playing pranks on his fellow classmates.

“Merrimack has come a long way since my time, the quality of student has clearly improved,” he said. “In my time, there was a man here who scored in the zero percentile on his SATs, meaning no one in the nation did worse than this man.”

Day, who graduated from the school in 1998, was given an honorary PhD during Tuesday’s commencement, which he said he would put to good use. “Although I acknowledge that Dr. Charlie Day sounds like some type of club DJ, I assure you I intend to go by this title from now on,” he said. “And I plan to begin writing my own prescriptions immediately.”

The actor told students that much like his new doctorate degree, their own diplomas will “also basically do nothing.”

“Let me clarify that. You cannot exchange your degree for cash, you cannot have your degree do an audition or interview for you. You cannot eat it, and please do not make love to it,” he said. “You can probably smoke it, but I wouldn’t recommend that. A college degree does nothing. It collects dust. It does however mean something. It tells something to your community. It says, ‘I have expanded my mind, and destroyed my liver, but I didn’t give up’… all jokes aside, you should be very proud. This is an impressive chapter in your lives.”

Shifting away from the jabs at his alma mater, Day reflected on the decisions he made once it was time to graduate and leave college. He told students he “tricked” his way into a job interview with Fidelity Investments, using the chance encounter to practice for acting auditions, but was actually offered a position he wasn’t even qualified for.

Day said he had two choices: stay in Boston and take on an entry-level banking job, or do what he really wanted to do, and move to New York to pursue his comedy career. After picking the latter, a situation that left him busing tables and living in a rat-infested apartment, Day said—for obvious reasons—he didn’t regret taking that chance. “There’s an obvious lesson here about believing in yourself, or the plan A, plan B stuff. But I think the lesson is this: had I worked at Fidelity, they would have fired me eventually,” he said. “I didn’t want to fail at Fidelity. And I didn’t want to fail in Boston. I did fail, over and over again [as an actor]…but I was in the fight.”

Day said after turning down Fidelity and a regular day job, he was later offered a role on a major television network, which, similarly, he turned down to go after his own goals—one of which was creating It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia using borrowed cameras and equipment, and filming in his apartment with no budget. “Creating the job as opposed to waiting for it to be offered to me was the way to go,” he said.

Always Sunny is now on its 10th season—with two more seasons locked in—which will set the show on a path to become one of the longest-running television comedies. “I think there is an obvious lesson here: make your break; don’t wait for your break. Go make it happen for yourself,” he said.

Like the risk he took pursuing his comedic career, Day said he took a similar jump when he accepted the invitation to speak at Merrimack. He told graduates he pored over YouTube videos to see what others had said, and tried to find the right words to pass on to the class. But as he did this, he realized he wasn’t worried about being judged about what he said, because he doesn’t “give a shit.”

“You cannot let a fear of failure, or a fear of comparison, or a fear of judgement stop you from doing what will make you great,” he said. “You cannot not succeed without this risk of failure, and you cannot have a voice without the risk of criticism, and you cannot love without the risk of loss. You must go out and take these risks…do what’s uncomfortable, and scary, and hard, and what pays off in the long run.”