As seen on: Commencing a greater appreciation for TV

by Allison Levy | 5/11/11 10:00pm

I am sometimes met with skepticism when I tell people that I want to go into the TV industry after graduation. They tell me that a "Daht-mouth education" is a terrible thing to waste an education better suited to ending world hunger or maintaining top-tier tax cuts than it is to writing TV for the masses. I have found that in many cases, such objections are little more than relics of a long-standing and deeply-rooted public conception that TV is bad for your brain.

Such elitism has recently reared its head following the announcement that Conan O'Brien would serve as the Commencement speaker for the Class of 2011. Personally, I was ecstatic to hear the news that O'Brien an icon in my desired field would be the person to send me off into the "real world." (Bonus points: we're pretty much guaranteed some good jokes, right?) And while many of my fellow graduates share my excitement, there is likely a small but nonetheless vocal group of Dartmouth students and alumni who are entirely displeased with College President Jim Yong Kim's selection.

Not surprisingly, detractors have been particularly vocal in comment sections across the internet. In the comment section beneath the YouTube video announcement featuring Eric Tanner '11 doing a questionable Stephen Colbert impersonation, self-appointed graduation speaker authority "dsrobins" writes: "It demeans Dartmouth which used to have presidents as commencement speakers. Dartmouth has now become the second most expensive college in the nation I doubt students are getting their money's worth."

My problem with this comment (that is, other than the questionable accuracy of his information) is the hypocrisy that underpins it. Consider last week's Verbum Ultimum ("Commencing Collaboration," May 6), in which The Dartmouth Editorial Board pointed out two recent events that they said reflected positive change in administrator-student relations the O'Brien announcement and the launch of the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking. While the launch of the Collaborative is worthy of national news, few readers have had anything to say about it. The web update announcing O'Brien's involvement in this year's graduation ceremony, however, has two pages of comments.

While at least one commenter on The Dartmouth's website has sworn allegiance to Kim in light of the announcement, an equal number have called O'Brien anti-semitic and noted the triviality of a TV persona. Yet the sheer number of responses and the intensity of the discussion alone has, in my opinion, outshone the enthusiasm Dartmouth students have shown in anticipation of a campus visit of any high-ranking political figure, at least in recent years. That TV can inspire so much dialogue is enough to convince me that the medium matters.

However, there's more to why detractors should respect the chosen speaker a bit more: Since the publishing of last week's Verbum, another important attention-grabbing event has made it clear to me why O'Brien is an excellent choice.

Over the weekend, a six-months pregnant Tina Fey returned to NBC's "Saturday Night Live" for another stint as guest host. Perhaps the biggest running joke on Fey's series "30 Rock" is that, unlike her character Liz Lemon, Fey has a critically acclaimed series as well as a husband, a daughter and another baby on the way. As both a comedian and as a mother, Fey embodies the fact that life does not need to be serious to be meaningful.

But perhaps more importantly, the episode of "Saturday Night Live" was a perfect example of how primetime television can contribute to current political discourse. One of the night's most memorable sketches addressed the recent news of Osama bin Laden's death while simultaneously parodying "The Little Mermaid." Watch that sketch or the entire episode or anything from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or O'Brien and then tell me that TV personalities aren't worthy commencement speakers. too. TV is an undeniably powerful medium. The point is: If the College had chosen John Boehner to address my class (yeah, I just compared O'Brien to Boehner you got that right), I may not have been pumped, but I would not have argued that he's an inappropriate speaker just because he is not in the field I'm interested in. I'd ask anyone uninterested in TV or TV personalities to show O'Brien and the TV industry as a whole the same respect.