Nancy Giles, Doctor of Humane Letters
Commencement Speaker 2014
Nancy Giles, CBS Sunday Morning commentator, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters and presented the Commencement address to the Grinnell College Class of 2014.
About Nancy Giles
A contributor to the respected CBS morning program since 2003, Giles brings a strong, provocative and humorous take to topics ranging from politics and race to pop culture and the tyranny of high heels. In a direct but humorous tone, she’s praised the “bold and scrappy” Pope Francis and examined the “eternal mystery” of the Tootsie Pop.
On radio, Giles was Jay Thomas' sidekick on The Jay Thomas Morning Show in New York, and in Philadelphia co-hosted Giles and Moriarty with CBS News correspondent Erin Moriarty. Their show won back-to- back American Women in Radio and Television Awards (Gracies) for Best Radio Talk Show for the two seasons it was on the air.
Giles has also established a name for herself as an actor. She was a member of the acclaimed Second City Touring Company in 1984, and played GI Frankie Bunsen for three seasons on the Emmy Award-winning China Beach. Giles won a 1985 Theatre World Award for Mayor: The Musical Off-Broadway, and has written and performed two solo pieces:Black Comedy: The Wacky Side of Racism and Notes of a Negro Neurotic. She currently is adapting that material and other work for a book she’s “praying people will buy.”
Doctor of Humane Letters
When complicated and important issues are molded by publicists and shaped by politicians, we often rely on trusted commentators like Nancy Giles to help us get to the heart of the matter. Her sharp social commentary, leavened with wit, has made her a respected and popular voice in nearly every medium. She’s had success in radio, television, theatre, and film; a forthcoming book will expand her reach even further.
Born and raised in Queens, N.Y., Giles went on to graduate from Oberlin College. She spent three years touring with Chicago’s improv comedy troupe, Second City, before returning to New York to pursue work in theatre. She worked at theatres including Playwrights Horizons and Manhattan Theatre Club, and won a prestigious Theatre World Award for her off-Broadway debut in the musical Mayor.
Giles co-hosted the radio show Giles and Moriarty with Erin Moriarty on WPHT in Philadelphia for two years. The program earned two Gracie awards from the American Women in Radio and Television for best radio talk show.
She has also had a busy film and television career, appearing for three seasons on China Beach and two on Fox after Breakfast. On the silver screen, she’s had roles in movies ranging from Working Girl to Big.
But Giles truly found her voice as a writer and contributor to CBS News Sunday Morning, winning an Emmy Award and two more Gracies for her commentaries. She became a go-to guest during the 2008 presidential campaign for shows ranging from Hardball with Chris Matthews to Larry King Live to Today. These days she is a regular guest on MSNBC; and after 12 years on Sunday Morning, her incisive monologues about everything from race to politics to plastic surgery continue shed new light on popular topics.
For using humor to expose important and uncomfortable truths, Grinnell is proud to recognize Nancy Giles.
Thank you. I knew I was speaking early in the program, but I have to say that when I heard my name mentioned, I felt my stomach lurch, but for good reasons.
President Kington, Grinnell College faculty and staff, honored guests. Family, friends and most importantly, almost-graduates. I am so honored to be here. But I’ve got to be honest with you. I’m kind of disappointed that when you chose me as your commencement speaker, there was no campus uproar. It didn’t stoke the flames of controversy, didn’t blow up on Twitter and become a national story, and didn’t end with me graciously bowing out, not wanting, ‘this day to be about anyone other than the students.’ Man, oh man, to be at that level of notoriety to cause that much discord. Wow!
But me, I’m just a black chick on Weight Watchers with a short ’fro and a puzzled expression, still trying to figure out how I stumbled into doing opinion pieces on CBS Sunday Morning. A kind of chocolate-covered version of what Andy Rooney used to do on 60 Minutes. In case you haven’t seen those essays and opinionated interviews, you can find them on the Internet. Before that, I was on some television series that actually went off the air before you guys were even born, so it’s not really worth mentioning.
Anyhow, luckily I also do voice-overs on television and radio commercials, so you may have heard some of my work. I’m not bragging or anything, but here are just a few of my greatest hits over the years.
“You’re watching Lifetime, Television for Women.”
“Down Home with the Neelys. Coming up next on Food Network.”
“Don’t take Boniva, and tell your doctor if you have difficult or painful swallowing, chest pains, or severe, continuing heartburn, as these may be signs of serious upper digestive problems.”
Thank you. Thank you, yes. That’s me! So, just so you know, I’ve been doing voice-overs for more than 25 years, which is hard to say out loud. In the early days, they used my voice for cute, sexy, fertile-women commercials like anything by Maybelline, SlimFast, various Playtex products. And the years passed. And now I’m doing spots for post-menopausal osteoporosis, women with bladder-control problems. Shaken leg syndrome, which I once mistakenly read as “Shake’n’Bake syndrome.” And isn’t that what the really smart kids in school used to do while they were in the zone, you know? They’d be staring into space, chewing on a pencil, with one leg going wild under the desk. I desperately wanted Shake’n’Bake syndrome. But I digress.
Anyhow, I’ve thought long and hard about what I wanted to say to you all today, what sage words of advice I could offer. What have I learned since I was sitting where you are on my graduation day, only back then I was wearing a green garbage bag. Let me explain. At Oberlin, back in the ’70s, they stopped doing caps and gowns to protest what happened at Kent State, but on the day of my graduation, although we didn’t have caps and gowns, it started to rain. And so as we walked on the grounds like you guys did, they handed each of us a garbage bag to go over our clothes. So in our way we had our own little cap and gown-esque thing. Anyway, back when I graduated in Oberlin in 1981, when I was 10.
So back to your speech. I started with an outline. I read other speeches. I talked to friends about memorable speeches that they’d heard. I wondered, could I come up with a catchphrase, compressing a big idea into a few words, like “Mom Jeans” or “Kim Kardashian.” I talked to students. I watched famous commencement speeches from history. I looked for beautifully worded quotes to express my clumsy thoughts. And as I continued to search for information, I discovered something. There are over 14 million Google listings for procrastination. One could read article after article from scientific and psychological journals, to business magazines and self-help books. Follow links with these articles, take quizzes to see where you fall on the procrastination scale. One could get swept up in research, feel incredibly productive, and actually be avoiding their work all the while. It’s the perfect storm of procrastination.
See, it’s bad enough when I sit down to write, strange things happen. I turn on the computer, and that’s a start. But where is that dripping noise coming from? Aren’t there dishes in the sink? And eventually I’ll get back to the desk, and I’ve got some spam emails to read and delete, and then the phone rings, but I let the machine answer, because I’m writing. But there’s something in my teeth. What is that? A popcorn skin? When did I have popcorn? I’m trying to find it in the mirror. What’s with my hair? Maybe if I wash it and put the cream moisturizer on it while it’s still wet and let it air dry…you get the picture. Focus is not my strong suit.
In any case, one of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra classic starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. If you haven’t seen it, please Netflix it immediately following your graduation today. It’s a simple but touching story that illustrates how our lives have a purpose, and that each life affects so many other lives. If anything changes, everything changes. So I thought I’d tell you a few stories to show you how my life, and all of our wonderful lives, have a direction, even if we don’t know it at the time.
I wanted to perform initially because I thought it would get me a boyfriend. Yes, that’s sad but true. My dream was that he would see me onstage, under those lights, and he would fall for me instantly, because of whatever it was that I was doing up there. That never happened. But some little fire was lit within. Even though I only got as far as playing a sharecropper in Finnegan’s Rainbow and in the pit orchestra of the Anything Goes that my senior year high school class performed. I sat on the pit, sawing away on the viola while shooting dirty looks at Kelly Mumford, who played Reno Sweeney with a Betty Boop voice, a choice I still don’t understand.
Anyway, after high school, I was determined to make a splash at Oberlin. And that never happened. I’d planned on majoring in theatre, but couldn’t get cast in any of the school shows. I had my heart broken. I flunked theatre history, I switched to creative writing, and struggled there because my black experience wasn’t like Toni Morrison or Alice Walker’s. I loved comedy. And I didn’t quite know what to do. And then the Second City comedy troupe came to Oberlin, and I thought, “I can do that!”
Six months later I was hired, and I was determined to make a splash at Second City. And that didn’t happen. We’re talking 30-plus years ago, and I was one of only three black women who had been in Second City in 25 years. I thought, though, “This is My Moment. Not only will I do good work, but I’ll be a trailblazer. I can bring black characters into the comedy sketches, something they’ve never seen before.”
But two things happened. First, I read a small article in Time magazine about a black woman in San Francisco starring in something called The Spook Show, a solo show with a wild variety of characters. Time magazine called her work “astonishing,” and she was heading to Broadway. Her name was Whoopi Goldberg. My stomach lurched. “That was my slot!” I thought. “That was supposed to be me! I’m the trailblazer.” For a few crazy moments, I considered changing my name to Fifi Steinberg, thinking that I would at least cause some confusion and maybe even help me siphon off some of Whoopi’s upcoming gigs. I didn’t do that. But I was worried.
And the second thing that happened at Second City was a real historical event. Harold Washington was elected the first black mayor of Chicago, but was portrayed by a white actor in Second City’s most recent show after the election. I was stunned. And I realized that even with my crazy Michael Jackson musical monologue—his therapy session turned into a music video—Second City was not interested in it, or me, so I quit.
And I was even more determined to make a splash, somewhere. That rejection forced me to come up with more of my own material. And I could not be more grateful to Second City for that.
I did work in TV, I was on a show called China Beach, but when I came back from New York and I got older, the parts got smaller. And I couldn’t get excited about doing things like a part playing the judge saying “Order! Order in the court!” Yeah. It was way more fun to talk about what I wanted to talk about. That [playing a written part] was boring.
So I think, it turns out, that I was born to give out opinions. And I got that from my mom. She had a take on everything. Mom would get vibrations about people. Do you guys know the Dick Van Dyke Show? Are you familiar with that? All right. My favorite character was Sally. She was the only woman on the writing staff, and she was as funny as the guys, and in fact they treated her like a guy. And she was single, and the closest she ever came to having a decent boyfriend turned out to be a comedian who wanted to be with her so she’d write his material, which stunk. Anyway, I always wondered why Sally’s character always had a black bow in her hair. Why black? Why the same bow every episode? And my mom said, “Well, you know. Rose Marie has been wearing that black bow for years. She was married to Frank Lovejoy, the actor. He died in a plane crash, and she never got over it.” “Hmm…okay, Mom.”
It made sense. You know, she knew the answers. In fact, I loved hearing my mom’s take on celebrities more than anything. We’d be listening to the radio, the great Tony Bennett would be singing. And Mom would say at the end of the song, “I always liked Tony Bennett until he got cute and got a perm and left his wife.” And I’d think, “Hmmmm…that’s really interesting.” So I did the same thing in grade school, discussing Diana Ross during lunch with my girlfriends, with our hands on our little hips. “She thinks she’s so hot. Put her name first: Diana Ross and the Supremes. Hmm! She killed Florence.” And we’d stand around and “Hmm!” together.
So as I grew older, I kept notes and read the papers. I created a few solo shows. I did comedy with some disgruntled ex-hippie friends for no money, but it was a way to develop material. Like, for instance, I realized that February being Black History Month—and by the way, I do a lot of speaking gigs, and February is my busy time, just like December is Santa’s busy time, if you get my drift. Anyway. So March, by the way, is Women’s History Month, and also National Frozen Foods Month. Coincidence? I think not. So anyway, I talked about how these days, it’s called “Black History Month” or “African-American History Month,” and when I was growing up it was “Negro History Week.” And my mom told me that when she was growing up, it was “Colored-People’s Hour.” Honest to God! And I thought, “Oh, the Urban League is really going to hate my guts.”
Anyway, and the evolution of what we were called as a people: colored, negro, black, African-American—which, I never got a phone call about being called African-American. Was there a survey, or does anyone know? Because I must have missed it. I liked Afro-American, you know, because it was about hair. I always thought that we should be referred to by what we really are, which is kidnapped Americans. That seems to me to make sense. More accurate.
In any case, a journalist from CBS news, Erin Moriarty, was at one of those shows, and she called me about a year later, and asked to work on a talk radio project with me “By the way,” she said, “you should submit some of your stuff to Sunday Morning.” I had no idea what she meant. I’d seen essays, yes, by Calvin Trillin and a geologist. I couldn’t figure out where I fit in. But I continued to perform on stage writing about how then-president Bush would, whenever his approval ratings went down, they would up the terror alert. It was so confusing that I got the terror alert color codes mixed up with the food pyramid, so on High Level days, I’d tend to eat more fruits and vegetables.
(I just realized I had glasses that I wasn’t using. Okay. Oh! My God! This is so much better.)
So anyway, sometimes those comments that I made on Sunday Morning essays would bring letters—letters calling me everything from nappy-headed, or as fat as Rush Limbaugh, to saying I should run for office and that I was making black folks proud. Or that I was an Uncle Tom. Or would that make me an Aunt Jemima? And, you know, I always wondered if those two were married in some sort of food-processing dual world.
In any case, the first essay that I pitched to Sunday Morning, and I got the gig, was about the conspiracy of high-heeled shoes. Sex in the City was a big hit in those days, and those girls ran around New York City in stilettos and Manolos, but did you notice that they never got a corn or a bunion, or even limped? See, I’ve never been comfortable in high heels myself. I’ve been 6’1” since I was 14, and my mom used to tell me to wear flats because they were more comfortable. I was in the movie Working Girl many years ago, and I wore bright blue high heels, blue stockings, a blue angora mini-dress, blue eye shadow, and my hair was relaxed and straightened—not tense like it is now; it’s very tense.
In any case, my hair was relaxed into this kind of poufy ’80s style, and as I was headed to the set, I took a final look at myself, “Yeah, you know, girl, you look good!” So there was a group of guys from the crew that were sitting around. And this one guy that I had my eye on sort of sauntered over to me, and I just knew he was going to ask me on a date. And he laughed a little, and he shook his head, and he said, “Listen. We’re taking bets. Are you male or female?” Yes! But, as crushed as I was, I worked that into the first essay that I did about the conspiracy of high-heeled shoes, and I made fun of that guy, because, if I was a drag queen, if I was a cross-dresser, I would have walked better in the shoes. Clearly! Well. Sunday Morning liked the piece, and they got some great mail about it. And that one TV essay led to a job I’ve had for the last 12 years.
And I love doing those commentaries and weighing in on some of the big conversations we’re having in this country. I love this work way more than playing a character. And I still don’t have a boyfriend. FYI. I’m fine about it. You know, why is that a measuring stick for women still? The relationship status, regardless of whatever else might be going on in our lives. Growing up, I remember that I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do. Where I wanted to go to college. Who I wanted to be. But not who I was going to be with! It simply wasn’t in my head. I wasn’t wired that way.
Did I blow it by not looking for a husband in college? Ladies, you’ll tell me later. And kids. Some days it seems like every women in New York City is having a baby. Even the men! On those days, I swear I see men that are pregnant. And once, when I was a few pounds heavier, wearing a baggy sweatshirt and you might remember one of these things called a Walkman under my sweatshirt. I was complimented by a stranger who said to me, “It’s a boy, right?” “No, I said, “it’s a Walkman.”
I love it when people say you can’t understand something unless you’ve had kids. It’s a real conversation killer if you haven’t had children. One time, in an audition waiting room, someone tried to include me in their group, saying, “Those of us with children, and those of use that are” – gesturing in my direction – “childless by choice.” Oh, so that’s what I am!
You know, people make so many assumptions, and I found myself sidestepping all of this advice that I wasn’t really looking for. “Oh, hi, yeah, adoption is great. I did read that artificial insemination article in the Times. Thanks for thinking of me.”
And here’s the thing. I always thought I’d have a daughter, and I imagined us hanging out and talking. “Mommy had you when she was very old. And she tires easily,” I’d tell her. “Be a good girl and pop a Lean Cuisine in the microwave. Hit the 4-minute button, that’s right, and ‘start’. Thank you!” And then the daydream is over and I wake to the sound of blood-curdling screams and a young boy pounding the floor of the cereal aisle in the supermarket as his mommy threatens him with a time out. And suddenly it’s all okay.
So in closing, I just want to tell you some of the things that through my journey have made sense to me. My list is called “Some Things that Make Sense to Me.” As opposed to “What I Know for Sure,” Because I’m not Oprah, and I don’t know anything for sure. In life, it’s smart to say, “I don’t know.”
You should be proud of yourself today, everyone, for what you’ve accomplished. Seriously. I would still be in college in an age with all these distractions and American Idol, and the Veruca Salt, “everything happens right now” mentality, so I’ve got to give it up to you guys.
You will make mistakes. You’ll get fired. You’ll sleep with the wrong people. You’ll work for free. You’ll see others succeed while you fail. Life isn’t fair! But there’s comedy in the unfairness. And all of this will help you to find your unique voice.
I have to remind you again: do not take this incredible education you have for granted. We’re living in a time where young girls in Nigeria, schools are being burned down, and they’re being kidnapped just for wanting to learn. And I know that you don’t take it for granted.
Don’t ever take the right to vote for granted. And as a sidebar, we really desperately need minds like yours in Congress, okay? Let me just say. The lesson for me of this Obama presidency is all politics are local. A president is not a dictator. He can’t act alone. Compromise is a good thing. Both hard left and hard right sides are wrong. Please, will you run for office? Please, all of you? I’m asking.
And by the way, some of the things that I said earlier about race that you laughed at, I hope, laughed about, that’s having the conversation about race that a lot of people talk about. We’re always having a conversation about race, so don’t freak out about it. It’s a messy, awkward, but ultimately fascinating process, as it should be.
So just as a reminder, if anything changes, everything changes.
In closing, I’d just like to congratulate you again. To say it’s very emotional for me to be here. I’m remembering… I’m remembering what I can about my own graduation day, and realizing that I did take it for granted; here’s so much I don’t remember. I hope that all of you look around, feel the seat that you’re sitting in, look at the grass, hug your family and your loved ones. Don’t take any of it for granted. It’s an incredible accomplishment.
And, in the end, the two most important tools I’ve used in my life that have helped me are therapy, and medication.
Thank you, and you all have a wonderful life. God bless you. Thank you. Thank you.