Whitties treated to Idle banter

A few sacred cows were slaughtered in British comedian Eric Idle’s commencement speech.

British commedian Eric Idle delivers his commencement address to the 2013 graduating class at Whitman College.

British commedian Eric Idle delivers his commencement address to the 2013 graduating class at Whitman College. Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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WALLA WALLA — What some considered the third-best commencement speaker in the nation turned out to be the best choice for the Whitman College graduating class of 2013.

About 275 graduates and 4,000 faculty, family and friends in attendance at Sunday’s ceremony laughed, sang and whistled to the antics of actor, playwright, author, composer, performer and, most of all, renowned comedian Eric Idle.

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British comedian Eric Idle leads the a gathering of about 4,000 people in the Monty Python song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” at the close of his commencement speech.

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A small plane pulls an aerial banner congratulating Whitman College's 2013 graduating class after the school's commencement exercises Sunday.

“So you don’t have to say we just had that twit from Monty Python,” Idle said.

The self-effacing joke evoked plenty of laughs — as did many others to follow — especially because it came shortly after Whitman College President George Bridges noted that Idle was ranked as the third best commencement speaker in the nation in an article published by MSN Now.

Oprah Winfrey was first and President Barak Obama came in second.

Idle, at least, beat Julie Andrews, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms (who plays Andy Bernard of The Office), Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Dalai Lama and seven others.

Perhaps it was to be expected that Idle would be this year’s commencement speaker, since his daughter Lily Idle was one of this year’s Whitman College graduates.

“We proud parents are here to salute you, and to give thanks that we don’t have to pay anymore Whitman fees,” Idle said in his stoic British delivery.

As if having his daughter graduate weren’t enough of a reason, the college kicked in an honorary doctorate for Idle.

“My wife is thrilled. Finally she is married to a doctor,” Idle quipped, which was followed by yet another joke.

“And I am thrilled because I can now prescribe my own medical marijuana.”

For 15 minutes Idle had the audience laughing an average of every 10 to 15 seconds. There were a good number of jokes about Brits and royalty, but most of the humor was about the peculiarities he sees in Americans.

“A quick word on the Second Amendment, which I think I can understand,” Idle said, venturing into a highly controversial topic that he still made funny.

“Let me assure you, we Brits aren’t coming back. So you don’t need that many muskets.”

If Idle’s 15 minutes of witty advice wasn’t enough to confirm he was the best choice for commencement speaker, then it was established clearly in the end with a special presentation that Bridges introduce with the following statement: “And now for something completely different.”

What followed was a closing performance by Idle that will leave the graduating class of 2013 wondering if they did in fact have the best commencement speaker this year.

If Idle wasn’t, well at least he got to lead 4,000 people in singing and whistling in unison the chorus of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” the song from Monty Python’s 1979 film “Life of Brian.” For a video of the musical interlude, click here.

Maybe Idle wasn’t the number one commencement speaker according to MSN Now. But as far as graduations go, it was something completely different for Whitman College.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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