Graduation season is upon us. College grads are finishing up a crazy four years — two of them against the backdrop of a global pandemic — and many are looking forward to sitting in their seats, waiting for their names to be announced and receiving words of wisdom from someone of note in a rite of passage known as the commencement speech. Just this week, for example, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has been busy giving commencement speeches for Bunker Hill Community College and UMass Boston.

One of the most celebrated commencement speeches from recent years was from actor and screenwriter Charlie Day, of the popular show “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” The 2014 commencement address he delivered at his alma mater, Merrimack College, went viral for its wit and life lessons. What follows is a lightly edited transcript from a conversation with Day on GBH's Morning Edition.

Paris Alston: It makes you wonder, what does it take to write a good commencement speech? One that doesn't make the crowd yawn, or fall asleep or — the worst — get up and walk out. For an answer to that question, my co-host Jeremy Siegel, reached out to someone whose commencement speech has stood the test of time.

[cut to 2014 speech recording]

Charlie Day: I sat in those uncomfortable chairs. I dressed like some sort of medieval pastry chef. And I, too, desperately hoped that my hangover would wear off.

[recording ends]

Alston: That of course, is Charlie Day from “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” His hysterical and encouraging 2014 commencement address at his alma mater, Merrimack College in North Andover, has over two and a half million views on YouTube. Jeremy found out how it came about.

Jeremy Siegel: OK, cool. So to get started, what was your process for putting together a commencement address?

Day: I’d had a breakfast out here in Los Angeles with some people from Merrimack College, and they asked me if I would give a commencement address. And I sort of quickly just said, “Yeah, sure, that sounds like fun.” And then the reality of it started to set in on me where I thought, “Oh my gosh, wait a second, there's going to be people with their families with them. I have to think of something to say.” And I really didn't know how to approach it.

So I opened up one of my screenwriting applications — it's called Final Draft, you know something I would write an episode of “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia” with — and I wrote the character “Charlie.” And I wrote, like, “Charlie is at the podium.” And then I just started writing the speech bit by bit.

Siegel: So you were doing it in character, as Charlie?

Day: More or less in character, yeah, the character of Charlie Day. And so I just wrote it as if it was dialogue for movie or something.

And then I figured, also — I'm not a standup comedian, but I imagine there was a certain expectation that I would make the students laugh, right? So I thought, “OK, I've got to start with some jokes and then I have to work into some meaningful material and just see how it comes out.”

[cut to recording]

Merrimack announcer: I now have the honor of introducing this year's commencement speaker, Mr. Charlie Day.

Day, in speech: You are graduating from an excellent school today. Alumni have gone on to be CEOs, politicians, professional athletes. However, this year you will get to receive wisdom, life lessons, knowledge from a man who has made a living pretending to eat cat food.

[audience laughter]

"I wrote the character 'Charlie.' And I wrote, like, 'Charlie is at the podium.' And then I just started writing the speech bit by bit."

Siegel, speaking over the recording: You mentioned watching videos of past addresses — like you said, Conan O'Brien, Steve Jobs.

Day, in speech: I YouTube'd commencement speeches given by Conan O'Brien, Stephen Colbert, Steve Jobs. This was a terrible idea.

Siegel: And you mentioned in your speech the comments that they got on YouTube.

Day, in speech: And the YouTube comments. Oh, the world of snarky comments we're living in.

Siegel: Saying you don't give a — word I'm not going to say in public radio — what they say in comments to yours.

Day, in speech: I don't give a [bleeped expletive].

[audience laughter]

[recording ends]

Siegel: Have you looked at any comments on your speech since then?

Day, present day: Oh, I think sure. Yeah, I think after the fact. And it sort of surprised me, I wasn't expecting the speech to reach as large an audience as it did. And then, you know, I couldn't help but take a peek, I think, back in the day.

But it's interesting, I don't have any desire to do it again. I kind of feel like it's like walking a tightrope across skyscrapers. I'm like, “OK, I did it. I got to the other side. I don't need to put myself through that again.”

Siegel: Well, I was reading some of the comments recently. Some of the top ones are, “Admire Steve Jobs, and Conan is great. But I think Charlie Day's speech was the best commencement speech I've seen.” Another person wrote, “This is crazy awesome! I wish Charlie Day would've given my college's commencement speech!” The most upvoted one, which this is probably my favorite, is “the actual written speech was just symbols and drawings” — which, for people who don't know, that's a reference to “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

[cut to “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” clip]

Glenn Howerton, as Dennis Reynolds: This looks weird. What does that what do you make of that, guys?

Kaitlin Olson, as Dee Reynolds: It looks like a drawing of a pair of jeans, a plus sign and a chicken.

Day, as Charlie Kelly: Come on! All right, guys, see this what I'm talking about! “Illiteracy.” You know, what does that word even mean?!

[clip ends]

Day, present day: That would've been impressive, if that were true. Well, you know, those are flattering comments and that's good company to keep. I think when people think of me, they often think, “Steve Jobs, you know. Just they're like, one in the same.”

A Day On Set With "Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia"
Left to right, actors Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day act during a dance scene on the set of "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" on May 23, 2007 in Los Angeles, California.
Michael Buckner/Getty Images Getty Images North America

Siegel: Well, I mean, thinking back to when you gave that speech — and even further before. You know, I mean, you gave this speech in 2014, you mentioned at the time that “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia” was one of the longest-running comedies on TV. That was nearly a decade ago. You're still going. I mean, looking back even to yourself at Merrimack, when you were in college, how do you think you would be thinking about where you are right now?

Day: You know, I'm — I love what I get to do, and I'm grateful that I've gotten to do it. At the same time, you know, I still do have a side of me that says, "OK, but let's press through and accomplish more." I have a lot more that I want to do and things that I feel like I haven't accomplished that I could or that I should. So, you know, it's that balance.

But I'm sure when I was in Merrimack College, if you would've told me that all this would have panned out, I would have been really happy.

[cut to recording]

Day, in speech: Now, listen up. You cannot let a fear of failure or a fear of comparison or a fear of judgment stop you from doing what's going to make you great. You cannot succeed without this risk of failure. You cannot have a voice without the risk of criticism. And you cannot love without the risk of loss.

[recording ends]

Siegel: You gave this address that we've been talking about in 2014. Kids in school have obviously gone through a lot since then. What would your message to students graduating today be?

Day: You're asking me to do an impromptu graduation speech?

Siegel: Yeah. Yeah. After you said you never wanted to do one again.

Day: I mean, I didn't want to do it, and I spent a lot of time writing that one out. Oh, man.

I feel so much sympathy for these kids. I have a son and he's about to finish fourth grade. And this [pandemic] started for him in second grade. And I really feel for how much of his childhood that he's dealt with this — in closures and masking and Zoom and everything else.

But look, what are you going to do? You have to kind of carry on. And for the kids today, I would say, you don't pick yourself up and carry on. Look, you could have grown up through the Great Depression. You could have grown up through World War II. You could have been sent away to Vietnam. You're dealing with the pandemic. So, this is your burden to bear.

But that kind of stuff is not going to stop. I mean, since graduating college, I was living in New York City on 9/11. I've been through this pandemic. You know, things happen. You see things. That's just a part of life. So I would say just, just press on and just keep going — because there will be some dark times, but there will be plenty of light times. And, you know, you have to just carry on.

Siegel: Well, Charlie, you said in your address that you wanted to go by Dr. Charlie Day.

[cut to recording]

Day: And although I acknowledge that “Dr. Charlie Day” sounds like some sort of club DJ, I assure you, I intend to go by this title from now on.

[recording ends]

Siegel: I'm going to address you by your full title here: Dr. Charlie Day, thank you so much for talking with us.

Day: Thanks for watching “It’s Sunny” and being a fan and enjoying the speech. Look, getting to do all this is the gift that keeps on giving, so thank you so much.