Pritzker delivers ‘The Office’-themed Northwestern commencement address — with Steve Carell in audience

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday gave Northwestern University graduates practical advice he learned from some of his favorite characters on “The Office.” But according to that other office — the governor’s office — Pritzker didn’t know one of the stars of the show would be there in person.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives the commencement address at Northwestern University on Monday. His speech, delivered at Ryan Field, offered guidelines to students using quotes from the TV show “The Office” to provide guidelines for students. Steve Carell, one of the stars of that show, was in the audience because one of his children was graduating.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times, Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday gave Northwestern University graduates practical advice he learned from some of his favorite characters on “The Office.”

But the Democratic governor didn’t know he’d be delivering a commencement address in front of Michael Scott himself, according to Pritzker’s office.

Actor Steve Carell, who played Scott on the show, along with his wife, Nancy, who also appeared on the sitcom, were at Ryan Field to celebrate their daughter’s graduation from the university.

Just after receiving an honorary degree from his alma mater, Pritzker offered up a 23-minute address full of personal stories about parenting and governing. He paired his tips with quotes from the popular sitcom, like the character Jim Halpert on being a dad of two: “Having a baby is exhausting. Having two babies — now that’s just mean.”

“Like most of the parents here, having children turned me from a fun, cool, spontaneous person who could stay up past midnight to a functional madman who answers the phone, ‘Yello’ and won’t let anyone in my house touch the thermostat,” Pritzker, a father of two college-aged children, said.

Pritzker said he and his wife M.K. were concerned their son Donny couldn’t read time as a kindergartner, based on a tip from his teacher. The intel put the Pritzkers into a deep spiral of what they did wrong — with the couple purchasing multiple clocks, including a talking analog clock, and obsessively proclaiming the time like a “Mad Hatter” so Donny could learn.

But Pritzker said Donny fessed up — a year later — that he had lied and just couldn’t think of anything to tell his teacher when she asked what he needed help with.

“If you think your parents are crazy, it’s important that you understand you made us this way,” he said to laughs. “We are experts in worrying about you. And this affliction just gets worse with time and distance.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is walks in alongside Michael H. Schill, president of Northwestern University, at Ryan Field in Evanston on Monday, June 12, 2023.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is walks in alongside Michael H. Schill, president of Northwestern University, at the school’s 156th annual commencement ceremony at Ryan Field in Evanston on Monday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Invoking another character from the show, Dwight Schrute, who once said, “Whenever I’m about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if they would, I do not do that thing,” Pritzker threw a dig at former President Donald Trump.

“I wish there was a foolproof way to spot idiots, but counterintuitively, some idiots are very smart. They can dazzle you with words and misdirection. They can get promoted above you at work,” Pritzker said. “They can even get elected president.”

“If you want to be successful in this world, you have to develop your own idiot detection system,” Pritzker advised. The governor said he counts “empathy and compassion” as part of his “idiot detection system” — while also judging those who have never seen the original “Star Wars” movies.

“Over my many years in politics and business, I have found one thing to be universally true: the kindest person in the room is often the smartest,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker said “real wisdom” comes with age — and usually not when you expect it. The governor said the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 gave him “a greater appreciation for just how much you don’t know.” He said the early days “felt like waking up every day on a raft in the middle of the ocean, frantically searching the horizons for some land to anchor your feet on.”

“I knew that my job was to minimize the damage this deadly disease was doing, but no one could guide me toward the absolute best way to do that,” Pritzker said. “As Michael Scott said, ‘I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.’”

Graduating Northwestern University students listen to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker give the commencement address at Ryan Field in Evanston on Monday, June 12, 2023.

Graduating Northwestern University students listen to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker give the commencement address at Ryan Field in Evanston on Monday. Pritzker used the TV show “The Office” as his theme — and one of the stars of the show, Steve Carell, was in the audience to watch his daughter graduate.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

He said that in some of the major crises that have come his way, moving forward, even slowly, has always been the answer.

“The absolute best thing you can do is start to make decisions, even small ones. Just get yourself moving. Pick something you can tackle and do it,” Pritzker said. “Let your small decisions beget medium decisions, which will beget big decisions. Some of your decisions will be brilliant in retrospect. Others will be less so. If you make a mistake, apologize and move on. Talk to people you trust and more importantly, listen to them.”

Pritzker’s office said Carell and the governor met briefly after the address, with Carell telling him he liked his speech. Both Pritzker and his chief of staff, Anne Caprara, wrote the speech before learning Carell would be in the audience — and both are self-avowed die-hard “The Office” fans.

Actor Steve Carell greets Gov. J.B. Pritzker after the governor’s commencement address at Northwestern University on Monday, June 12, 2023.

Actor Steve Carell greets Gov. J.B. Pritzker after the governor’s commencement address at Northwestern University on Monday. Pritzker’s speech referenced Carell’s hit TV show, “The Office.”

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