Appreciation: Andy Rooney, 1919-2011
The American humorist Andy Rooney, who last month retired from his longtime seat on the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes," which he would cap each week with an observation about this thing or that -- or more often this thing and that, and then another thing -- died Friday night at the age of 92.
Rooney, whose job was to be publicly himself for a few minutes every Sunday evening, was inescapably different things to different people, and even from essay to essay: On the one hand, a teller of truths, old enough to remember a world that made a little more sense, or wise enough to imagine the world in which we finally might get it right; on the other, a mean old man yelling at some damn kids to get off his lawn. (Cameron Crowe's recent documentary "Pearl Jam Twenty," about the Seattle rock band, replays at length Rooney's less than gracious remarks on the 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain, and the generation that idolized him.)
Indeed, Rooney was nearly (or almost nearly) a senior citizen when he began his long last act on "60 Minutes" -- 33 years encompassing 1,079 editions of his secular sermonette, "A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney." He had already lived a professional lifetime by then, beginning as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes during World War II and entering into television in its infancy, where he would write for both entertainer Arthur Godfrey and newsman Harry Reasoner. These comic and journalistic voices he would later combine in his own work, beginning in the 1960s with the video essays he wrote for Reasoner and then, in the '70s, the self-hosted prime-time specials, including "Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington" and "Mr. Rooney Goes to Work," that first established him as an on-air personality.
There are a lot of people talking on television today, in the precincts where Rooney worked, and many of them are talking without much reflection, wit or attention to the words they use. They deal only in volume: They speak loud and they speak long. As a TV personality, Rooney was always foremost a writer -- there, in his cluttered office-as-set was his typewriter for the world to see -- and even with the multiple digressions that were a hallmark of his style, he did not belabor a point. And he made his points quietly. His language was deceptively elegant, colloquial but precise.
Like his fellow video essayist, the late Charles Kuralt -- another longtime employee of CBS, for what that's worth -- Rooney paid exacting attention to the small and overlooked things of the world: The first of the video specials he wrote for Reasoner was titled "An Essay on Doors." Although he was reflexively called a curmudgeon -- not least because, with his beetling white brows, he looked the way we imagine a curmudgeon would -- he also spoke often of things he loved: elastic bands, dogs, New York weather. Even his complaints more often than not betrayed a general delight with the strangeness of the world, not a desire to be shut of it.
He was, of course, a performer; the person you saw leaning confidentially toward you on television was a Rooney edited and organized -- by Rooney -- for comic effect. (When he was simply serious, by contrast, as when commenting on the Oklahoma City bombing, the Challenger disaster or the death of Osama bin Laden, he was simply himself.) But it was a performance informed by real ideas wrought from years' experience.
That experience now includes the last experience of all: "I hate it. I mean, I'm gonna die," Rooney told Morley Safer, when asked how he liked old age in an interview that accompanied his final "60 Minutes" broadcast, "and that doesn't appeal to me at all." He would have gotten a good piece out of his own passing; it's a shame we won't get to see it.
-- Robert Lloyd
Photo: Andy Rooney in 1979. Credit: Los Angeles Times