Andy Rooney: Each Sunday he looked at the everyday
NEW YORK (AP) — It would be interesting to know what Andy Rooney would say now about the great beyond.
But if there's a hereafter for the once lovably cantankerous commentator on CBS News' "60 Minutes," he, even as a new arrival, would already have some pointed reactions — and some bones to pick.
Sure, it's Paradise. But who can sleep with all that harp-playing? Maybe he's still miffed about the long line at the Pearly Gates. And, though he was never a fashion plate, he might have a beef with wearing white after Labor Day.
That was Rooney's style during his 92-year life and remarkable career. He shrewdly observed the world he shared with the rest of us, and then gave voice to the everyday vexations and conundrums that afflict us all.
"I probably haven't said anything here that you didn't already know or have already thought," he declared in his final "60 Minutes" essay — his 1097th — on Oct. 2, 2011. "That's what a writer does."
Despite his decades as a "60 Minutes" fixture, Rooney was a writer, not a talking head. Words, not vamping for the camera, were his stock in trade since his first "60 Minutes" essay in 1978, just as words were his business for more than 30 years before that.
Rooney, who died Friday, had been a champion of words on TV ever since he joined CBS in 1949 as a writer for the red-hot "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." Within a few years he was also writing for such CBS News public-affairs such as "The Twentieth Century" and "Calendar."
A World War II veteran who reported for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, he came from an ink-on-dead-trees brand of journalism that he never renounced. (During his CBS career, he had a syndicated newspaper column and published 16 books.) So it was logical that he would join "60 Minutes" with its inception in 1968. After all, the legendary creator of "60 Minutes," Don Hewitt, is well remembered for insisting that, even on the visual medium of TV, the words should come first and the pictures follow. A decade later, Rooney was 59. At an age when many people might be pondering retirement, he took his seat before the camera to deliver his first "60 Minutes" essay.
Beetle-browed and rumpled, he wasn't telegenic by conventional standards. But nobody minded, or even noticed. Viewers listened to his words and his wry delivery, and he caught on.
One reason is clear: He tapped into experiences common to his audience.
In his opinion pieces, he drew from a wellspring of random nuisances and absurdities, noting how life often doesn't add up, especially in the modern day. This nettled him mightily, and his essays gave us license to be irked, too, as we tapped into our own inner fuddy-duddy.
One Sunday, for example, Rooney focused on motion-picture credits. There are too many of them. They take too long. Who cares, anyway? Things were better when he was a kid, without all those names cluttering the screen and wasting everybody's time.
Another week, he marveled that, "If I'm so average American, how come I've never heard of most of the musical groups" — such as Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Usher — "that millions of other Americans apparently are listening to?"
He raised topics on which we all could readily agree: how packages misleadingly are bigger than the volume of product they contain, and how "computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don't need to be done." Amen!
He validated things in his own wry style that everybody knows: Like, how air travel stinks and how "nothing in fine print is ever good news."
He took notably bold stands on certain major issues. He was one of television's few voices to strongly oppose the war in Iraq when it began.
But there were easy targets, too. "There are a lot of know-nothing boobs who don't appreciate the modern art being put up in public places in all our cities," he declared peevishly one week. "I know this is true, because I'm one of those know-nothing boobs."
Then, occasionally, he strayed into areas beyond his understanding. For example, he dismissed Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide as, in effect, a selfish act. What did Cobain know about suffering? The 27-year-old rock star hadn't suffered through a war or the Depression! (The next week, he apologized on the air.)
He could play rough.
"One of my major shortcomings — I'm vindictive," he pleasantly acknowledged in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press. "I don't know why that is. Even in petty things in my life I tend to strike back. It's a lot more pleasurable a sensation than feeling threatened."
He summed up: "There's no question I have a negative streak, which has served me well."
Indeed. But if Rooney sometimes championed a get-off-my-lawn brand of crankiness, there was usually a twinkle in his eye and a "we're-in-this-together" tone to his writing that gave comfort to his flock.
"I've done a lot of complaining here," he acknowledged in his farewell commentary, and voiced a parting complaint: He doesn't like being famous, nor does he like being bothered by fans. "I walk down the street now or go to a football game and people shout, 'Hey, Andy!' And I hate that." No autographs, please.
"But of all the things I've complained about, I can't complain about my life." Without even being told, his fans always knew that beneath Rooney's grumbling was gratitude for all the good things — his family, his job, his country — that life had given him. His fans identified with that, too.
Oh, sure, there were viewers who grew weary of his act, of his comments on the fleeting and the mundane (which, in a popular parody of Rooney, would begin as "Didja ever notice ...?" — a phrase he insisted he had never used). Detractors thought he had long outstayed his welcome.
Even so, as he delivered his final essay — which he titled "My Lucky Life" — he spoke for much of the "60 Minutes" audience when he said, "This is a moment I have dreaded. I wish I could do this forever. I can't though."
Then he insisted he wasn't retiring: "Writers don't retire and I'll always be a writer."
For Rooney, it all came down to the writing, the words: simple, succinct, sometimes pungent, sometimes funny. And not many of them in a single serving.
His voice is stilled now, but never fear: If there are computers in heaven doing needless tasks, or forms containing fine print, or "the dullest" Olympic sport of curling, odds are Rooney is writing a cantankerous response.