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Andy Rooney as everyman

Did you ever notice that Andy Rooney was the TV equivalent of the cracker-barrel philosopher? The longtime “60 Minutes” essayist, who is stepping down at the age of 92, was a sophisticated former war correspondent, but in his brief commentaries he increasingly played the role of the curmudgeon whose crankiness concealed homespun wisdom. That put him in the company of Will Rogers and Mark Twain, but there also was a little Jerry Seinfeld in him. Or the other way around: Seinfeld’s observational humor was part of the Rooney repertoire first.

The cracker-barrel philosopher is a familiar figure in American culture. Long before the “tea party” declared war on out-of-touch elites, there was a cult of the common man who didn’t need book learnin’ to get to the heart of things and who expressed bafflement at the idiocies of the people who run things. It’s not surprising that such a figure would emerge in a nation that expanded rapidly beyond the self-satisfied East Coast. But even in the East there is a perennial appeal to the no-nonsense commentator on the pomposities of others.

That was Andy Rooney. But Rooney was also the aging everyman who finds himself bewildered by bizarre popular culture, ever-more-complicated consumer goods and other unsettling aspects of contemporary life. His cranky take on such matters resonated with viewers because it was clearly genuine, however artfully assembled. Like other icons, Rooney encouraged parody, and in his later years, he arguably parodied himself. Late in his run the objects of his observational humor often weren’t worth observing.

Overall, however, Rooney was pithy, amusing and, yes, philosophical. Had he retired 10 years ago, there would no doubt have been a search for a new cracker-barrel philosopher to dispense down-home insights. But today there are thousands, maybe millions, of Rooneys, except that they hold forth not on network television but in cyberspace. Sometimes encouraged by traditional broadcasters, Americans have taken to the electronic ether to express opinions that are often, like Rooney’s riffs, short and sarcastic.

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To which Rooney might reply: What’s the deal with all these blogs and tweets?


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