Critic’s Notebook: Andy Rooney signs off the way he signed on — with something to say
Andy Rooney, 92, said goodbye to “A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney” on Sunday night. It was the 1,097th edition of his well-known video essay, a regular feature of the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” since 1978. That is a lot of things to have been mystified, troubled, angered, moved or amused by, and a lot of years over which to be mystified, troubled, angered, moved and amused by them. Viewer reactions to Rooney’s pieces ranged similarly.
“There is so much going on in the world,” Rooney told newsman Morley Safer (a whippersnapper at 79) in the interview that preceded his last “Few Minutes.” “I would be embarrassed to say I couldn’t write a column.”
His subjects, ranging from the trivial to the momentous, included cookbooks, car names, dairy subsidies, the moon, pennies, arms control, warning labels, astrology, Clarence Thomas, the homeless, drug companies, Matisse, ghostwriters, television magazine shows, classified ads, Rodney King, Martha Stewart, the jury system, cold remedies, parking for the disabled, two Iraq wars, women on submarines, the NBA, 9/11, the death of Osama bin Laden, e-books, his eyebrows and the stuff on his desk: “Staple remover, one of the great inventions of modern times — better than the staple, I think.”
We don’t see many nonagenarians on television. Indeed, with Rooney’s retirement — or semi-retirement, with the door at “60 Minutes,” it has been loudly declared, remaining open to him — that number will slip to zero, at least until Betty White’s next birthday. For this alone, Rooney, who was nearly 60 when his “60 Minutes” run began, has performed a service, a weekly blow against a medium that habitually marginalizes the senior citizen. (Is there any greater insult that may be paid to a show or a network nowadays than that its audience skews old?)
His age was inextricable from his voice, for better and worse. He could take the long view, but he could also sound like a man out of time or, some would say, out of touch. Still, that’s the paradoxical nature of the curmudgeon’s art, to cut to the heart of a matter from a point of (sometimes willfully) limited understanding. (It’s where the jokes live.) To one viewer who accused him of being set in his ways, he responded, “Being set in my ways is what I do for a living.”
“I don’t say anything that’s offensive to people,” Rooney told Safer, downplaying his importance, though in his farewell address he also admitted having been “terribly wrong sometimes.” (But, he thought, right most often.) Safer alluded briefly to the 1990 controversy that had led to his temporary suspension from CBS — his including “homosexual unions” in a list of things that people had realized could kill you — and to the fact that Rooney had been “pretty nasty” at the time about the objections. But now, as then, he said he was sorry.
As an old-fashioned melting-pot liberal in an age of identity politics, he was bound to get into trouble sometimes. Some of these criticisms had merit; others just misread his rhetoric. (When, for example, he wrote, in his newspaper column, “I know all about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but today’s baseball stars are all guys named Rodriguez to me,” he was making a point about how little attention he paid to baseball, not about the ethnicity of the people who played it.)
Yet in a time when insult passes for entertainment and “Tell us what you think” has become a business model, the worst of Rooney’s transgressions are exceeded without comment a thousand times a day. And unlike many among the rowdier breed of commentators who now rule the air, Rooney has always been willing — if not always at first — to learn, to apologize and, even when he did not agree with his critics, to air their criticisms. That he preferred his reality to yours — “I don’t know who Lady Gaga is,” he said recently, “and kids today probably don’t know who Ella Fitzgerald was” — did not necessarily constitute a judgment.
Over the last couple of years, the pieces had grown shorter, less free-associatively discursive. There was a growing breathiness to his speech, a softness to his consonants, a whitening of the hair and a deepening of the jowls. To Safer’s question about how he liked old age, Rooney replied, “I hate it. I mean, I’m gonna die, and that doesn’t appeal to me at all.” But his writing has remained crisp, and his thinking, if somewhat more to the point, idiosyncratic.
The final installment of “A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney” constituted, as had many episodes before it, a description of Rooney himself in the world, with the camera pulled back a little farther to include the people he worked with and the people who watched him. (Was he really as difficult a character as he could sometime seem? Yes, the answer seemed to be, and no.) But it mostly concerned what it meant to him to be a writer. He got into television, he said, “because I didn’t think anyone was paying enough attention to the written word,” and he never thought of himself as a television personality, but “a writer who reads what he’s written,” in an effort to tell the truth.
“I believe that if all the truth were known about everything in the world,” he said, “it would be a better place to live.”
He has left the air short of that goal. “This is a moment I’ve dreaded,” he said. “I wish I could do this forever. I can’t, though. But I’m not retiring. Writers don’t retire, and I’ll always be a writer.”
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