Andy Rooney: Brilliant Satirist or Batshit Looney?

By Justin Wolf

Noah Cross, the sadistic villain played by John Huston in the movie Chinatown, succinctly said, “Politicians, buildings and whores all become respectable if they last long enough.” The very same posit can be applied, quite unfortunately, to CBS’s Andy Rooney. He withers away in front of our very eyes, one Sunday broadcast after the next, near-animatronically propped up at his desk, quaintly book-ended by his various knick-knacks and stacks of periodicals. These walls seem to narrow with each passing episode of 60 Minutes, but its producers still manage to squeeze him into the shot, its cameramen capturing every subtle waddle from his gabbing face.

Of all Noah Cross’s conditions for respectability, Andy Rooney’s job title falls outside the ranks, but his place as a respectable broadcaster is nonetheless firm. How else does one explain his presence? His persistent, unrelenting presence? It’s always been the lighter fare; a buoyant juxtaposition to the news magazine’s usual catalogue of gut-wrenching exposés on corporate greed or war-torn municipalities. This is a clever and commonly used strategy; the sports or weather report typically wraps up the local news, Nightline’s “A Sign of the Times” is left until 11:55, Charlie’s Gibson’s “Person of the Week” ends ABC’s nightly news on Fridays, and all are presented with a barrage of smiles and airy innocence meant to leave their viewers unscathed, and it works. Andy Rooney’s weekly “report,” on the highly regarded 60 Minutes no less, is designed and presented with just this strategy in mind, but the overall format has been hijacked by a man too decrepit to make even elderly, eccentric babbling seem charming.

At 7:55pm this past November 25th, Andy Rooney shot off yet another one of his trademark observations. “I’m always looking for major changes in our way of life in America and I think I’ve noticed one cosmic change in what people are doing.” Wow, “cosmic,” huh!? At this moment one might assume he’s getting his journalistic chops back. Oh, but don’t get too excited.

However feeble Rooney has become, he’s kept his verbal cadence in cool check. (This is possibly the only thing that keeps me from lunging head first into the television, to change the channel of course, and maybe do other things to my body).

ROONEY: It is my observation that people are carrying more stuff than they used to. You don’t see anyone carrying nothing. Many people are carrying things to work even though usually what they’re carrying doesn’t have anything to do with their work.

WOMAN ON STREET: I have [a] donut, wallet, sunglasses, BlackBerry, make-up case,digital camera.

ROONEY: I should think women might be getting stronger than they used to be too because the bags they carry are heavier. I hadn’t realized women were so well organized but one of the items most women are carrying is what they call a “planner.” They carry “planners” and a bottle of water. When they left the house that morning, they planned to drink water I guess.

My, what an observant curmudgeon you are, what inquisitive powers of deduction you weave, what… what in god’s name are you talking about? He was beginning to sound like an Alzheimer’s patient a day or two past the brink; like a man no longer deserving of a camera, no matter how carefully its aim threaded the walls of his cluttered workspace. Are you able to attach those words to his voice? Of course you are. His voice is as recognizable as JFK’s. Talk about a worrisome notion.

If I were a conspiracy theorist in the least, I might conclude that CBS’s stubborn insistence in staging this lunatic week after week was simply an excuse to inconspicuously broadcast nationalist propaganda, in which “bag” means bomb and “women” means terrorist cells. Then, I might laugh instead of cry. Solving puzzles is fun; trying to create one out of Rooney’s albeit well-enunciated babble is both sad and futile.

Wake up tomorrow morning, perform your normal preparatory ritual, and walk out the door. What’s the first thing you see? Maybe it’s the garbage man dismounting an idling truck: Why is it that garbage men are always “men”? It would seem fair, or even expected, that women would have been able to break into this traditionally misogynistic racket. I did some research on this, and discovered that American women gained the right to vote all the way back in 1920. 1920! But why is it they have yet to gain the basic right to pick up their neighbor’s curb-side garbage? The Southern states stopped labeling water fountains ‘Whites’ and ‘Colored’ some time ago. I don’t remember labeling my garbage can ‘Men.’ That’s because I didn’t. I would say it’s about time, that women got a taste of the garbage.

Or maybe you see a neighbor in his sweats taking the dog out for a morning walk: Men don’t wear hats as much as they used to. I mean, really, when was the last time you saw any man wear a hat that wasn’t emblazoned with a Boston Red Sox ‘B’ or an intermingled New York Yankees ‘NY’? Baseball caps of every style and sort can be found in any town, any city, they’re everywhere! Here’s a young boy who has fashioned the rim of his cap to an inverted ‘U’ (cut to stock footage of preppy white kid with pre-dirtied ball cap). Here’s another boy whose rim is simply left alone. This thing is flat enough to balance his books while he walks to school (cut to black kid with freshly-bought cap). But these are just boys. What happens when they grow up to be men? The hats seem to disappear the older we become. I have a hat. I still wear my fedora everywhere I go, so did my father. His father had a derby. Hats are more than just items to block out the sun, they’re a statement, a way of life, or at least they were. I don’t know about you, but when I go home tonight, I’ll be wearing my hat just the same.

Or maybe you see a few folks on foot, carting their various backpacks and messenger bags to school or work or Normaltown. But no longer may I poke fun. Here we return to Rooney’s actual broadcast:

ROONEY: If people don’t have something in their arms, they’re carrying it on their back. Backpacks are almost as common as pocket books. Some of them are attached to the back of the person carrying them. You wonder what they have in there that’s so important.MAN ON STREET: There are some newspapers, some notebooks and various odds and ends I use for work.

ROONEY: Some backpacks are so heavy they’re no longer “back” packs. They’re “wheel packs.” I talked to a lot of people, and most of them who were going to work had a book in their bag. There were big books and small books, but everyone on their way to work was carrying some kind of a book.

ROONEY (still): It was my inescapable conclusion that there’s a lot of book reading going on at the office, on company time.

If not for Rooney’s “inescapable conclusion,” I wouldn’t have given the writing of this article a first thought. But alas, there he is with his jowls flapping away, applying his curious version of the scientific method. Take for instance his brilliant literal deduction of the “wheel pack” from the poorly labeled “back pack” on wheels; didn’t Jerry Seinfeld or some other observational comedian already cover this tedious ground with bits on the “grape fruit” and “egg plant”? “Democratic Republic” anyone? Yes, we get it, why call it a backpack when it doesn’t go on your back? I love that this woebegone attempt to point out the ludicrousness of linguistics even passes for lighthearted journalism. I love it because it’s a clear indicator that the bottom has officially fallen out, and the only recourse left is to rebuild. No longer must we wait for the last remnants of journalistic integrity to crumble before our eyes, Andy Rooney has accomplished this for us.

More than anything, I wanted Rooney to unleash the punch line, the clever hook that instantly inverts the viewers’ perception that he is a batshit looney, and that after all those red herrings, he really is a brilliant satirist. These “a lot of people” Rooney approached on the street all happened to be walking along New York City streets, the very ones flooded with millions of pedestrians, and behold, they’re carrying stuff. Books and bottles and satchels of things, laptops and iPods and gadgets, bags of every color and size, make and model. Rooney must have felt like a nun on acid. He was the only one not in on the joke of his own design. The more he persisted, the more it pained me to hear that sweet, adorable voice pounding its head harder and harder into the most basic of logics.

ROONEY: Most of the people carrying books denied that they read at work of course.

ROONEY (on street): On company time?

MAN: Of course not. No, no, no. On my break.

ROONEY: At the office?

MAN: No, No.

ROONEY: Do you read on company time?

MAN: No, I read on the subway.

WOMAN: A book to read, a book I need to study for later on.

ROONEY: At the office?

WOMAN: No!

ROONEY (back at his desk): Next time you’re walking down the street, look  around and see if there’s anyone who isn’t carrying something.

Let us assume the conspiracy theory has some merit, and that Rooney is having a little fun with it. He might be poking fun at our current everyone-should-be-a-terrorist-watchdog state of affairs or ironically asserting himself as one of the 1,944 New Yorkers who “saw something and said something.” Andy Rooney saw a backpack and said “wheel pack.” One can only wish he were that clever, instead of just plain observant, and even that’s a stretch.

What a waste. What a waste of such potentially good satire. He strives to craft his commentaries into time capsule form, into a sort of When people began carrying books to work, I was there. And when backpacks were first equipped with wheels, I was there. You’ll thank me later. Spare us Andy. You can’t bury a time capsule where there’s mortar and concrete any more than you can point out that people are “carrying stuff” and convince us that it’s “cosmic.”

Conclusion: Batshit Looney.

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Justin Wolf is a first year Liberal Studies student and a co-editor of canon. He enjoys telling people that he’s earning an MA in Liberal Studies just to see the befuddled looks on their faces.  His writings include cultural criticism, personal essays, social commentary, and creative non-fiction.  One day he hopes to challenge Andy Rooney to a staring contest, in this world or the next.