Andy Rooney died last week at the age of 92. He went into the hospital for some minor surgery, there were complications, and he died. In the wake of his passing, people will write many, many obituaries about what he meant, and what he symbolized. And it’s a good thing Rooney isn’t alive for this process, because it would totally annoy him. He would insist that his death is essentially meaningless and that strangers who argue otherwise are idiotic. And I’d like to think he’d be wrong about this, but he’d probably be right.
What people will remember about Andy Rooney are things like this: He’d open a can of mixed nuts on 60 Minutes and separate the various nuts by type, and then he’d count how many of each nut were in the can. What made this so interesting (at least to me) was not the metaphor this act represented; what was interesting was that there was no metaphor at all. It wasn’t a veiled sociological commentary or a criticism of advertising or a meditation on consumerism. It wasn’t about anything, except the contents of the can. This, I suspect, is why Rooney’s seemingly banal essays were so infuriating to a certain kind of person: We have come to assume that whenever a media personality talks about something basic, he or she is actually trying to explain something complex. The idea that someone on television would just sit at his desk and complain about mixed nuts and have it only be about the ostensive subject — without a larger meaning and without a defined purpose — seemed facile and ridiculous. But isn’t it equally ridiculous to assume trivial thoughts are only worth considering when we pretend they represent something else? As a self-defined atheist, Rooney would have never pretended that filtering peanuts could help us understand the nature of existence; he was wholly resigned to the fact that we couldn’t even understand the nature of peanuts.
“Being set in my ways is what I do for a living,” Rooney said in 2009. Obviously, he had a good job. He was weekly proof that the world changes faster than those who inhabit it. Many of his monologues (especially during the last 10 years of his tenure) were based around a universal human experience: Things used to be one way and now they’re not, and that feels strange and possibly sad. He was the grumpiest of the grumpy, even while acting younger than he actually was (how many 90-year-olds have TV jobs?). So was this an act? Was he secretly, privately ebullient? Perhaps. But that would make him the greatest actor of his generation.
In the months before Grantland’s summer launch, I attempted to interview Andy Rooney. It was supposed to be the first profile on the site (I’m not sure why I was so obsessed with that idea, but I was). I sent an e-mail (requesting three hours of nonspecific conversation) to CBS News communication director Kevin Tedesco, who forwarded the request to Rooney’s assistant. I received a response the same day: “Not interested.” This was not surprising. One thing Rooney always made clear was that he simply wasn’t interested in things he found frivolous, despite an overwhelming professional preoccupation with dwelling on negligible inconveniences no one else cared about. He famously refused to sign autographs for fans, sometimes directly telling the autograph-seekers that what they wanted was stupid and undignified. And I’m sure that hurt a few people’s feelings. I’m sure those people thought, “I just want a keepsake. I just want a memory of this encounter. I want to look at this person’s signature and remember I once met a famous person, and I want proof that this famous person recognized my existence. I want to have a little piece of this man that I can keep forever, and all it takes is 10 seconds of his time.” But that was never Andy’s perception. He saw his autograph as a sequence of cursive letters that represented nothing, because he lived in the real, which is also where he died.
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