By now I’m sure you’ve heard that Andy Rooney passed away Friday at the age of 92. I would not say he was my idol. It is hard to idolize a curmudgeon who became famous primarily by writing short humorous essays complaining about the thousand slings and arrows of modern life. But as an amateur practitioner of the genre, I can say that Andy Rooney is one writer who is indispensable.
One of Andy Rooney’s last published books was Out of My Mind, a collection of short humorous pieces complaining about a variety of ailments, such as unreliable repairmen, deafening loudspeakers at the Super Bowl, and the semicolon; he really had it out for the semicolon. These are just a few of the many enemies, real and perceived, against which Andy Rooney led his charge. As a service to the reader, the pieces in the collection were organized by topic. I guess it as important to organize your complaints as it is your socks or silverware.
Andy Rooney explored modern-day annoyances the way Shakespeare explored the human soul. Nothing was left unscathed by his irascible tone. Degrading airport security measures, unconscionably priced concessions, opaque tax laws. But amidst all of the complaining and wishing, Andy Rooney’s writing is full of acceptance for the ways that life had changed since he was a boy in the mid-14th Century.
He accepted the changes in the English language: “High School English teachers are still insisting on ‘dived’ instead of ‘dove’ and ‘hanged’ instead of ‘hung.’ They’re fighting a losing battle.” He accepted changes in our healthcare system: “[E]veryone wears a stethoscope. They used to be doctors, but now even the people who empty the wastebaskets wear stethoscopes.” He even accepted that the America he loved was not number one in everything: “Not only is French food better than ours, but so is their national anthem. But that’s as far as I want to go being nice to the French.”
True, a lot of his writing was more complaint than humor. He even complained about the word “humor” (“I wish we spelled it the way the British do: H-U-M-O-U-R. It’s a better word with the ‘U’ in it.”). After reading a dozen of his essays in a row, one might wonder, “Does this guy like anything?” But he was doing us a favor. By diligently highlighting the empty half of every glass—and suggesting the suspect who likely drank from it last—Andy Rooney was showing us that he too shared our pain, and that laughing about it was not only possible, but necessary.
Of course, it was not always easy to tell if he was laughing or just insane. “What I want for my president is the smartest person in America,” he wrote. “Forget whether that person is experienced in politics.” He suggested that they design cell phones to “emit the pleasing sound of a solid brass knocker on a solid wooden door,” and that the President should appoint “a Secretary of Time” to shift doctors’ office hours to weekends.
But the piece that stands out the most for me is titled, “The History of History.” In it, Rooney observes that his children know more about World War II than he did about World War I. He attributes this disparity of knowledge to the fact that there are more and better records of World War II, particularly film. He ends the piece with a wish: “I hope that when future generations are exposed to the history of our era they get something besides Iraq, Watergate and Monica Lewinsky.” And they will. They will get a lot of complaining about our era. But thanks to Andy Rooney, at least the complaining will be funny.