Andy Rooney’s death may cause him to be re-evaluated in some circles – partly because people speak well of the dead, but also because the obituaries are making it clear who he was and what he did before he got the job as 60 Minutes commentator. A lot of the jokes about Rooney were based on the fact that if you were under a certain age (or even over a certain age; he was known, but he wasn’t hugely famous), you didn’t know exactly why he was there or why the show thought his opinion would matter to us. That’s easier to understand once you read about his life and career: he was a very experienced and talented writer, who was getting the chance to read his own essays on the air after successfully writing them for personalities like Harry Reasoner. In a sense, he had repeatedly proven that his opinions did matter to us; if they mattered when read by someone more famous, why shouldn’t they matter when he read them himself?
The TV essay, which Rooney specialized in both in his own segment and his writing for Reasoner, is sort of a lost art, and one reason Rooney seemed like a relic of an earlier age is that he kept doing his essay segment (successfully) after there weren’t many essays on television. The TV essay is different from a monologue, even a highly written and developed monologue like Dennis Miller’s old rants or Bill Maher’s “New Rules.” Those are done for an audience, and are “performed” speeches, as much comedy as commentary. The TV essay is usually a man or woman alone in a studio, speaking in a dry, airless acoustic, talking directly to us and reading out a formal piece of commentary: one with a beginning, middle and end – not necessarily in that order – which derives its force not simply from what is being said, but the way the thoughts are organized. At its worst, this is a person talking at us about things that irritate him but not us. But at its best, it’s a combination of television and magazine journalism, like reading a personal essay in a magazine, but with the added benefit of seeing the person’s face and hearing the person’s voice, so that it becomes truly personal in a way that a printed essay can’t be.
This requires a lot of preparation in the writing, and a chunk of screen time – a minute is a long time in a TV show – so it’s not surprising that this kind of essay doesn’t turn up much, or if it does, it’s in a debased form. (Bill O’Reilly’s “Talking Points” are sort of his version of an essay, but the talking points scroll is meant to give us something to latch on to in case we don’t want to listen to the words, and anyway, the words aren’t meant to be very interesting in and of themselves.) Radio is currently the domain of the personal essay, but it misses TV’s advantage of showing us the person’s face. So while the essay still shows up sometimes on TV, it just isn’t as big a part of it as it was; Rooney was a fine practitioner of the form, and he’ll be missed.