In ancient times, when Saturday Night Live was funny and Wicker Park was cheap, the Sun-Times was a great paper. The left-leaning tabloid was filled with terrific reporting, and mornings started with Mike Royko on the second page. Best of all, you could read it on the el without giving yourself muscle spasms finding the jump.
You can still read the Sun-Times on the el, but everything else has changed. Its editorial page has gone so far right it makes the Tribune look positively socialist. Chicago’s cheaper daily still has great reporters, but the local news hole keeps getting smaller, crowded out by wire copy, inane features like “Susanah’s Night Out,” and columns, columns, columns. Some of the columnists are good. Most are hit-and-miss. And then there’s Richard Roeper, whose rise to fame is one of the mysteries of civilization, along with Stonehenge and the statues of Easter Island.
Reading Roeper’s columns is like gaping at a traffic accident: you hate yourself for it, but it’s so awful you have to look. Each column answers the question “What would the most boring guy in the bar say about this subject?” He’s worse than the much vilified Bob Greene–at least Greene, in his bumbling way, occasionally writes about something that matters. Roeper’s banality is as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon. And as with that mass of hollowness, you get a better perspective on Roeper’s oeuvre if you view it from a distance.
With that in mind, here are some of the topics he covered in the first month of 2001 alone:
January 4: Roeper explores the origins of the expression “boo-yeah.”
January 8: He marks the death of George magazine and talks about all the famous people he saw at the 1996 Democratic convention.
January 11: President Clinton talks with Roeper about the fact that today’s movies are too long. Roeper strongly warns him against Little Nicky.
On January 16 he reveals the fact that if you misdial the CTA’s hot line you get a sex line.
January 18: Roeper prints a suicidal letter from a woman who says she does not get dates because she is not attractive enough. Roeper concedes, thoughtfully, that some people have evolved enough that appearance doesn’t matter. However, he admits, “I’m certainly not one of them.”
In February he turns introspective:
On February 5 he recounts three major fights with friends over E-mail in the last year and tries to categorize this as a trend rather than a personal problem.
On February 7 he’s amazed that Jennifer Lopez is so popular.
On February 20 he responds to critics who call him “the whitest man in America” and “that really white guy,” failing to grasp that the criticism refers to his one-inch-square viewpoint, not his color.
On February 25 he’s shocked by the raunchy lyrics in “It Wasn’t Me” and longs for the innocent days of “Car Wash.”
On February 27 he marvels at how soft he has it reviewing movies for a living.
In March and April, Roeper seems obsessed with celebrities and money:
March 7: Tells where to find embarrassing videos of celebrities, including Kimmi from Survivor II.
March 18: Thinks that there are too many stupid traditions on the Academy Awards show.
March 28: Reports that Hugh Hefner’s twin ex-girlfriends, Sandy and Mandy Bentley, are actually sleazy and superficial.
March 29: Annoyed that the guy selling him a $4.14 cup of coffee can’t make change.
April 3: Complains about Barbra Streisand complaining about the Democrats.
April 19: Notices that buttons are always the first thing to go on clothes and that vending machines are always spitting back your dollar.
And so on, ad nauseam, through the summer. Fast-forward to September 11. Aside from a few features from ground zero (they actually sent him to New York!), surprisingly little changes in Roeper’s world. Things may be crumbling around him, but Rich watches TV, surfs the Internet, quotes from The Blues Brothers, and feels good about being smarter than the people on Survivor II.
On September 14 he borrows an essay style popular among fourth-graders, in which he begins every sentence with “I am,” as in “I am the Spirit of America” and “I am the Stars and Stripes waving proudly. . .” This goes on for about 1,000 words, with 34 “I am”s.
On October 3 he encounters annoying skateboarders, which leads him to muse about kids always trying to annoy their elders.
October 16: How about those Bears?
October 17: Assures us that it’s all right to laugh at the Ground Zero Geek.
October 18: Predicts the winner of Survivor Africa.
October 29: Everyone’s wearing those “FDNY” hats. Roeper has one too.
On Tuesday, November 6, he discusses what he watched on TV on Sunday, “the finest day in the history of entertainment television,” and repeats jokes from Ellen DeGeneres’s appearance on the Emmys that had already been in the papers on Monday.
November 7: What Rich is reading, including the autobiography of DeGeneres’s ex-lover, Anne Heche.
In the week of November 12, a plane crashed in Queens, Kabul fell to rebel forces, and Richard Roeper was on vacation. It was a great week for journalism.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Mike Werner.