Emmy Award-winner Mo Rocca sees dead people. More specifically, the television personality and humorist sees the dearly departed in a way that few others can.
Rocca, widely known as a correspondent and occasional host for CBS Sunday Morning, boasts a deft ability to craft lively tales of the dead through his Mobituaries, a No. 1 podcast and now, a best-selling new book: Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving.
Rocca comes to Dallas for a conversation with Krys Boyd of KERA as part of the Dallas Museum of Art's Arts & Letters Live series, 7:30 pm January 22 at Moody Performance Hall. (The event is sold out.)
Rocca's immensely popular podcast and new book aim to do justice to people who didn’t always receive a fair shake in their prime. Icons such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and Lawrence Welk — whom he calls a “badass” — get well-researched and in-depth sendoffs. But his Mobituaries also pay homage to cultural phenomenons of yore: the station wagon, the Reconstruction, even dragons.
In the ephemera that is pop culture, Rocca slows down to tell long, detailed, “whatever happened to?” stories. (His tribute to ’80s pop singer Laura Branigan of “Gloria” fame is simply a must-listen.)
“One of the sobering lessons of working on this project is that we’re all going to be forgotten very quickly,” Rocca says. Little wonder, then, why the living are flocking to his tales of the deceased.
CultureMap caught up with Rocca in advance of his visit to talk Mobits, his stint on the Daily Show, and the time he lived in Dallas.
CultureMap: Mobituaries are a bona fide hit. What is it about obituaries and deaths? Do we like to reminisce and memorialize people? Do we love a little melancholy?
Mo Rocca: That’s a great question, and melancholy is such an interesting word. I like to feel wistful and I think a lot of people like to. Wistful is sort of the operative in a lot of these. I’m not a big nostalgia person, which I think is different. I think nostalgia is great but it can also be sloppy and uncritical — I don’t like that.
These are thoroughly fact-checked and that’s really important to tell the truth about these people. My friend Catherine says, “I think all of us, on some level, want to be remembered, and I think that’s why we read obituaries.” And I think that’s probably true, or at least we all wonder how we may be remembered.
CM: Life is a work in progress. Is it easier to tell a compelling life story when the story is fully complete?
MR: Yes, and I think it’s also fun to read about a life as a point of comparison: Would I have made that choice that she made at that age? Would I have done what he did at that juncture?
And I also think I can be super petty, and think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe he accomplished all that by the time he was 25. Oh, thank God he went to prison when he was 47, so I’m back in the lead!’
CM: We get it! Is there a particular Mobituary that rings particularly loudly today?
MR: One of the reasons I liked doing the Reconstruction story, one of the things I found interesting about it, not only was this a pocket of history people didn’t know about or had forgotten about — especially with the black Congressmen — but I also frankly thought it was interesting that the black Congressmen of Reconstruction, more than half of whom had been enslaved only a handful of years before, when they came to Washington, there were a lot of white Congressmen that accepted them and socialized with them.
It makes the failure of Reconstruction all the more heartbreaking, because it shows you that, back then, in the 1870s, there were people that went, ‘Okay, this thing is settled. It’s time to move on.’ And I think we do — pun intended — look at things really black and white. And, so, something like Reconstruction, you’re taught that not only was it a failure, but that it was fated to fail — and it really wasn’t. I mean, you can put a modern parlance on it, but there were plenty of progressives back then.
So, people are complicated, and there have been good people and bad people in all groups from time immemorial. So, it’s not like a simple, straight line.
CM: How did you pick who or what deserves a Mobituary for the book or podcast?
MR: I have learned to trust my gut more— I’ve learned that if I’m interested in something and it’s executed well enough, the audience will come along for the ride; it’ll be contagious. So rather than game the system, I try to scratch the itch that I have.
Going with a topic that I have some sort of connection with — even if it’s tangential, even if it’s a memory — that works well. Podcasts are an intimate medium.
CM: Do you end up fond of your subjects and sources?
MR: I come from a show, CBS Sunday Morning, whose original host, Charles Kuralt — a genius of broadcasting — once said, “It’s okay to like the people you interview. That doesn't make you a lesser journalist.” That’s definitely been one of the guiding principles of this podcast. These are people that I like: Sammy Davis Jr., Lawrence Welk. But, I’m sure we’ll do episodes of people that are fascinating who I don’t like, but even then, I want to seek to understand.
And when you’re talking about obituaries, that usually means giving people the benefit of the doubt. Talk to me when we do the Mobituary about Adolf Eichmann and that will be different. But these are people who didn’t get the sendoff they deserve.
CM: Have you noticed anyone or anything lately getting a bad rap that would deserve a Mobituary in the future?
MR: That’s really interesting. You know, you see people when they’re trashed [in the media] and you think, ‘That’s interesting, because that person might be seen very differently in 30 years.’ Anytime somebody’s written off by somebody else, I think to myself, ‘That’s pretty smug — you don’t know.’ We don’t know how we’ll be judged.
CM: Talk a little about the jump from Daily Show to CBS Sunday Morning, which seems a perfect fit for your wit and humor.
MR: Thank you. Yeah, it really is. I realize that more and more. I certainly don’t take it for granted. My fondest memories of The Daily Show — I fondly remember getting on the show and experiencing that exhilarating feeling of — each time, really — pitching a story, and I still have that with CBS Sunday Morning, coming up with an idea and it getting greenlit and then doing it. It’s a great feeling. Certainly, in the studio, getting a big laugh and landing a joke.
CM: And then you left the Daily Show.
MR: Yeah, the in-studio stuff wasn’t satisfying to me. It was a lot of just doing the sort of standing in front of a green-screen and kinda going, ‘Well, Jon [Stewart], I’m here in Baghdad.’ And, while the audience loved that, it wasn’t challenging. I wasn’t developing. Certainly, my voice wasn’t developing, and I wasn’t as good as I was in the field.
So, when I left the show, it was a very, very insecure time for me, because I was basically throwing a lot against the wall to see what stuck — doing a lot of different kinds of shows. And, at times, it was kind of nerve-wracking.
But when I look back, it was really the right thing to do. Because I couldn’t have learned and gotten better if I had stayed on the show doing that kind of satirical persona.
CM: You’re a serious (at times) reporter on CBS Sunday Morning. How is Sunday Morning like the Daily Show?
MR: Part of what’s great about CBS Sunday Morning is it’s like going back to college and taking only electives. Or, to use another metaphor, it’s kind of like the variety pack of cereals, which I always loved, like the six different, little boxes rather than the big box.
But, you know, I’m allowed, one week, to do a serious cover story — because I like to do serious stories — and then, the next week, a beloved diva. Or, I get to do sort of, zanier, kicker-type pieces. And I get to indulge my love of history.
CM: Who would you like to write your Mobituary, and what would you hope it would read or say?
MR: I don’t know who I’d like to write my Mobituary. I’ve become friendly with Margalit Fox, a highly respected obit writer for the New York Times — so that would be kind of nice.
I’d like to be acknowledged as somebody who enthusiastically pursued a range of interests and made other people interested in them and exposed people to them.
CM: Let’s talk a little about your time in Texas: You wrote and produced on the beloved Wishbone in Dallas. What are some of your fondest memories of Dallas?
MR: Wishbone was a really great PBS kids TV show. And that was a really interesting experience for me personally, professionally, and ultimately. Creatively, it is the toolbox — I’m not kidding you — that’s more important than any I’ve had and I go back to it constantly. I had to learn to retell the stories of some of the greatest novels in the western canon for kids — through the eyes of a dog. It sounds crazy, I know, but it was storytelling bootcamp.
Personally, I made a bad choice of living in the suburbs at that time — Plano. I love Texas. I have great friends in Dallas and I’m a big fan of Houston. Don’t tell Dallas, but I think Houston has better food.