HomeInterviewsMo Rocca on the Mobituaries Podcast, New Jersey, Politics, & Ravioli

Mo Rocca on the Mobituaries Podcast, New Jersey, Politics, & Ravioli

Mobituaries with Mo Rocca

If you aren’t familiar with the name Mo Rocca, you’ve had plenty of chances to learn it. If you’re a millennial like me, you’ve known his work as far back as the 90’s, while he was a writer on the show Wishbone. Since then he’s been everywhere: The Daily Show, The Tonight Show, I Love the 80’s on VH1, the Cooking Channel, and most recently on CBS Sunday Mornings. With a prolific career spanning three decades, Rocca is just as busy as ever and doesn’t plan on slowing down, but he does have a game plan for when he does. Obsessed with obituaries, Rocca has created a new empire around the concept of his “mobituaries,” and he is taking his Mobituaries from podcast to book to live show, including a performance at the House of Independents later this month. We were lucky enough to get to speak to Mo about what to expect from the show, what he loves about New Jersey, and some of his favorite projects he’s worked on throughout his career.

Mo: Are you in Asbury Park right now?

I am not, I live a little bit outside Asbury.

Where do you – sorry, I’m not stalking you, I did a piece about New Jersey and I love New Jersey.

Great, because my first question is: have you been to Asbury before?

I have! One of my best friends bought a place in Asbury and I’ve gone down for a couple of Fourth of Julys, and I love it. One day a few years ago, there was a band on the boardwalk there and they played all the military anthems in a row — the Air Force, the Navy, the Army, the Marines. The coastguard has one too. And then they ended with the national anthem and it was just so great.

That sounds really nice.

And that whole big arcade, what would you call that pavilion? That big pavilion? It’s fantastic, it definitely excites the imagination, just imagining what it must have been like a hundred years ago.

Mo Rocca

Did you see that some of the pavilion burned down?

When was that?

It was earlier this year.

Oh no, I didn’t know that! I’m sorry. How did I not know this?

When you come to Asbury, do you have any traditions that you do? Anything in particular you’re looking forward to?

I mean I’ve been down a few times. I can’t say. I just like to go to the beach and just walk up and down the boardwalk. I wish I could think of something more.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in town?

I’m having trouble remembering, because I’m picturing the strip of restaurants – it’s not on the boardwalk. I know I’m disappointing right now, I feel like texting my friend Brian and saying “Where did we eat when I was last there?” But anyway, I’m a fan of New Jersey in general. It has more diners than any other state. Literally, not per capita, but just the absolute number. And it has more scientists and engineers per square mile than any other state.

We also have more horses per square mile.

Oh I didn’t know that. And I love your tomatoes, of course.

We do have good tomatoes. And blueberries!

You have great blueberries, you have amazing blueberries. And the water in the Pine Barrens, the most plentiful fresh water in America. The only issue is, I do have to say, is I find that on the New Jersey Turnpike it’s very easy to confuse John Fenwick with James Fenimore Cooper, and those are two different stops on the New Jersey Turnpike, so I do kind of feel that with all due respect to John Fenwick, it might not be a bad idea to switch out one of them.

Just because – let’s say that you’re communicating with somebody on an app. I’m not judging if you do use one of those dating apps, and you say like, “Hey let’s meet at the Auntie Anne’s at the James Fenimore Cooper stop” or the other person thinks it’s John Fenwick or you get confused and you say John Fenimore Cooper or James Fenwick. I mean that’s like, that’s a love connection ruined, right? A potential love connection completely spoiled. And I don’t think anyone even knows anything about John Fenwick.

I can tell you I don’t.

Well he founded the first Quaker colonies in American in 1665. Anyway so I was thinking, I thought it would be interesting – I know that Howard Stern wanted to do this a few years ago, do you remember this? You’re so young you don’t remember, but he wanted to get a New Jersey Turnpike service area named after him. But I think they should replace John Fenwick with Meryl Streep because she’s from New Jersey, and everybody loves Meryl Streep. I would love the Meryl Streep service area.

I think people would love going there. It would be a boom for business.

And every outlet, every food place there, every store there, could be based on a different character she’s played. There would be a Prada store for the Devil Wears Prada. You could buy a paddle at the River Wild store, because she was in a movie called the River Wild where she paddled. Anyway, I don’t know. There’s that. I grew up in the area of the Clara Barton House in Maryland and there’s a Clara Barton service area. She founded the American Red Cross.

I’m familiar with Mobituaries being a podcast, and you have a book coming out later this year, correct?

Yes. And it’s going to kill me. I have already asked a couple of my close friends that if I die before the end of this book they’ll have to finish it, and I think it would be nice if they wrote a “mobit” for me and put it at the end of the book, because it’s back-breaking work. Not that I’m complaining, I’m happy for this opportunity. I’m telling you, I’m happy, I’m grateful for it. But I also feel the need to be honest and say that I’ve been under house arrest for a year writing this. And when I come to Asbury Park, I just need a drink.

What’s the live show going to be like as opposed to the book?

I think what we’re going to do is, I’m going to talk about the things that fascinate me that are obituary related. I’m really into the phenomenon of famous people dying on the same day. It just happened the other day, I think Rip Torn died on the same day as Ross Perot.

And I didn’t even realize Ross Perot died because everybody was talking about Rip Torn.

You were on a Rip Torn fan site just randomly, you just happened to be there looking for clips from Larry Sanders. But everybody knows about Michael and Farrah dying the same day. One thing that should have been more obvious to me but somebody pointed it out to me is that because of the allegations against Michael Jackson since he died, that when the tenth anniversary rolled around of their deaths, all the coverage was for Farrah, but it almost seemed like it was making up for her being eclipsed, right? Because when they died that day she got buried – as it were, sorry – by the news of Michael Jackson’s death. Now the tenth anniversary, everyone is uncomfortable celebrating Michael Jackson – or it’s very controversial I should say – that Farrah suddenly was like, ok we can really pay respects to Farrah.

And I love Farrah Fawcett. I know I’ve projected onto her certain things that I want to be true, like I feel like if I went to high school with her in Corpus Christi, Texas, that she was probably one of those people, she was beautiful and she was popular, but she was nice to everyone. If you were walking down the hall and you were a theater geek, and like if a football player kind of grabbed you by the scruff of your neck, she would have been like “hey, hey, hey, stop it!” You know what I mean? Because some popular people can be vicious, but I feel like she was always nice.

I’m following the fantasy here – everyone would have respected her, and if she had done that, they would have been like “Okay, I’m not going to make Farrah mad.”

Exactly. I actually l think Farrah could have exerted real influence in the scenario you and I have created together, she could have made a difference. It’s really interesting what one person can do, and Fantasy Farrah is a great example of that. [laughs] That she could have made this Corpus Christi Texas High School just a much nicer, more civilized place. And I’m sure she did!

I’m sure she did! I’m sure both in our fantasy and in real life, they would probably build a statue of her to put out in front of the school.

Well that’s – absolutely. I don’t want to wade into the whole statue controversy, but I think we can all agree we need more statues of Farrah. You’re not going to put one up of Kate Jackson. But anyway.

So what can the audience expect from a live version of Mobituaries?

I think you’re helping me actually create some of the material. [laughs] Let me tell you, it’s going to be chock full of surprises, let me just put it that way. I intend to play for you, to give you a look inside the process of putting together this podcast, which has been incredibly exciting and fulfilling. So you’ll hear things that you’ve never heard before on the podcast, and I wanted to give a preview of what’s coming up in season two, and then I’m going to have a surprise interview on the stage. And then what I’m going to do is I’m going to do things with audience members. I know that sounds weird, I love bringing people onstage and playing with them. I may help people craft their own obit. I know people have living wills and like to prepare for their retirement and their beneficiaries after they leave this earth, but I know one thing you can do is help ease the stress of your own passing by writing the first line of your obit and having it ready to go.

For some reason I remember in high school, an assignment in English class was to write our own obituary.

Oh my God, that is sick! Did you go to Kevorkian High? But now I’m imagining, you’re seventeen, you’re wearing black, you were all gothed out, and you were just doing this for fun. I love how sick it is asking teenagers – goodness. I would have relished that, I wish I had that teacher. I’m going to do that, and I’m interested in sort of the factors that come into play, the random factors that come into play in how a person is immortalized in his or her obituary and remembered. That was one of the fascinating things for me in season one, I remember when I was twenty-three and Audrey Hepburn died, it was on the day of Bill Clinton’s inauguration and I remember thinking, “wow, a lot of people aren’t going to know this, that this beloved actress died.”

And I remember walking on the upper east side of New York when there were more news kiosks and I remember seeing a USA Today and she was just in the little box at the bottom, because the whole front page was understandably about the new president. It’s just, to me that’s sort of a curious thing, like JFK dying on the same day as Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis. Two seminal writers. It was probably weeks, months, years before people who even read those two authors knew they had died. It’s really a cross between“An Evening with Mo Rocca and a look inside Mobituaries. Does that sound appealing?

I was going to say before you even asked, “that sounds very nice.”

That’s it. That’s what we’re doing.

You also said you’re doing a surprising live interview. Are you having a special guest?

It’s not a celebrity though, I don’t want people to think that Madonna is going to show up. [laughs] Can you imagine? Although I always have to say about Madonna, remember when she fell off a horse a few years ago? I was thinking, if she died, she would have to be above the fold. Because the whole thing about putting celebrity deaths above the fold – I know this means less and less to people in the digital age – but I’m still really into above the fold, below the fold. Now, Madonna dying if she fell off a horse, would I think – I think the New York Times would have looked really snobbish putting it below the fold, saying “oh she’s just a pop culture figure,” it would have been such a shocker – it would have been a huge news story.

Like it or not, we live in a pop culture obsessed world and if she died falling off that horse she would have needed to be above the fold. Because when Johnny Carson died they put him below the fold, and I have a friend that worked at the New York Times that said they got a lot of complaints saying that was really snobbish. Johnny Carson was an incredibly important part of peoples’ world – a constant part of peoples’ world for decades.

So I think when Sinatra died they did put him above the fold. I thought that Geraldine Ferraro would have gotten better placement, because she was a first. Firsts deserve better placement. She was the first woman vice presidential candidate. I hate to say it but if you want better placement, you can’t wait too long to die.

You have to strike while the iron’s hot.

[laughs] You really do. You really do. Mahatma Gandhi and Orville Wright died on the same day. Gandhi – first of all he was assassinated – and it was the year after India Independence, and he was the leader of that movement. Also the leader of the non-violence movement, one of the greats of the 20th century, of course he got good placement. Orville Wright’s – it was 1948? Orville Wright, the flight at Kitty Hawk was fourteen years before. His brother had been dead for a long time, Wilbur had been dead for a long time, Orville is lost below the fold. Even though an airplane, it’s a huge deal! Anyway, I’m assuming he was happy to live for another forty years in exchange for a worse placement on an obit. Life is full of tradeoffs.

So there will be a guest! And you know, I think it’s going to be a very engaging, intimate evening.

The tone of the love show is probably going to be a lot different from the podcast then, because it’ll be a lot more engaging.

We’re not going to – listen, in this live show we’re not going to autopsy anybody. Our live autopsy. [laughs] The podcast of course as you know really delves into an individual person or subject, but as I said with this live show I want to give people an understanding and an intimate look into how it’s put together, but also hear a fun conversation and think about our own obits.

The material is so well-researched and full of information, is it going to be less of that? Or the same amount just mixed in with other elements?

Well I think – believe me, I love facts. Factoids will fly, but in a way that they’ll be easily consumable. I don’t want anybody choking on factoids and I don’t want anyone getting hurt by flying factoids, so I’m going to lob them gently.

So the idea is that people have fun but also walking away learning a lot.

Absolutely, that’s perfect, we should put that outside. You’ll have fun but you’ll learn something. I don’t want people going “well I had fun but I didn’t learn anything.” I also don’t want people going away feeling like they have homework to do. I want people to walk away and go “wow, I learned something and it didn’t hurt. In fact it felt kind of good.”

I just saw that your deal with CBS Sunday Morning was extended for two more years. Congratulations!

Thank you, I love the show. I don’t want to start repeating myself because I’ve said this before but I really do believe it. I liked, in college, taking electives. And if I could have I would have only taken electives. And CBS Sunday Morning is like going back to college and taking only electives Currently right now I’m working on a story about the presidency of Herbert Hoover but I’m also doing a profile of LeVar Burton. I’m also doing a story on the history of Bellevue Hospital and I also want to do a story on liverwurst, if there’s good liverwurst in Asbury Park I want to know. I just did a story on the Mississippi River, and so you know, I like the eclecticism of this job.

It’s nice to have that freedom.

Oh my God, I don’t love the ‘l’ word but I just feel lucky. I’m certainly fortunate – and I guess I’m lucky, whatever – that I get to do that and yeah, because I’ve always had varied interests and this job is a perfect way to explore that, to indulge that.

I was talking to my grandmother last night about this interview and she said you’re her favorite part of CBS Sunday Morning.

Well listen, I love my grandparent fanbase and – with my cooking show, I hope your grandmother saw my cooking show.

I love that show. I loved that show. One of my questions I was going to ask, I’ll ask you now: I loved My Grandmother’s Ravioli, and is it ever going to be streaming anywhere?

I don’t know what they’re doing over there, they should just – I don’t know that it will ever stream because it’s my understanding that Scripps, the company that produced it – and I’m grateful to them for producing it – that they don’t have a deal with Netflix. I think basically all these companies want to start doing their own streaming services rather than give their material away. Amazon sells it, I wish they would just put it on Prime.

I have a lot of fond memories of me and my siblings watching it back when it was on, it was one of my favorite shows.

Well thank you, a total labor of love for me. It’s very exciting and validating and all of those things to have an idea, to commit to it, and to see it realized. Because it’s funny – I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I’m still learning to trust my instincts. It doesn’t mean shutting my ears to what other people have to say, it means the opposite, but you know that show pure and simple was inspired by my grandmother’s cooking. So to be able to do fifty-four episodes of that was something I’m super proud of.

That was what was great to watch, you could tell how much you were enjoying doing it.

Well thank you. I really did. It’s funny, people have told me that. I went to interview Melissa McCarthy for CBS Sunday Morning, and while they were setting up the camera she looked at me and she said “I’ve been watching your cooking show” and I said “Oh, good” and she said “You really love doing that, don’t you?” And it made me feel so good to hear her say that, or that she recognized that, because she’s so ridiculously talented, but it meant more than hearing people say – I love when people say they love the show – but to hear somebody say that they could recognize how much I was enjoying doing it, that meant a lot.

I think it says something that for a lot of people, they hear your name and they go “Oh, from My Grandmother’s Ravioli.”

It’s funny, television is funny that way. It’s a tiny channel, the sheer number of people watching it was never very high, but when I go down the street or through an airport, I’m kind of my own personal, how do I put this – it’s interesting to me, especially because I’ve been on TV for so long at this point and done so many shows, what people actually respond to. You can tell the way people watch – it’s just interesting to me, the people who come up to me because of My Grandmother’s Ravioli do it with a kind of intensity and a personal feeling that I appreciate, it means they really were watching the show. They didn’t just stumble on it, they were watching it.

Between you doing the CBS show and the fact that you’re going to have a tour coming up, how are you juggling all that work? I know there’s so much fact-checking and research involved.

I will say the team is so small. I have a lead producer who is extraordinary, she’s really great. It would be undoable without her on the podcast side. Look, work, how do I put this… Is it ever the right amount? It’s either too little or too much. So I’m so grateful to have these opportunities. And I love performing, so doing these live shows is a big incentive to – the incentive is people listening, right, and reading hopefully, and seeing with this live show. I love to please an audience, what can I say? That’s what is keeping me, that’s why I work as much as I do.

How did your obsession with obituaries start? Because I’ve seen you talk about how you’ve always been fascinated, but do you remember exactly where that started?

I remember my father always saying, “It’s my favorite section of the paper.” It’s funny you asked this because nobody has asked me this yet and I haven’t really thought about when it started. I know that that was a big part of it, and I think my father and I had a very similar sense of the romantic, and I don’t mean that as in love story, I mean romantic as kind of sweet melodrama. And I do think that an obituary, a good obituary, feels like the movie preview, the trailer for an Oscar-winning biopic. If you watch one of those trailers, whether it’s for Ray, the Ray Charles story, or back when it was Ghandi, and in two minutes you’re kind of getting the highs and the lows and the drama and the sweep of a person’s life and that’s kind of the experience of reading a good obit, is there’s something inherently dramatic about it, right?

It moves really quickly, you’re moving through someone’s life, and I also think it’s a good – I can’t help but evaluate my own life when I’m reading about the life of someone else, in a good way I hope. “wow, this person made that choice, would I have made that choice?” “Boy what would I do if I was in that person’s shoes?” That’s what reading is all about, learning to empathize and putting yourself in the person’s shoes. I realize I’m going off on a tangent, but I remember my father always saying it and I started, probably because of him, reading them and having the same appreciation.

I know you’ve been a political correspondent on a couple shows, including Jay Leno.

After I did The Daily Show, they asked me to start doing pieces for Jay Leno and I had a lot of fun. It was more – since the show was in LA and I wasn’t living in LA at the time, I lived in New York as I do now, they treated me very well, they would fly me places and let me do the story and I would just sort of fly back out when it was ready to air. It was a nice cushy job and very fun. I did a bunch of those pieces, I don’t think you can find them anywhere, that’s the thing. You have to watch when I did Superbowl 40 – not 41, that wasn’t as funny. It was Superbowl 40, in Detroit, the Seahawks versus the Steelers and it was really fun. It’s on Youtube, I had a great time doing that piece.

Do you have any plans for political correspondence during the upcoming election?

I don’t. I don’t. And I’m okay with that. I really don’t miss it. I feel like I’m proud that I was part of The Daily Show, as I get older I look back at these different things and think, “That’s kind of cool that I got to do that.” But I just love delving into topics that other people aren’t delving into. I think it’s as simple as that. I realize the people on late night who do political commentary have their own fresh takes and I respect that, but I kind of like the arcana of writing about the presidency of Herbert Hoover or the history of the station wagon – those are both things that are going to show up in the Mobituaries book – and that suits me fine.

Mo Rocca: Mobituaries Live is August 21st at the House of Independents. Tickets are available here

Melissa Jouben
Melissa Jouben
Melissa Jouben is an enthusiastic young writer who can usually be seen performing or enjoying live comedy in New Jersey and New York. She has a very limited range of interests which can be summed up by the following list, in no particular order: comedy, cartoons, toy collecting, wrestling, limited edition varieties of soda, and Billy Joel. She was born and raised in New Jersey and can’t wait to leave so she can brag to all her new neighbors about how great the ocean smells at low tide.

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