Spend half an hour with Mo Rocca and prepare for a conversation that veers into the unexpected.
Perhaps he will discuss the differences between the characters of Dr. Seuss and the Muppets of Jim Henson (“It turns out they are oil and water. Seuss is head. Muppets are heart”). Maybe he will talk about Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist known as the father of modern taxonomy. He might tell you of a few stints working in theater (“I did the southeastern Asia tour of ‘Grease.’ You saw me in Jakarta, right?”). He will inevitably turn to the years he has spent as a correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning.”
And then he may quote from Sondheim, allude to “The Daily Show” or imagine a nervous stomach filled with Jolt cola. By chance, he may do all three.
These days, Rocca is adding another entry to his extremely eclectic resume. He is finding new life in the dead. His book “Mobituaries,” reexamines everyone from Thomas Paine to Marlene Dietrich as well as dragons, Prussia and the station wagon. Famous concepts and inventions can also be worth an obit, he believes. The book made the New York Times’ best-seller list for non-fiction hardcover last week. Rocca treads similar ground in a podcast of the same name.
The obituary “is a good vehicle for talking about basically everything,” he says while holding forth one recent afternoon at CBS News’ New York headquarters. “If it’s an athlete, it’s sports. If it’s an entertainer, it’s entertainment.” Rocca says he considers much of the work he did for the book to be an extension of sorts of the stories he files to “CBS Sunday Morning,” where he has tackled at least 200 different profiles, ranging from Angie Dickinson to Chris Rock.
The book, written with Jonathan Greenberg, gives readers a chance to discover something surprising about a subject about which they may have thought they knew everything there was to know. Rocca examines how actress Marlene Dietrich confounded Hitler; wonders if Thomas Paine could have had a nicer funeral; and tries to envision how the first line of comedian Bill Cosby’s obit will read.
By the time readers are done, Rocca hopes, they will get “kind of a balance of carbs and protein. This has things that seem fun and give you a sort of sugar rush, but I balance that with stuff that is more ‘protein,’ more substantive,” he says, adding: ‘I like to reverse things like that – you think it’s going to be kind of heavy, but then it went down easy, and then vice versa.”
How does his latest project fit into a career that includes a stint at “The Daily Show,” contributing to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and time spent behind the scenes producing kids’ TV?
“I think that I have learned – over time, I’ve moved toward finding a way to maybe communicate more openly about what is interesting to me and to share that with people and hope that they respond to it,” says Rocca. “I don’t think there is a thread that connects all these things, but I’m certainly happier doing stuff I can – boy, it sounds so mushy – I can openly embrace, even earnestly sometimes, if that’s OK.”
Consider Rocca’s stint on “My Grandmother’s Ravioli,” a series he hosted on The Cooking Channel that had him travel to various kitchens to see grandmothers and grandfathers conjure up their hand-me-down recipes for ham glaze, sweet potato pie or chicken, dumpling and meatball soup. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I came up with the idea and did it right after my father died,” Rocca says. “I was thinking about what values I wanted shaping my own life.”
He found them in people who had to be convinced to go on camera and cook. “It was important to me that they weren’t going to try to sell margarita mix,” he says. After he answered questions like ‘What’s a Morocco?” and “Why does he want to watch me cook?” he found enough people to fill several seasons of the show.
He thinks “CBS Sunday Morning” also helps fulfill what he calls “a sense of wonderment,” which he expresses through interviews and telling stories.
The secret to his success, he suggests, is relating information through his own sensibility. “Well, it’s like ‘Sunday in the Park with George’: Everything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new,’ which I think is an important lesson.”