Credit: Illustration by Gel Jamlang

For most people, it’s a question that requires only a one- or two-word response: What do you do for a living? For Mo Rocca, the answer is more complicated. 

Rocca has been a regular correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning for more than a decade, reporting on topics ranging from the worst president in history (James Buchanan, pretty much everyone agrees, or at least they once did) to the scourge of workplace meetings. He also hosts the television show The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, and can be heard on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! 

Let’s pause for a moment to gather our breath. 

He is the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Mobituaries, on which he recounts people and things often forgotten by history. (Marlene Dietrich; Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy; and dragons have been among the subjects of his verbal autopsies.) Its third season debuted in October as a No. 1 history series on Apple Podcasts. He’s also an author who wrote a book of Mobituaries and another on presidents and their pets. He has appeared on Broadway, was a correspondent for The Daily Show, and this year acted in a guest role on the soap opera The Young and the Restless.

“Restless” might be a good word to describe Rocca, who was born at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. Words were always big in the Bethesda house where he grew up: His father, Marcel X. “Jack” Rocca, was the founder and president of Transemantics, a company based around language and education; his mother, Maria Luisa “Tini” Rocca, was the registrar at a subsidiary of that, the International Language Institute. Young Mo was obsessed with reading the World Book Encyclopedia and once started a gossip magazine with a friend at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School. He graduated from Georgetown Preparatory School and went on to major in English lit at Harvard, where he served as president of the university’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals. 

So yes, Mo Rocca has always had something to say.  


“It sounds kind of precious, but I knew that I wanted to tell stories in some capacity. I was always a news junkie. I remember seeing the movie The Killing Fields. Not a comedy,” he says of the 1984 film depicting the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. “I remember thinking, Do I want to be the guy playing the character, or do I want to be the character who’s a journalist? It is a kind of a performance when you’re reporting a story. You’re trying to connect with an audience.”

Connect he has. Since starting on The Daily Show in 1998, Rocca has appealed to audiences of varied ages, cultural sensibilities and political persuasions. Perhaps that’s because he explores overlooked and underappreciated subjects, such as how bananas make their way from Central America to our breakfast tables, or the death of the station wagon. A Mo Rocca story is usually equal parts informative, entertaining and impactful, often with a dash of whimsy and a pun or two thrown in. He displayed those same characteristics during the hour we spent speaking with him in early May via Zoom from his apartment in New York City, where he’s lived for 25 years. (Now that he no longer has family living in this area, he says he doesn’t get back to visit as often as he’d like to.) The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.  

Rocca in New York City in 2020 Credit: Getty

What do you like about living in New York, and what, if anything, drives you crazy about it?


The noise is starting to drive me a little crazy. But I like that in any moment I can walk out onto the street and see people and be part of something. I know there have been songs written about New York being a lonely place—it doesn’t feel that way to me.

What are some of your best memories from growing up in Bethesda? I heard you mention your fondness for Shakey’s Pizza in an interview once.

I loved Shakey’s. I loved going to Farrell’s for ice cream. My best friend growing up lived a stone’s throw away. I have great memories of playing with him and the weird things that we would do. At one point I took a crossing guard sash, and we set up a traffic stop on the corner of Kirkwood and Jordan to do a survey about what people thought about Roy Rogers restaurant. 


For a time, I went to Wood Acres Elementary, and I just loved it. I went back there to do an episode of my podcast and I interviewed my fifth grade teacher, who I loved.  

[Another memory is] doing theater for the first time with BAPA [Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts]. It was a brand-new operation run by two amazing women, Marcia Smith and Bonnie Fogel, who changed my life. Marcia had been on an actual soap opera [As the World Turns], which was impossibly exciting. …Marcia, Bonnie and BAPA [now known as Imagination Stage] taught me to love theater and to value my talent.  

I have to ask you the requisite ‘This is on your Wikipedia page, but is it true?’ question: While at
Harvard, did you play Seymour in a production of Little Shop of Horrors that co-starred Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson?


Yeah, she’s amazing. I really love her. And I was a really good Seymour.

Was she a good actor?

Yeah, and she’s a great singer. We were in the same improv troupe for two or three years. I was the lead [in Little Shop], and it was kind of a lot of pressure. I could feel her rooting me on and really supporting me. She’s an extraordinarily warm person and really funny. I still remember how it felt to have somebody like that really wanting you to be good. 


You started out as a writer and producer for such children’s shows as Wishbone and The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss. Why children’s shows?

That’s what I was offered. I had a friend who developed Wishbone, which was a great show. I was a graduation speaker at Sarah Lawrence [College] a few years ago, and I mentioned the different things I’d done. That got the biggest reaction. It was really a boot camp for me. In retrospect, it was the perfect training ground. We were taking classic books, and we were distilling them to half-hour versions for kids through the eyes of a dog. It was like a writing exercise concocted by an English teacher on acid. It really forced you to learn what about these books connected with an audience and how to retell it in a dynamic way to keep a kid’s attention. 

Your big break that brought you from behind the cameras to in front of them was appearing on The Daily Show. How did you land that gig?


I was very interested in quirky, marginalized presidential history. I started, on my own nickel, going around the country visiting the homes and grave sites of the presidents you can’t remember. The guys between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. The first one I went to was Benjamin Harrison. It just felt like a vein that hadn’t been tapped by anyone else. I just found it really interesting to meet the people who worked at these places. If you’re working at Monticello or Hyde Park, people are already in awe the minute they walk in. But when you work at the Rutherford B. Hayes House in Fremont, Ohio, you’ve really got to sell people. So I started collecting these stories and I tried to sell them as print pieces, and I couldn’t sell them. I met a guy who, at the Warren G. Harding House in Marion, Ohio, would dress up as [Warren’s wife] Florence Harding to give tours of the house. It wasn’t a shticky drag queen act. He was a really good Florence Harding. I met an agent who said, ‘You should be on The Daily Show.’ I went, again on my own nickel, to prepare for an interview, [to] Greeneville, Tennessee, at the home of Andrew Johnson. It was during the Clinton impeachment crisis. I thought, Why don’t I look at how the hometown of our first impeached president commemorates him for clues to how Clinton might be looked at in Hope, Arkansas, in a hundred years? I think Madeleine Smithberg, who was the executive producer—this is right before Jon Stewart came on—was impressed that I would go to such lengths. The first two pieces I did with The Daily Show were the Andrew Johnson piece and the Florence Harding piece.

Mo Rocca interviews former President Bill Clinton and writer James Patterson about a book they co-authored. Credit: Courtesy photo

Did you learn anything about politics in this country during your time at The Daily Show?

It was around the time the Whitewater investigation was going on. Things were starting to get really nasty. [But] they’ve been nasty since the beginning of the republic. …I think I really learned the power of a kind of irony and disparity between what a person says and what they do. That’s the sweet spot—that’s where the funny is. Politicians saying something and doing the exact opposite. Culture war stuff and personality stuff is more television-friendly, it’s more comedy-friendly, but it ignores the really big issues. The reason The Daily Show was never a substitute for news is we were spending all our time on the stuff that was personality-driven. Stuff that really matters, like entitlement reform, doesn’t make for good comedy. 


Your book All the Presidents’ Pets came out in 2004. What do presidents’ pets tell us about them?

I always thought it was amusing that so many of the presidents, in a weird way, match their pets in personality. I’m a Teddy Roosevelt fan, and among his 36 pets he had a one-legged rooster, and his kids built a little crutch for the rooster. I loved that. Of course, I love that Taft had a cow. 

Where did your fascination with obituaries originate?


My father had it. When we grew up, there were two daily newspapers, The Washington Post and The Washington Star. I do remember my father saying, ‘Oh boy, the obituaries is my favorite section of the paper.’ It was not grim or ghoulish; my father was a very optimistic person. I think he liked them because it’s such a great form of storytelling. I think invariably you kind of compare yourself. Competitive obituary reading. ‘My god, he accomplished all that by the time he was 25? Oh great, he went to prison when he was 32!’ 

I’ve been doing this a long time, and I think I’ve learned how to identify a format that has legs precisely because of its limits. An obituary has been a good way for me to tell stories, not just about people, but about objects, foods, countries, teams. There’s a really attractive simplicity to it for me. 

In an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, you said that obituaries should be the one place in journalism where the rule of thumb should be giving people the benefit of the doubt. I found that interesting. Why do you feel that way?


It’s more than an issue of being tasteful. I would amend it to say, “erring on the side of generosity,” because life is hard. I think listing the flaws in a person’s character or the mistakes that they made can oftentimes miss the point of their life. Look, Harry Belafonte died the same week as Jerry Springer. I don’t think it’s appropriate to simply say, ‘Both were great.’ I met Jerry Springer a couple of times. He was very nice. He gave me a very nice compliment when he saw me on CNN, and I like people who like me. 

Rocca (right) with TV host A.J. Gibson at the Daytime Emmy Awards in 2019 in Pasadena, California Credit: (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

That’s a good quality in a person.

It’s my favorite quality in a person [laughs]. We have to be proportional. One person was a groundbreaker and dedicated his life to civil rights, and the other person had an audience. 


What’s the difference between an obituary and a Mobituary?

A Mobituary is what gets me in the gut. It’s someone or something that I think deserves another look or an appreciation that they or it never got. I have learned that if I am interested in something and I really throw myself into it, there’s a good chance that I can make other people interested in it. I’d like to make you interested in something that you never thought you’d be interested in. 

I liked doing John Denver because critics were so mean to him and people loved him, and that to me is really interesting. The audience isn’t stupid. I wanted to understand what the audience was responding to.


When I used to go around doing slideshows of forgotten presidents and their homes and grave sites, I got a lot of satisfaction out of it because I’m pretty sure that a lot of the kids that would come to my shows, if they knew what I was going to talk about wouldn’t have showed up. And they were entertained. That’s given me a lot of satisfaction, making people interested in things they didn’t expect to be interested in. 

One thing I learned from my boss at CBS Sunday Morning is the importance of mix. You want people to enjoy a story, but you want them to pull out and appreciate that one kind of story is followed by another. Surprise is also very important to me. A topic that sounds like it’s going to be fun and light and breezy ends up being surprisingly interesting. The death of sitcom characters—I had Henry Winkler and Sandy Duncan on for that—it’s fun, it’s sugary, but it also becomes about suspension of disbelief. 

To flip it around, I like taking a subject like Reconstruction that sounds like, Oh my gosh, am I back in AP history? and then make it go down really easy. It’s a balance. It can’t be too heavy-duty, but I also don’t want it all to be light and breezy. 


When did you join CBS Sunday Morning?

I think 2006 was my first commentary, and then I became a regular correspondent in 2011. The thing about doing commentaries is, I ran out of opinions. 

That doesn’t stop a lot of people on TV, though. 

It does not. Washington is the cradle of meaningless opinions. There is no recession when it comes to the opinion industry. 

What’s the common thread or approach to the selection of topics and the way the stories are reported that makes CBS Sunday Morning iconic?

I think people appreciate the length of the stories. That it takes its time, that it operates at its own rhythm. What I strive to do, I think any reporter does: to get people off of their talking points. To me, the most satisfying part of an interview, especially if it’s a luminary, is that moment, hopefully just a few minutes into the interview, when you see on their face something click, and they go, Oh, you’re listening to me.

I hope that the audience feels like they’re not getting something prepackaged. One of the great things for me about being on The Daily Show is I spent the whole time making fun of reporters and the cliches of reporting and the annoying cadence of reporters, and so it’s almost like I inoculated myself against that. So when I actually became a reporter, if I ever hear that creep into my voice I say, ‘Stop it!’

I know that when I hear my voice on tape, it always sounds funky and weird to me. What’s it like when you see yourself on television?

I like seeing myself unless I look like crap. I actually do think…well, I’ll just say it: I think I’m pretty good looking. Sometimes I’ll see myself and I’ll be like, ‘Wow, you’re pretty good looking.’ I think it’s good that I don’t recognize that all the time. 

Has doing Mobituaries changed your thoughts or feelings about life and death?

Absolutely. Absolutely. I think what’s it done, and maybe aging would have done this anyway, is it just makes me evaluate choices. I think when you’re in your 20s, you throw everything against the wall to see what sticks. If given a choice—sometimes you’re not given a choice, a job is a job—but if given a choice, I’ll ask myself, Is this really worth my time? Is this what I want to devote myself to? I think spending time with obituaries is good for everyone. Spending time with Mobituaries is even better.

Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Bethesda Magazine.