You might know journalist, comedian and satirist Mo Rocca as one of the correspondents on the CBS News Sunday Morning, or you might remember him as a correspondent for The Tonight Show, or Larry King Live, or as one of the reporters for The Daily Show. Or you might know him from his food related shows like Iron Chef America or Food(ography). He also has a brand new show coming out called My Grandmother’s Ravioli. Recently, Mo came to the SiriusXM studios in New York City to be a guest on Unmasked with Host Ron Bennington. Here are some of the excerpts from that interview.
Mo Rocca on Having So Many Different Projects
Ron Bennington: And we’re going to talk about one of what? A thousand different projects that you got going on at the same time?
Mo Rocca: I guess so. That’s right. Professional A-D-D.
Ron Bennington: Is that fun for you though? The fact that you do so many different things?
Mo Rocca: You know when I was growing up, I never liked the big box of cereal. I always liked the variety pack. With the little boxes. And in college, I always liked electives. And so, I really did. I wish I could have gone to college and only taken electives.
Ron Bennington: Majored in electives? Would have been great.
Mo Rocca: Yeah. I’d have been a generalist. But it is fun. There’s a big upside to it. You work different muscles. That said, I think it’s important to sort of do the thesis. For awhile, I’ve been moving towards I think that thing where you kind of dig down a little bit deep. Because I think there’s obviously a lot to be said for becoming an expert in one thing or digging in deeper. But yeah, for a while I’ve done a lot of different things and that’s fun. You remember “Cable in the Classroom”? It’s sort of like cable is my classroom. And I also, I have to say, and I’ve only thought about this recently, I’ve been able to get paid to learn a lot of stuff, which is nice. CBS Sunday Morning, I love love doing. And I’ve been doing that for about 5 years now. And that’s kind of my main job now. And it’s a home, but it’s a way one week to do something on the play “Our Town” and then next week to do something on kids who stutter, the next week to do something on male escorts. I mean like let’s go all over the place.
Mo Rocca on CBS Sunday Morning and Interviewing Albert Brooks
Ron Bennington: CBS Sunday Morning has probably been my longest lasting television show and that show, 30 some years, and it’s never been bad. It has never been bad that whole time. They’ve always done a great job with it. But when you came in, it also, now comedy plays a bigger role.
Mo Rocca: Thank you.
Ron Bennington: And you’ve been involved with some of the biggest comedians in the world that you go hang out with.
Mo Rocca: Yeah, suddenly, I did Albert Brooks recently which was really great to do. I really studied up for that hard.And then I did Ellen which was great. Kathy Griffin, Roseanne, Judd Apatow, those may be the main ones that I’ve done, but it’s been interesting. I work closely with producers and it’s very collaborative, but the questions are things that I care about. But you realize that an interview is really a projection often times of the interviewer’s concerns. And priorities. So I found myself with Albert Brooks– almost to an embarrassing degree– he was talking about his early, some of his early groundbreaking stand-up acts like the “World’s Worst Ventriloquist” which was really really funny. It’s Dan & Danny and he’s just going like “I’m Dan”. (using his hand like a puppet) “And I’m Danny”, like his hand and his mouth are moving at the same time. And when he first did it on Ed Sullivan, I guess a lot of that audience back then were fans of ventriloquism, so they just didn’t get it. So I was asking him, I said you know when you did it and people didn’t laugh, where did you find the stomach to get through it. And he went “You just do.” He said “You just do. I mean I didn’t need it so bad. If it didn’t work out, I’d go and I’d sell shoes”. I went “Really?” And I watched it back and I went “I looked so desperate”. I looked like “Please! Give me the strength, please submit! I want to catch it now!”. And that happens all the time.
Mo Rocca on His Love of Musical Theater as a Kid
Ron Bennington: Musical theatre was a first love for you though, right?
Mo Rocca: Yes. Love.
Ron Bennington: Even as a kid?
Mo Rocca: Yes. Love music. I memorized all the lyrics from a lot of musicals. I memorized all the lyrics of “Evita” and learned all the songs of Che’, of Mandy Patinkin’s part. And I don’t know how, my father was really indulgent. And he would encourage me, and my brothers, I think, wanted to kill me. Especially the one who’s a big baseball fanatic. I think when I would play “Cats” all the time. I’d play “Cats” in my bedroom and I’d memorize all, like all, like Macavity and Skimbleshanks and Rum Tum Tugger…(sings) “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, we’re a couple of curious cats”. (audience laughs) And my brother would be listening to a baseball game like in the next room, like on his radio and then he’d turn it off and he could hear “Cats” playing. So he would go “Turn it down”. And so I would turn it down and and put my ear up against the stereo. But apparently, it’s even more annoying because then you hear like (whispered singing,) “Jellicle Cats and practical cats and dramatical cats and pragmatical cats”…is all he was hearing which made him even crazier. (But I learned all the lyrics to for Che’ in “Evita” and I don’t know what, I got it into my head that, oh if Mandy Patinkin got sick, what would happen? So, I now know all the lyrics. Like I didn’t understand that there was such a thing called an understudy. So anyway, so I was driven almost as if it were a rescue fantasy.
Ron Bennington: As if they’re going to say there’s some child out there, who knows the lyrics. What a fantasy life.
Mo Rocca On The Hasty Pudding Club at Harvard
Ron Bennington: At Harvard, you kept the comedy stuff and the musical theatre stuff going, right?
Mo Rocca: Yeah, I did the Hasty Pudding show which I really really loved doing. It’s the oldest theatre group, college theater group in the world. I don’t know. I’m sure there’s some University of Tokyo’s Kabuki group is probably older. But anyway, it’s a drag show. The Puritans thought that theatre was evil and so it all had to be underground, so they couldn’t get women to be in the plays. And so they’ve kept the tradition up. And it was very very highly ritualized. It was 16 guys every year. Eight playing men. Eight playing women. You want to play a woman. There’s no point, if you’re going to be in a drag show, why even play a man? It’s really lame. And so I did that for 4 years and I co-wrote it one year. And that was really the center of my existence. It wasn’t a job, but it showed me how like the people that you work with can become your best friends. And that they’re not separate things.
Ron Bennington: So that was literally your whole life in college?
Mo Rocca: Totally, totally. I was obsessed with it.
Ron Bennington: Now what most of us know about that group is that somehow you get a celebrity to cross dress every year. And I always try to figure it out. They get an award?
Mo Rocca: They get an award. It’s not a mock award, but it’s tongue-in-cheek. The Pudding Pot. And there’s a man and a woman each year and there’s a big parade and then they watch the show. Starting with my freshman year, it was Lucille Ball and Steve Martin, then Kathleen Turner – Robin Williams, Glenn Close – Kevin Costner, my senior year when I was president, it was Diane Keaton and Clint Eastwood. And Clint Eastwood was just great. Really really fun. Lucille Ball was amazing. It was right before she died. She was great.
Ron Bennington: So that had to be just, I mean what kid gets that experience? Just meeting these people.
Mo Rocca: Well it was really exciting and also one thing I remember actually from freshman year and I found this really neat and I still find it neat to this day, you know you think people of different eras don’t necessarily understand each other or that a comedian from one era has nothing to do with another. But Steve Martin was, at the time, he wasn’t yet the New Yorker Steve Martin. He’s great now, but he was still a little bit rawer then, but I remember him saying the only reason I’m accepting this award was to be honored along side Lucille Ball. And I remember being struck by that as a 19 year old, thinking like wow, the respect he showed for her is really cool. That this was all part of one continuing lineage. It wasn’t like he thought who’s that old bag?
Mo Rocca on Being in the Moment
Ron Bennington: There’s so much about comedy that never changes even though it’s of any era, but it still becomes this thing about just being in that moment. I think the best comedians we’ve ever had is when you look up at a guy and go, oh he’s fucking awake. He is awake right now.
Mo Rocca: Well, I have to tell you. I have to confess that’s one of the things that I wish I could get better at. I find it much easier in interviewing to be in the moment because there’s another person there and I can engage. I did the Daily Show for 4 years, loved it, but one of the hard parts I had is I was always better, not always, but often times better in rehearsal than when we actually taped. So we’d do these bits. They were against the green screen where you’d say “I’m standing in front of the Kremlin”, you know it’s the green screen, whatever. And we’d do it in rehearsal and maybe it was an issue of relaxation or just doing it the first time. I’d get a lot of laughs because I’d be in the moment and then we actually did it in performance, something would happen and I’d hear myself. And there (snaps finger) you’ve lost it.
Ron Bennington: Wow.
Mo Rocca: It’s tough. It’s hard. And then you hear yourself. And as you’re hearing yourself, you go this is not gonna work because the audience won’t be able to identify what’s wrong, but subconsciously they won’t find it as funny and subconsciously they’ll recognize that he’s a little bit detached. I was hearing myself, I was listening for feedback into my head of like is this landing? Is it funny? Are they liking it? Instead of just surrendering to it. And just doing it. That’s hard man.
Ron Bennington: And every night you would feel it? Every time you had something?
Mo Rocca: No. It was spotty. It was spotty. Sometimes I would just..and you can’t control it. If you try to not hear yourself then you will. So do you have a recommendation?
Ron Bennington: Well at some point, it comes down to that you have to surrender that bombing isn’t so bad and life’s great. And if I start to tube, I’m going to really eat it. And make that funny. But I’ve never seen that of you. I’m amazed to hear you say that because you seem to be one of the most comfortable people on camera.
Mo Rocca on His New Cooking Channel Show
Ron Bennington: Let’s talk about that show that you’re doing now.
Mo Rocca: Well it’s in an area where I wouldn’t expect to find myself which is part of the premise of show, but I’m learning to cook from grandmothers and grandfathers across the country. And I don’t know how to cook at all. And it’s sort of a great shame of my life. Not a great, a minor shame. I have too many other things in life. Partly I like, and this is one thing I found on the Daily Show, and so many channels don’t understand this, is that they all think young people want to see young people. They want to see young hard bodies all the time and it’s like it’s so boring after a while. And older people have lived longer and are more interesting and are flinchier and edgier and weirder and have idiosyncrasies. Part of it is that my grandmother, I was very close to my father’s mother. She made this amazing ravioli. The name of the show is “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” and if I had a time machine, I’d go back 30 years and I’d show up at her apartment a couple of hours before she served these gargantuan meals and actually help her. When you’re a kid, you think food just appears out of nowhere. But what struck me is she worked 40 hours a week at a downtown department store in DC at Woody’s Department Store and she’d slave away over the weekend making these meals, but we couldn’t convince her not to. This was something she had to do. And I wanted to understand that and the next best thing to learning from her is learning from these old masters. Not learning from a book. But from sort of a television comedic point of view, this combines a lot of the things I like doing. I’m learning and interviewing, but I’m also giving them a stage. I mean we’re co-starring in this. I’m trying to create a situation where these great characters can really really come out and I can be involved in them and have a relationship and hopefully over the course of an hour maybe go from say a grandmother going “Who is this guy?” to her really liking me or maybe wanting to throw me out of her kitchen.
Ron Bennington: Well the other beauty of the show too I think is because when you’re a kid you should have listened more to your grandmothers.
Mo Rocca: Totally.
Ron Bennington: There’s so many great stories and the kitchen is where they come out of.Because the grandmothers will be like (whispering) “You know that’s not her real, you know…” But you’re never going to get those stories from an 18-year-old kid. They just don’t exist anymore.
Mo Rocca: No, they don’t exist at all. And then the appliances and everything. In this special, it’s an hour-long special, there’s a Romanian grandfather who’s married to the Filipino grandmother who I had really gone to learn from, but the Romanian, in the middle of teaching me to use his grandmother’s meat grinder to make Romanian skinless sausage, tells me that he escaped from Communist Romania, clinging to the bottom of a train and then swam across the Danube River and he had his grandmother’s meat grinder with him. I’m imagining Ceausescu’s dogs chasing him, probably because they could smell the meat on the meat grinder. By the way, that to me, that’s when something is real and funny. It’s organic and it’s funny and I like stuff that, not to get schmaltzy, that’s funny, but also really moving. I mean I found it really beautiful that he was so happy to be in America, escaping this brutal dictatorship and here I am using his Transylvanian, literally his Transylvanian grandmother’s meat grinder.
Ron Bennington: “My Grandmother’s Meat Grinder” might have even been a better title. (Mo and audience laughs) What I also love about it is it’s a show that people aren’t getting voted off of. That you’ve gone back to what we used to do with some of this, is to slow it down a little bit.
Mo Rocca: Yeah. I mean I wanted to make it more doc and also, I don’t want to get trouble, but like these are the real real housewives and house husbands like the Earth mothers and fathers with soul who are all about a life affirming and building and progeny and bringing people together instead of those viragos and shrews and harridans with all the work done and like money grubbing. I find those shows like female minstrel shows, like oy. I mean my women, these grandmothers are like real women. Am I right?
Ron Bennington: No, it’s true. And I love the idea of that too that this is the real stories. Our culture, whatever your ethnic background is, food is probably number one on what makes people a people, what brings them together.
Mo Rocca: Oh yeah. I think so. At the end of each of these vignettes, I’m making this family recipe with each of these grandparents and their families come together. And I’m telling you, it’s just great to watch families come together for this stuff. It’s really beautiful. This Filipino grandmother, she’s 73 years old, she makes paella on one hand and swills pink champagne in the other while she’s cooking. And she’d do that whether or not I was there. But God, when her grandkids show up, that’s like off the meter joy.
Ron Bennington: And the fact that you do like research and you do like preparation, but that can only take you so far with a show like this.
Mo Rocca: Only so far because I don’t want to overwhelm it. I don’t want say like here’s my shtick and have them be my audience. I really don’t. Like I learned to sing like a folk song that my producer told me she knew. She didn’t know I was going to do that. So that was kind of a way like to surprise her, but it didn’t stop, it didn’t bring everything to a grinding halt. The same with, I learned some stuff from La Boheme because the Italian grandfather’s a big opera freak. So suddenly, we started singing together. I’m sure he was surprised that I knew it. I mean I think it’s funny, the idea that I know all this random stuff that pops out like that.
Mo Rocca on Being Single
Mo Rocca: Yeah, I’m single. This single thing has got to stop. I don’t like being single. And so I think frankly that’s partly why I was drawn to the idea of doing this show. And I hope that sounds vulnerable and not pathetic. Vulnerable is good. Pathetic is not. Okay?
Ron Bennington: Where you want to stay with those families that you just met.
Mo Rocca: Yeah. Exactly. Where the grandmother’s like “I think you’ve got to leave now”. Or “I’m sorry. I cannot lactate for you.”
Ron Bennington: So the single thing all but would help with the kind of work you do because to be in a relationship or have a family and to take off in as many different directions.
Mo Rocca: I think it makes it hard. I don’t think that, I mean I’ve thought about this and I’ve paid a lot of money, if you know what I mean, thinking about it. And insurance only covers about a third because I’m not going to use one on a plan. C’mon. Because really? If he’s on a plan…I don’t think that I’m like staying busy to stay out of a relationship. I think I genuinely do want to be in a relationship, so I don’t it’s that. I like being in the field. That’s the work I love. I think my life, it would be a show business comedy journalism career would be much more manageable if you were in a studio. But frankly, there already are a lot of shows out there with a guy behind a desk. Great shows, but that’s not, I’m better in the field. I’m better going to where the person lives in Nebraska or Oregon or whatever. So it makes it tricky.
Ron Bennington: But would you sacrifice a career for this?
Mo Rocca: Yeah, I would. No, no, no. Wait. Did I just say that? I think I said that because I thought it was the right answer. No. I’m not going to. I refuse to. I won’t make you. I won’t let you make me. No, I’d have to find a way. Maybe I should just date a flight attendant.
Ron Bennington: Nice to see you again. You’re just taking off to the next gig. But that’s one of the problems of doing well, I think, in a career. The career is important. A lot of times that we’re kind of taught almost this thing of oh, family comes first, but why would we have, why would half the world be divorced if that were true?
Mo Rocca: Yeah, I don’t know. And I’ve had friends who are married say, they’ve said it to me, they’ve said “Well, it’s not it’s all cracked up to be.”
Ron Bennington: That’s what my parents told me.
Mo Rocca: Right. Although, I have to say, I get a little bit sick of people. The whole thing. It’s a little bit overbearing and I see in my office at CBS between the people who are partnered or married and single. And some of the people, not most of them, but a few of them that are married will be like “Well, at the end of your life, you’re going to be surrounded by family. You’re not going to be thinking about all those jobs you should have taken”. And I’m like “Yeah, I know you’re right. Stop rubbing it in”.
This interview can be heard in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription
You can follow Mo at his twitter account @morocca and you can find out more about his new show, “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” on the Cooking Channel website.