The Mo Rocca story: from TV-loving tyke to mass-media personality

BY CAROLYN KLARECKI
Daily TV/New Media Editor
Published September 29, 2009

You might not know it, but you know who Mo Rocca is. The man has one of the most random yet impressive résumés the entertainment business has ever seen. He's a recurring judge on “Iron Chef: America,” a regular contributor to NPR’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” and a commentator for VH1’s “Best Week Ever” and “I love the …” series. He was a correspondent for “The Tonight Show” and is currently corresponding for “CBS News Sunday Morning” and “The Daily Show.” Oh, and he was on Broadway in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

So, yes, you’re probably familiar with him in some capacity or another. It’s almost as though Rocca has the career of a celebrity has-been, without ever really having been. He’s well aware of this, however, stating early in his lecture at the Ross School of Business on Friday, “At this point, some of you are probably wondering who the hell I am,” and a little later, “At this point, you may be thinking what a lot of people think, which is ‘OK, great, but how the hell did you get to be on TV?’ ”

In an exclusive interview with the Daily, he disclosed how he felt he got his start.

“Well, it all started, I think, when I was very very little and couldn’t stop watching TV. And the neighbors — I have two brothers, there are three of us in all — the neighbors thought there were only two children because I was inside all the time,” Rocca said. “I must’ve looked like I had skim milk running through my veins because I was translucent. I was so pale and sickly. And so I was just indoors all the time and if I wasn’t watching TV, I was imagining TV shows that I would be on.”

Rocca started performing when his parents grew concerned about the amount of time he spent in front of the television.

“And then finally my parents just threw me out of the house — I mean, just like onto the front lawn — and I had all this pent-up energy and at first I used it to pursue a career in gymnastics," Rocca explained. "I taught myself tumbling. Sometimes I would land on my head and it would hurt. So the gymnastics didn’t get too far … In any case, I sort of segued from gymnastics into performing. And I loved doing plays and musicals, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write or perform in them or both.”

When Rocca went to Harvard he got very involved with Hasty Pudding Theatricals, one of Harvard’s more prominent theater troupes, for which he wrote and performed in for all four years of his college career.

“(That) is pretty damn impressive,” Rocca said. “Very few people do that — not the Harvard part, I mean the Hasty Pudding part.”

Rocca is nothing short of impressive, but eccentric is the best word to describe him. He stood out among the B-school faculty wearing a pair of bright pink pants — later clarified on Twitter as “Nantucket Red” — and a large, funky pair of glasses. He invited audience members to quiz him on world capitals throughout his talk and was never wrong.

“South Africa actually has three capitals,” he exclaimed. “It’s Cape Town. It’s Pretoria and it’s not Johannesburg, it’s Bloemfontein. Am I right?” More than once, he broke out into song and he ended his lecture by giving an impromptu ballet performance.

It’s clear that Rocca is comfortable with himself and truly loves what he does. And he’s done a lot.

But he cites reporting as his favorite job.

“I loved doing television field pieces and I’ve done a lot of them," he said. "If you combine ‘The Daily Show’ with ‘The Tonight Show’ with my gig on ‘Sunday Morning,’ I see them all as part of one continuum in a way. Three- to six-minute stories with my point of view with me acting in some way as a journalist — certainly as a storyteller — and participating in one degree or another in the story … I love doing that.”

Still, it’s hard to label him as simply a TV correspondent. “It’s not easy to describe what I do or give myself a title," he said. "I’ve earned the title ‘pundit,’ but anyone can be a pundit. So I don’t want to be a pundit, and a fundit — a fun pundit — is a little too cutesy. I think it’s a little too precious … and ‘satirist’ is a little bit lofty … no one knows what a satirist is anymore. So I consider myself a commentator, a correspondent and common. Those are my three seats.”

Though he’s very good at what he's doing now, Rocca is looking forward to bigger projects.

“Well, I want to do another book since no one read the first one, but I liked writing it,” he said referring to his book “All the Presidents’ Pets,” which, in spite of its didactic title, is satirical fiction, so you can and should read it.

But whatever projects Mo Rocca embarks on in the future, they will certainly be witty and enlightening.

“In many ways, my career has been a platter of tapas, and I love tapas, but I’m also looking forward to moving on to a main course.”