Mo Rocca fans, eat your heart out.
The self-described “quirky commentator” and celebrated comic wit took a few moments to talk to the Campus Times about TV, presidents and food specialties of upstate New York before he heads to UR on Friday to perform.
Campus Times: I saw you turned 36 last week. Happy birthday. Any reflections you’ve had from getting another year older?
Mo Rocca: Well, I’m now clearly out of the “hot” demographic – 18 to 34 is the hot demographic, and you can cheat it when you’re 35, but it’s really 18 to 34. I suppose I should be watching reruns of “Murder, She Wrote” or “Diagnosis Murder” now. Is that still running?
CT: I think so, on the old channels.
MR: Oh, the old channels. [Laughs.] So that’s what it is. It should be called TOC, The Old Channel.
CT: Well, we can talk about your younger years a little bit.
MR: I’m excited about coming to Rochester, by the way. I’m determined to understand the Erie Canal. I’m very bad with canals. I don’t understand lock systems at all. I’m hoping the students at UR can explain how it all works.
CT: We’ll try. So, let’s talk about your college days – what do you think about college kids today? Are we different? Any perspective on that, now that you’re a little older?
MR: Anytime I go to a college, I look at the crowd and go, “Did I actually go to college?” People are always having a good time, it seems like. I had a great four years, though. People seem smart and like they’re having a good time. I thought they were mutually exclusive.
CT: Did you have a good time at Harvard?
MR: I had a great time. I loved it, but now, everyone seems so healthy and freshly scrubbed.
We were just dirtier. Also, everyone’s teeth are so much whiter these days.
CT: We all use whitening toothpaste now.
MR: When I was in college, some people – the fancy people – were using baking soda. Most people were just using soap.
CT: Soap on their teeth?
MR: Yeah – or gravel.
CT: Well, what about dating – what was the dating scene like?
MR: We didn’t have “friends with benefits” back then.
CT: Oh, Katie Couric.
MR: I learned all I know about college kids from watching the Today Show. I’ve appeared on the Today Show, you know. I love Katie.
CT: What’s Katie Couric like?
MR: Well she’s not a “friend with benefits” – yet. No, she’s totally fun. Katie is my window into what the kids are talking about today.
CT: Did you know there’s a Web site called celebmatch.com that measures your compatibility with celebs? How do you feel about being on there?
MR: That’s hilarious. I’m on there?
CT: Yep. Would you date anyone off that site?
MR: Absolutely. I trust computers to do everything. I think that it’s great that there are Web sites that can arrange marriages. I think it’s great. Will the Web site tell you when you should have sex with the person?
CT: Probably not.
MR: I wonder if the computer will tell me how to raise the children, when I’ll sire them.
CT: Your personal dating preferences – are you a movie-night-in guy or a going-out-on-a-date guy ?
MR: Movie in, because going out to the movie theater … going out, it’s too disruptive – the noise, the talking. And the smell of buttered popcorn just makes me lose my mojo.
CT: What do you think about dating today – has it evolved into something?
MR: [Laughs] College kids are always involved with the dating thing, asking me about it. When I go to college campuses, I make it a point to date a few college students. So, I expect to have dated a few students by the end of the 2005 semester.
No, when I was in college, people didn’t really go on dates. Yeah, I mean, it seems today like students are a little more romantic.
CT: Some think the opposite. Do you think chivalry is dead?
MR: Well, I kind of hope so. I think chivalry involved impaling people with lances. It also involved wearing chain mail, which, while very kinky for some people, is extremely heavy and very straining for someone’s back.
CT: Let’s talk a little about your background. Did you always like media and entertainment? How’d you get started in the entertainment business?
MR: I was essentially a shut-in as a child, so I watched television almost constantly. I find memorizing lists very relaxing. I know the capitals of all of the cities and all the capitals in the world. I know, for instance, that Rochester was started by flour mills that were along the river.
I memorized the TV guide. This was before cable, mind you. Today I would have gone insane. Like, memorizing everything on the Oxygen channel. So yeah, I was raised in part by television.
CT: So, with “I Love the 80s” and those kind of shows –
MR: Yeah, I was somebody that was very fluent in television programming. So, maybe I got a jump-start on exploiting that. People like listening to commentary, you know.
But that seeps into news as well. I covered the “convention” – and with Larry King. It’s a sign of the times, I think, that they would hire me to give my quirky analysis. It’s not that far from VH1.
That’s a roundabout answer, but it’s that kind of fluency with middle and lowbrow pop culture.
CT: I know you did PBS with “Wishbone” and then you moved to Comedy Central. What about that transition? And, which do you like better in the end?
MR: Well, it wasn’t as drastic a transition as it seems. In between, I worked for a soft-core porn magazine. It was a nice transition. That’s how I transitioned from PBS to Comedy Central. Just like actresses that were in goody-two-shoes roles would pose naked to be considered for more serious roles. No one wanted me to pose, so I took the editorial route.
CT: What was working there like?
MR: It was really freaky. Actually, no, it was so freaky because it was so sober and bland.
I was essentially paid to copyedit interviews with topless models because I went to Harvard and was grammatically infallible. It was so soft-core that it made “Penthouse” look like “Barely Legal.”
CT: What about working with Jon Stewart?
MR: He’s a very serious guy. Not grim, just a very hard worker, very sane. [Laughs.] A lot of these guys, I think, are probably cuckoo. He really packs a punch, man, and I bruise like a grape. If you can overlook the occasional physical violence, then he’s great to work with.
CT: How about people who say that you’re not a real reporter – that being on “The Daily Show,” you’re not following journalistic ethics and standards?
MR: I was with “The Daily Show” for over four years, then left a year and a half ago. But, whoever’s saying that probably works at Fox News or CNN. I’d say relax! There’s enough work for all of us.
CT: What was the best segment or story you’ve ever done on “The Daily Show?”
MR: It was this one where this guy was really angry at a “Garfield” comic strip because it was making fun of polka. “Garfield” always makes fun of polka music. For the interview, I brought a giant stuffed Garfield. We got into a role-playing discussion with me manipulating the stuffed Garfield. It ended up with us rolling around on his front lawn.
CT: Were you actually fighting?
MR: Yes, we were. The man’s lip bled and I felt badly about that.
CT: Interesting. So, how do you walk the line between politics and humor – what do you think about the mixture of the two? Are they combinable?
MR: Sure. I think that, you know, politics has always been kind of a performance. Politics are trying to sell someone or sell something. They’re trying to sell to people and that involves performance.
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And that’s kind of funny – to watch people who aren’t trained performers trying to wow a crowd. And the smartest people aren’t great performers.
CT: OK. George W. Bush in one sentence.
MR: He gets the last laugh. There are many things I can say but while a lot of people, you know, are pulling their hair out and
gnashing their teeth about how dumb they think he is and how he shouldn’t be president – well, he’s the one in the Oval Office. He must know something that a lot of us don’t.
CT: Right. So going back a little bit, with the “Crossfire” incident. I know you were on the show in past years – did you think it was right for
them to cancel the show, and what happened after Jon Stuart was on there?
MR: I think it’s cool to have that kind of power. As Jon himself said, “I didn’t know by mentioning a show I could get it canceled.” I wish I had that kind of power. I’ve been walking around my apartment yelling out “Yes, Dear” and hoping that I’ll turn on the TV and see that’s it’s been cancelled. I don’t have the pull that Jon Stewart has.
I think it was time for “Crossfire” to call it quits. I kind of have a smug pride that I’ve worked with both the principals involved. I think that Tucker was kind of unceremoniously dumped. He was loyal to the show and believe me, it took a lot to be loyal to that show.
I think, for some reason, producers have come to believe that audiences want to see a black and white contrast. I don’t know. Because a lot of us say we want more nuanced discussion but if there was, why aren’t we all watching the “News Hour” with Jim Lehrer.
Another example was with “Nightline.” We were all up in arms that Ted Koppel was going to get dumped. We all came out to decry it, but it was an important show that we weren’t watching. The same thing may be at work with the debate over debate shows. The “News Hour” on PBS is, what that is and no one watches it.
I think that news producers aren’t completely stupid. A lot underestimate the American people. It is profit motivated. If it were ever suggested that people wanted to watch news on TV that’s more than 30 minutes a day, there would be shows like that.
CT: Do you think the prevalence of reality shows is related to that – that people want to see that drama?
MR: It’s been proven wrong, because they’re beginning to wane in popularity, but with so many different channels, a big hit is watched by 10 million people as opposed to 40 million. It’s sad that networks still have so many of those shows. It’s hard to say that it’s stupid to have those shows. There’s always going to be a hunger for really low-end crap like “The Bachelor.”
CT: I know you have a book on presidential pets. I wanted to know where that came from. And you like to go to presidential gravesites … ?
MR: The presidential gravesites is more of a scouting expedition. There’s no reason I can’t be president, and I need to be buried somewhere. With the book, I had a lot of time on my hands and knew about all the pets that have been in the White House.
CT: Find out anything interesting?
MR: William Howard Taft had a cow named Pauline.
CT: Did he take care of it himself?
MR: I’m sure not. Taft was very large. He probably would have had a heart attack if he tried to milk that thing.
CT: So, what about your future? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
MR: I love acting. I love commentating. I love singing, but as anyone who knows me can tell you, all I’ve wanted to do is to dance. So, hopefully, I’ll get my own dance company. I’d like to be the only one in it – I don’t like to share the spotlight. I don’t know what kind of dancing I’ll do – I just want to let the spirit take me where it will. If I don’t end up speaking at length on Friday – if I just start dancing – don’t be dismayed. I can’t resist where my heart takes me. I’ll wear pants that stretch. No, I don’t know where I’m going.
CT: Coming to Rochester – have you ever been here before?
CT: Have you ever had a Garbage Plate?
MR: No, I’m dying to have one. I’ve had a beef on wack in Buffalo. It’s a sourdough roll, with beef on it. It’s a Buffalo specialty.
CT: Any last words?
MR: I’m looking forward to coming to Rochester. Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, George Eastman – there’s great people in Rochester.
CT: There was, anyway.
MR: Yeah. I’m hoping to get some Lasik in too – I hear there’s a good optics program there. I’m a big supporter of students getting on-the-job training. I’m willing to allow a student to perform Lasik surgery if he/she is confident in doing so. I will be taking applications.
Linden can be reached at email@example.com.