Mo Rocca is obsessed with everything you think you don’t care about.
The CBS Sunday Morning correspondent recently released his second book, Mobituaries, a collection of insightful and humorous obituaries of people, places, and things that history has overlooked or didn’t get the sendoff that Rocca thinks they deserved. In the book—and its corresponding podcast of the same name—Rocca dives into the history of forgotten forerunners such as Elizabeth Jennings, a black schoolteacher who in 1854 was physically thrown out of a New York City streetcar when she refused to get off, a century before Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus. Or Thomas Paine, the man who, for all intents and purposes, sparked the Revolutionary War with his rousing pamphlet Common Sense but died in disgrace, with only six people at his funeral.
Or even sitcom characters who went upstairs and never came down again.
“Here is the sad but also kind of weirdly liberating truth: We’re all going to be forgotten really quickly,” Rocca said during a live taping of Creative Conversation at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. “On the bright side, it sort of makes you think, well, live now and connect with what you’re interested in and what makes you happy. Stop curating your own museum.”
Rocca has made a career out of doing just that. During our conversation, Rocca touched on the importance of indulging your curiosity (no matter how obscure), what a time-traveling Jack Russell terrier taught him about storytelling, the jaw-dropping epiphany he had while watching the Broadway version of Tina Turner’s biopic, and much more. And FYI: Rocca also sings a beautiful rendition of “If I Only Had a Brain.”
Listen to the insightful and wide-ranging conversation and read highlights below:
Feed your curiosity
I think if you sort of feed that curiosity—I mean I was at a crossroads in my own career in my mid-twenties and I said to myself, I’m kind of interested in who would work at the Grover Cleveland birthplace in Caldwell, New Jersey. I’m serious. It was crazy. I don’t know why. So I went to Port Authority and took a bus out there. I visited it, and I met a woman there named Sharon Farrell, who was the docent, the tour guide there. And part of the deal of working, as she did, at the Grover Cleveland birthplace, is she could live on the third floor. So she raised her family in a historic site. I thought, my God, that’s a sitcom I want to star in! But that then led me to visiting other historic sites, and I kept going. And I quite literally bought a one-way ticket to Indianapolis and rented a car from there and drove around because a lot of the obscure presidents lived in Ohio and in Indiana, like Rutherford B. Hayes and James Garfield and Warren Harding. That ended up giving me lots of kinda quirky story ideas. And that’s how I got on television. I got on The Daily Show because I [pitched] two of those stories. So I think there’s a lesson in that, because I indulged that [curiosity]. So whatever it is, pull that thread. Don’t tamp it down because you think it’s weird or something.
The wisdom of Wishbone
I got a lucky break when a friend of mine, a woman named Stephanie Simpson, came up with this idea for Wishbone, a PBS kids show about a Jack Russell terrier who in his dream life becomes the heroes of classic novels, in order to familiarize kids between the ages of 6 and 11 with the themes of those books, so that when they encounter them later on they find them less daunting. It was actually an extraordinary experience. It was storytelling boot camp for me, because even though I’d gotten this fancy education [at Harvard], I really didn’t know how to tell a story. With Wishbone, every episode was taking one of the great works of literature and reducing it. And I don’t mean dumbing it down. I mean reducing it, refining it to a 30-minute episode for kids. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a really fundamental and important experience because kids, especially at that age, they know bad writing in that they know when you’re marking time, when you’re just filling in, when characters are just talking but the plot isn’t moving forward. They kind of demand that the plot be lean and dynamic and keep moving forward. I keep going back to that toolbox, and I’ve used that in all the shows I’ve been in, whether I was doing a three-minute satirical piece for The Daily Show or now a 10-minute piece, if I’m lucky, for the CBS Sunday Morning, or with a podcast, telling someone’s life story in about 45 or 50 minutes, keeping it moving, making it dynamic.