The Mo You Know About Mo Rocca

Written by | Entertainment

If you’ve ever watched “Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation” you’ll know that “The Mo You Know” is one of the pun-tastic catchphrases used throughout Mo Rocca’s Saturday morning educational and informational television series now entering its 10th season on CBS. Rocca, who is also known for his tenure on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and as a regular correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning, sat down for a Zoom chat in which we discussed everything from Mo’s love affair with museums and history to his highly addictive podcast Mobituaries now entering its 4th season, his obsession with Streisand and his celebrity crushes. Spoiler alert: one of his celebrity crushes is a beloved cartoon character.

Like a lot of kids, I kind of kicked and screamed when it was time to go to the Smithsonian. It felt like doing homework. But as I came to appreciate history and museums more, I heard about the Henry Ford Museum. So when I started this job, honestly, part of why I wanted it was just so I could hang out in the museum. It’s a really special place. This 10th season has been kind of a look back in large part at the earlier seasons and some of the highlights of the museum. I know it sounds hokey, but it’s nice to have a job where you’re learning at the same time. And also, I’m happy to shill for a museum.

Did you ever think that you’d be here 10 years later… that the show would have that kind of longevity?

You know, I can’t say that I did. But I feel fortunate that I’ve worked on several legacy programs. I’m a correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning which premiered on my 10th birthday and the quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me which has been broadcasting on NPR for 25 years.

My first inclination was that Innovation Nation, with its educational bent, seems like it’s geared toward pre-teens and adolescents, but I also get the sense that it could really have a cross-generational appeal.

I think that’s right. I think it taps into a sense of wonder that people have, because these are stories about inventors and innovators, people who thought of something new. And I think there is something in the best way that is kind of childlike about giving yourself space to dream, which is what these innovators, past and present, do.

I like the show’s catchphrase, “Dream big, don’t quit.”

I like it also, because I understand why people are afraid of failure. I’m afraid of failure. But it is true that all these innovators kept failing before they succeeded. It was just part of the process.

I know that rhyming is a big hallmark of the show. Do you have a team of little rhyming elves that come up with these or are you personally involved in that?

I cannot claim credit for the rhymes. Our wonderful Executive Producer Jim Lichtenstein comes up with all those rhymes. And God bless him, I don’t think he uses a rhyming dictionary. Even Stephen Sondheim used a rhyming dictionary.

I also get a kick out of the other catchphrases which are fun variations on your name like “Mocabulary” and “The Mo You Know.”

It’s very convenient having a first name like Mo because you can do a lot with it pun-wise. Like if my first name had been Cecil, we would have had none of these things.

I do have to address the proverbial elephant in the room, which is that Henry Ford, the show’s namesake, is known not only for his technological innovations but for his virulent anti-Semitic views. Ford wasn’t just a garden-variety offender. He used his power and influence to propagate this poison through his weekly newsletters which were widely circulated across America. Ford’s international reach helped the Nazi war effort and he was praised personally by Adolf Hitler in his manifesto Mein Kampf. When you were first approached about doing the show, did you have any reservations about being associated with a show which is so directly associated with Henry Ford?

No. I didn’t have any reservations about that. Because if not explicitly, then I kind of intuitively knew that the show was going to be about the museum and its collections. The museum is a tribute to American innovation, not to the man, but it’s a totally fair question. I know that there was an American Experience (the PBS docuseries) on Henry Ford. My understanding is that it was appropriately tough on those issues about him as a person.

There have been claims that the Henry Ford Museum (and by extension this show) could be construed as an effort to whitewash Ford’s anti-Semitism. How would you respond to that?

I don’t think the show is doing that because I know the people who work on the show, and that would certainly not be my intention. But the decision to retain his name [in the show’s title] is not something that I had anything to do with. I think the institution has such a long history at this point that I don’t think it’s about the man. I certainly don’t think the show is about idolizing him. We’ve done hundreds of segments over the course of the show, and really only a few about the things that Henry Ford specifically is responsible for in technology and innovation.

Having gotten that out of the way, I figured it was time for a palate cleanser. So we segued to Rocca’s fascinating podcast Mobituaries which is going into its 4th season. The show takes an expansive interpretation of the obituary and uses it to explore the dearly departed in ways that serve both as an appreciation as well as an exploration into someone or something’s legacy. As Rocca explained in another interview: “Mobituaries is my way of paying tribute to the people and things that didn’t get the send-off they deserved the first time.” I particularly enjoyed the Fanny Brice slash Barbra Streisand doubleheader. Even though you really made an effort to make it primarily about Fanny, you found a way to incorporate Streisand and thread that needle.

I’m always going to find a way to thread that needle.

This particular podcast examines a phenomenon Rocca describes as an eclipse that happens where the person depicting the historical figure (in this case Streisand) replaces that person in the popular imagination.

When you watch the movie Funny Girl, you forget that you’re watching a story about a historical figure. You think you’re watching a story about Barbra Streisand’s rise.

Speaking of Streisand, she is releasing her years-in-the-making, 900-plus page autobiography My Name is Barbra. As a correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning and a Streisand super-fan, would that be a dream assignment for you?

I think so. I don’t know how that’s going to shake down. That sounds ominous. There’s no shakedown happening. I’d love to. But then there are cases where you just want to be a fan and that’s kind of enough. So I don’t know.

Rocca pauses for a moment, then qualifies in characteristic deadpan:

I wouldn’t say no.

I really got hooked on these Mobituaries podcasts. They’re very addictive.

Did you listen to the one about Cats [the Broadway musical] titled “Death of a Dancer”? I’m very proud of that one.

Yes. I was really moved by it, I think primarily because of your connection to it from such an early age, and then re-examining it as an adult all these years later. For context, Mo was so taken after seeing the Broadway show as a 13-year-old that he wrote a letter to the principal leads. Tim Scott who played one of the more dance-heavy roles “Mr. Mistoffeles” responded with a very sweet, touching letter which had a deep impact on Mo as a kid.

I didn’t want to do the easy thing of like, let’s be ironic about Cats and make fun of it.

What resulted was a very powerful, heartfelt personal story about Mo reckoning with his own orientation as a gay kid as the specter of AIDS was rearing its head fanning the flames of fear and ravaging the gay community and particularly the arts community.

Obviously, the story that’s at the heart of that episode is a really serious story. And I think a beautiful and a heartbreaking story. I felt really good about that episode. It felt like we really accomplished what we set out to do.

What do you think is your biggest strength? To what do you credit having reached this point in your life where you have such an accomplished and eclectic career?

Gee whiz. I think it’s curiosity. I think it’s enthusiasm. I’m a hard worker. It has taken me time to trust my gut more. And to understand that if I’m very excited about something, and I put the work into it, then other people will get excited about it. I think that has been key to whatever success I’ve had.

What would you consider your first big break?

Well, the more obvious one, I think was going on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I think that was because it was so red hot at that point. It wasn’t yet big in mainstream, but there was an intensity about it and that was definitely exciting. But I think before that, creatively, my big break was writing for a kids TV show called Wishbone on PBS. That for me was a really important break. Obviously it wasn’t as showy. I wasn’t on camera. But I learned how to tell a story in a half hour. That’s sort of a toolbox that I still carry around.

Your voice is very distinctive. Have you ever been approached about doing animated movies or voiceover work?

That’s so funny that you say that. When people ask me that question, I’m always sort of flattered by it. No, I haven’t. I wonder if it’s too… No, I don’t think it’s too nasal for that. I don’t know. I think that my sibilant “s” is distinctive. I gave up long ago trying to get rid of it. It’s just too difficult. I could never figure out what’s supposed to be happening. Is the issue that my tongue is spilling out over the sides of my mouth? Is that it? And if I try to cram it underneath the upper teeth, there’s just not enough room there. I’m not saying I have a Gene Simmons tongue. I’m just saying I don’t know what to do with my tongue to prevent the sibilant “s.” Which is the same as a lisp. There’s too many “s’s” in this sentence. We’ve gotta stop.

Is this something you were picked on for as a kid?


But then, whipsaw, Rocca does a complete 180 with:

I’m sure I was made fun of for a sibilant “s”, yeah.

Putting a positive spin on it, I chime in with: It’s a great voice though.

Well thank you. I think I could play a cat.

As our Zoom chat was coming to an end, I had just enough time for a lightning round of superfluous questions:

All-time favorite musical?

I’m just trying to think in terms of score or the body of the musical itself. I guess I would say Gypsy.

All-time favorite movie?

I love A Place in the Sun. I love Montgomery Clift.

Almost an afterthought, he adds:

And Elizabeth Taylor. I feel like we’re all complicit in the murder of Shelly Winters, because you understand why Montgomery Clift wants to be with Elizabeth Taylor. So I always feel guilty because I’m pretty sure he did let Shelly Winters drown. And you kind of understand why. And I’m a Shelly Winters fan, but she had to die so Montgomery Clift could be with Elizabeth Taylor. And I’m sorry about that, but these are just hard realities.

Celebrity crush?

I think my first celebrity crush was Chad Everett. Because when I’d go to get my hair cut as a little kid, they would have pictures on the wall of the different haircuts you could get. I’m pretty sure that one of them was Chad Everett from Medical Center.

You said he was your first. Do you have another celebrity crush?

Without missing a beat, Mo responds, rather puckishly.

Barney Rubble. I was always really attracted to Barney Rubble.

And suddenly the floodgates open as Mo continues, waxing rhapsodic about the be-stubbled animated cartoon character:

I love everything about him. I love his voice. I love his shape. I even think it’s adorable when he gets bonked on the head, the way the lump comes up out of his head. Or the way he wraps his head when he gets a toothache. I love Barney Rubble. I’m actually blushing right now about Barney Rubble. I think he’s just terrific. I think he’s so sweet also.

Then, putting a button on it, Rocca closes with:

You date Chad Everett, you marry Barney Rubble.

It turns out that there’s a word for Rocca’s attraction to the animated character. Toonophilia is defined as the sexual and/or romantic attraction to cartoon characters. Ever cautious to avoid misconstruing Rocca’s quirky sense of humor for a legit fetish, I sent Mr. Rocca a follow-up question by email and he confirmed that he was in fact joking, but he did admit that he found Rubble “very cute when I was a kid.” So make of that plausible denial what you will.

For his own Mobituary, hopefully sometime far far away, Rocca wants to be remembered as someone who helped make people interested in things that they didn’t expect to be interested in. I think he succeeded.

Last modified: November 19, 2023