Mo rocks the library

SUSAN CAREY DEMPSEY PHOTO
Library trustee Judith Hole Suratt interviewed Mo Rocca for the Friday Night Dialogue.

In introducing Mo Rocca to the full house attending the Friday Night Dialogue at the library on Aug. 16, library trustee Judith Hole Suratt chose an apt descriptor: Renaissance Man. Mr. Rocca’s career spans several seasons on The Daily Show and CBS Sunday Morning, a children’s show and his popular podcast series, “Mobituaries.”

The podcasts, which have been compiled into a book coming out in November, celebrate the lives of some people who were famous and others who, by some quirk of fate, captured Mr. Rocca’s imagination. The stunning Audrey Hepburn, the infamously exploited conjoined twins Chang and Eng, two trees that died of poisoning at Auburn University; all these and more are brought to life — well, not really. But his telling of their life stories makes them unforgettable. 

He credits his “love of dead people” to his father, who faithfully read obituaries in the newspaper. “He liked to see someone’s life reduced to a few inches. It has a dramatic sweep. It’s about the person’s life, not the death.” He also appreciates that the dead don’t have annoying publicists, he observed.

Mr. Rocca collects random information about famous people’s deaths, noting who made it above the fold of The New York Times, for example. Audrey Hepburn died on the day President Clinton was inaugurated, which overshadowed her story. Once Mr. Rocca had the chance to ask the former president if he realized the coincidence at the time. “No,” he said Mr. Clinton replied. “I was kind of busy that day.”

The dialogue between Mr. Rocca and Ms. Suratt had a friendly collegiality, for in fact they had worked together for several years while she was a producer at Sunday Morning. “Being on Sunday morning is just wonderful,” he said. “When I was a kid I loved the Variety Pak of cereals; that’s what the show is like. It’s like going to college and taking only electives.” He credited the executive producer, Rand Morrison, who was in the audience, with approaching the eclectic subjects covered on the show with the “wonderment of a child.”

Noting with neither braggadocio nor embarrassment that he was an AP Biology student who was fascinated with botany, Mr. Rocca also admitted that he could be the “class clown” at times. Once, when his parents were called to the school to deal with their unruly 12-year-old, Mr. Rocca’s father turned to him and said, “Being the class clown is not acceptable unless you’re going to make it a profession.” He expressed gratitude to his father for having, perhaps unknowingly, set him on his career path.

Among the fields to have caught Mr. Rocca’s fancy is music, and upon request from an audience member, he and Ms. Suratt broke into a lilting duet of “How About You,” charming an already appreciative crowd. He also spoke of his love of history, especially presidents and their families. “I’ve come across a pattern of ne’er do well brothers,” he said, “from John Adams’ son (John Quincy’s brother) Charles, whom he disowned as a ‘madman possessed by the devil,’ to Roger Clinton, whose Secret Service code name was Headache.”

Comparing the segments he does on Sunday Morning to the Mobituaries, he said the half-hour podcasts allow him to approach the topic from a more personal perspective and to inform them with his own opinions. Speaking about his own interest in performing, he said conducting a good interview is like “a great scene between two people. The interviewer gets the chance to be the Best Supporting Actor.”

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