Mo Rocca on Being a CBS Sunday Morning Correspondent: Sometimes a Story Calls for Humor

If you've paid any sort of attention to television in the past two decades, you should know who Mo Rocca is. You might know him as a correspondent with The Daily Show or, most recently, from starring alongside Charles Osgood with CBS Sunday Morning

Journalism wasn't exactly his original forte, yet it was something he'd gravitate toward later in life. Born of Colombian and Italian ancestry in Washington, D.C., Maurice Alberto Rocca went on to study literature at Harvard University. He started as a stage actor, then worked as a writer and producer for several television shows, including children's show Wishbone, which won an Emmy. 

As a humorist, he's appeared on NPR's Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! and these days hosts a cooking show, My Grandmother's Ravioli, which is now in its fourth season
This week, Rocca is the second guest in the Broward College Speaker Series, being held tonight at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. It will be followed by a Q&A session with audience members moderated by CBS 4 Miami News Anchor Rick Folbaum. New Times spoke with Rocca on being an entertainer and his new role as a journalist. 

New Times: What was it like growing up in Washington, D.C.?
Mo Rocca: Washington is a mill town; it's a one-industry town. It's probably a little bit similar to Los Angeles, which is also a mill town, where everybody's always talking about one thing. And obviously in the case of D.C., it's politics. News and politics are kind of absorbed by everyone in the D.C. area, almost by osmosis. It's a pretty place. A friend of mine once said it's the only big city in America where you can always smell cut grass wherever you are. It is that way, certainly during the summer. It's an interesting place, but it's not sexy at all. No matter how much extracurricular sex members of Congress may be having, it will never be a sexy place. There's something kind of staunchy and dorky about it, but it's got great museums.

You started out in show business, but now you're in journalism. 
I don't look at them as separate careers, and I know that sounds sacrilegious to some people who think that news and entertainment shouldn't mix. I don't really look at it that way. I just feel like whether I was writing a script for Wishbone, the kids' show on PBS, or doing a piece for Jon Stewart or doing a piece for CBS Sunday Morning, they're all similar in that the objective is to tell a story. I don't mean that to sound like a professor teaching English to undergrads, but it's true. The hard part of this and the exciting part of this and the whole point of this is to tell people stories. Maybe it's because I went from acting in plays and musicals to doing news parody to doing news, it was a gradual transition, as gradual as it could have been; that may be one of the reasons why I don't look at it as two distinct categories.

What's it like working with Charles Osgood on CBS Sunday Morning?
I love working on the show. Our executive producer once said he's the last great gentleman of broadcasting, and I think that sums it up. He's all that you imagine and want to be for a man who works in the morning and plays Gershwin on a grand piano. It's just something he does, and that's pretty cool.

Does it feel weird in your mind coming from a world where acting is essentially lying to an occupation as a truth seeker?
The thing is that I feel like it would be really interesting if I could say yes. But the truth is that it doesn't. On paper, it may seem like I'm doing the opposite of what I used to do, but it really isn't. When I did pieces, let's say, for The Daily Show, the goal was to point out to someone in the audience a truth, hopefully; to make, ultimately, kind of a serious point. There are just different techniques, not different goals. One of the great things about being on CBS Sunday Morning for me is that sometimes a story will call for humor and sometimes it just won't call for any humor at all. And I like eliminating that line, and I think a lot of people do that these days. I think it's healthy not to stick to one kind of style or genre because it's not, I don't know, appropriate sometimes.

Who or what is the most interesting person or the most delicious recipe you've encountered while filming My Grandmother's Ravioli?
One of the most delicious dishes was pretty simple. It was a roast pork in a salt brine. Well, all brine is salt, but it was brined for a while, marinating. That was with a Portuguese grandmother. One of the most interesting grandparents, and I just loved him, was this Oklahoma grandpa named B.K. Nuzum, who actually has a bunch of chuck wagons and does demonstration for kids. He's just a wonderful man in Oklahoma. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to love this guy. Sometimes you meet people who you think — and this is the way it should be with unscripted programming, this is the whole point of reality TV, but it's rarely done — you couldn't script if you wanted to, who are more interesting than anything you can possibly invent.

Going back to actors becoming journalists, what do you think about Sean Penn's interview with El Chapo?
It sounds very murky and very confused, like he did what pretty much anyone who has that opportunity would do. I would have done it. That's a separate question from whether or not he did it well. It sounds like the adventure he underwent was a lot more interesting than the article he produced, but I'd have to read it.

And what about Rolling Stone's printing of the story? It was pre-approved by El Chapo, although he didn't ask for any changes.
Yeah, that's pretty bad. But if you're faced with the choice of no article or an article with his approval for which he didn't ask for any changes, I would have made the same choice as Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone has a lot of problems, and I'm not like a huge fan of Rolling Stone, and certainly not right now after the UVA story, but all things considered, it would have been foolish for them to have turned down any sort of arrangement with El Chapo. 

“A Conversation with Mo Rocca: From the Constitution to the Kitchen” takes place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 13, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, located at 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $60  at Call 954-660-6307.
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David Minsky is U.S. Navy veteran and Tulane graduate who has experience reporting on stories from California, South Florida, and the Deep South. He also won some journalism awards. Email or tweet David with story tips and ideas.
Contact: David Minsky