Mo Rocca has been delighting fans with his stories honing in on the random, obscure, and overlooked parts of history, whether via his early stint on The Daily Show, at his current gig on CBS Sunday Morning, or through his hit podcast, Mobituaries. The podcast has been such a sensation since it premiered in January 2019 that Rocca is already in the middle of a second season and has simultaneously produced a book, Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Retelling, further focusing on the lives and events that he felt deserved another look. His efforts to delve into the past have so far yielded thoughtful reexaminations of everything from President Jimmy Carter's famed and infamous little brother, to the black congressmen of Reconstruction, to the end of the country-centric TV shows of the 1960s and 1970s.
The eclectic nature of Rocca's subjects is only matched by the depths he plunges into to get at the real human stories behind people, ideas, and whatever else piques his interest enough to get him started reporting. Houstonia got the chance to talk with Rocca about about what led him to this work and how he does it in advance of his Tuesday book signing at the Julia Ideson Building, an event put on by the Houston Public Library Foundation.
Where does your interest in history, in digging up these often overlooked stories that make up the podcast and the book, come from?
Strangely, the interest in history is very Texas-related. When I was in my mid-20s I moved to Plano, a suburb outside of Dallas, for an amazing job, one of the formative jobs of my life, on a kids show called Wishbone.
It was my first job, and I was under the incorrect impression that you had to live close to your work. So, while I should have been living in downtown Dallas or something, I ended up in an apartment in this sterile community where people would stare at me if I went for a walk.
So from then on, I started truly paying attention, pulling over anytime I saw a historic plaque or marker on the side of the road. Somehow, I became very interested in presidential history, the arcana of strange, quirky stuff that you usually can’t remember. One thing led to another, and one day I bought a one-way ticket to Benjamin Harrison’s house, and I then drove around the country visiting other presidential homes—the big ones but more focused on the ones that are overlooked. And that’s what got me on The Daily Show, these quirky stories I had collected by following what really interested me.
Right now, you’re on CBS Sunday Morning, doing all kinds of interviews. How did you get the idea to move from these shorter TV segments to the podcast?
Since I started on CBS, one of the things that has been both flattering and frustrating to hear is when people say, ‘You know, I love the piece, but I feel like I want to hear more of what you have to say about it.’ What makes CBS Sunday Morning work is that the reporters are supposed to be more like columnists, but the format is still so short there’s a lot that we have to leave out. When I wanted to do something longer form, the podcast seemed like a natural fit.
And I had collected all of these stories and experiences over the years. Some of them were a little half-baked at the beginning, like this encounter I had with Audrey Hepburn from when I was working at Macy’s years ago, but then I started digging in and looking more closely at her, asking why we still remember her a quarter century after she died. I realized there was something in that worth revisiting.
What kinds of stories are you most attracted to for the podcast and the book?
There’s not a format, but there are often big questions that unite each episode. I like working where there’s the surprise of taking something that seems to be zippy and sugary but that turns out to also be surprising with real depth and poignancy. Billy Carter, Jimmy Carter’s brother, was the perfect subject for that. I’m just old enough to remember Billy Beer and the entity that the president’s little brother became. But underneath that was this other story, one with real pathos to it. I think of presidential families as regular families where the dynamics are on steroids, and I was really drawn to that. There was something about Billy that we could all relate to, and it was almost nostalgic for me. With all of these topics, I want them to be things that genuinely interest me. I don’t want to game the system.
Laura Branigan was another one. I loved her growing up, and there was this contemporary hook about how the St. Louis Blues were in last place in the NHL when they started dancing to her song, “Gloria” and began to turn things around. Fans were calling on Branigan to show up and perform the song at one of the games, not knowing that she had already died. With Laura Branigan, she wasn’t Madonna, but she was also really talented. An ordinary story can sometimes feel ordinary, so the key was getting people who knew her to talk. Her family talked about her, and it really became such a moving story. I’m really proud of that. The Laura Branigan’s of the world don’t always get all the love they deserve.
What was the process like turning the podcast into a book?
I was doing the podcast, with each episode taking a few months to put together, at the same time I was writing the book with my cowriter, Jonathan Greenberg. It’s been consuming, but at the same time, it’s been an incredible experience.
There’s about a 40 percent overlap between the podcast and the book, although in the places where there is overlap my cowriter and I didn’t want it to feel like the book was just a redo of the podcast. The big difference with the book is that it gave me the chance to tell stories that are ancient history, to delve into things — like the death in the belief of dragons — ideas that are really conceptual and that occurred when there was no recorded sound. That was one of my first ideas for the book, the death of a belief.
The podcast is currently on season two. Will there be another season after this one?
I think so. We’re still working out the details, but I think so. I’m flattered that people want more episodes, but it’s very heavy lifting. In terms of actual production, each of these podcast episodes takes about four months to create. We’re all in a tiny room, and it’s very labor intensive.
One of the best parts of the book is the smaller sections, the ones that relay the deaths of certain forms of type, or concepts, or random people that might not be able to support being the focus of a whole chapter. How did those come about?
I wanted the book to be the kind that you can open it up anywhere and just start reading, so that’s how these graveyards of shorter stories came about. A lot of people really liked the ones relaying how two different people died on the same day. I think it taps into the randomness of death, which I think we all ponder and fear. There’s something about seeing how these different people died on the same day—it’s a heightened and entertaining way of addressing that fear.
Mo Rocca, will be speaking and signing books starting at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 21 at the Julia Ideson Building, 550 McKinney St. Tickets $25. More info and tickets at houstonlibraryfoundation.org