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The Daily Show’s Mo Rocca shares his words, wit and humor with ND

Observer Scene | Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Mo Rocca is a kind of pop-culture chameleon. He has worked on everything from kid shows like “Wishbone” to his more well-know work as a reporter on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and as a commentator on VH1’s “I Love the 70s/80s/90s.” He also has a book in the works, “All the President’s Pets,” an exposé on pets in the White House. He will be speaking today at 7:30 p.m. in DeBartolo 101. His appearance is part of AnTostal and is sponsored by SUB. Despite his busy schedule, he recently took the time to chat with Scene writer Molly Griffin about his career, his interests and his excitement about South Bend.

How did college influence your career path?Well, in college most of my time was dedicated to the Hasty Pudding show which is a big student run theatre show that plays in Cambridge and tours the world. That probably was the most formative experience I had in college. It was the most professional thing I could do in college and still be a student. It made me want to write and perform and even do both at the same time.

How did school and your earlier work help you on The Daily Show?One of my hobbies is visiting the graves of past presidents and pretty much any kind of marginalized history. I particularly like the ones with lots of facial hair from Ohio, the lost presidents. My interest in those people was the source of my first pieces for “The Daily Show.” It always helps in any kind of job to come with particular interests and expertise, however oddball it may be. If there is something that sets you apart, then use those things. It’s like having pre-produced ideas.

What was working on “Indecision 2000” (“The Daily Show’s” coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign) like? It was totally exciting. I had been on the show for a few years, and I was used to covering freak-show stories in a really straight way, which is the shtick for the show, but suddenly we were covering something that wasn’t fringe – it was the story. It was as if the whole point of the show flipped. We had to cover it in an unusual way. We were flying under the radar, but since we looked like reporters, we could usually get in. If we were around people who were closer to our age, they usually knew to stay quiet so that we could blindside the politicians. It was equal parts satire and jackass. It’s different now that Jon has given the show a great name. It’s a challenge when the show has a high profile.

Is there anything about the upcoming presidential race that particularly interests you?I’m bracing myself for an ugly, negative campaign. It is always interesting in how candidates play the common man. In this race you have two people who are very wealthy, both went to Yale and were in same secret society. It will be interesting to see. In the last big election, the “I’m just like you” tactic was going on comedy shows. There’s always the “I’m a sporty guy,” whether it’s Bush clearing brush from his ranch or Kerry snowboarding. I’m always interested in the photo-ops.

What did you do to prepare for your segments on “The Daily Show”?I love details and trivia and info that most people think is useless. I would just immerse myself in whatever my piece was about, like a man angry at Garfield for ridiculing polka music, which is one of my favorite pieces. I learned everything about polka music. It is almost a fetish of mine, but served a real purpose. The funniest moments are unexpected, but they work when the correspondent is so well prepared that if someone says something, the correspondent has something waiting because it is just in his bones. I had acquainted myself so much with the topic that it worked out. You go into it thinking, “What’s the final piece going to look like?” Real journalists do this too, maybe to the detriment of objectivity. If I’m going across the country to see a woman with 300 cats who lives in a cave, I’ve got to get her to say certain things to make it work. Go with certain moments you know you need to have.

Did you have any rituals for the show (i.e. not wearing pants behind the desk, not changing your socks for a week, etc)?I had lucky underwear. I’m kind of cheap, so I have one pair that I’m not going to wear because they’re kind of unlucky, but I’m not going to throw them out. I won’t wear them on shoot days. I still have them and can visualize them now. The sixth shoot was the first time I had a piece that just didn’t work. It was a long time before I wore the tie and jacket I wore that day again. Finally, I wore it for a piece and it felt very good to overcome that curse.

You appeared on “The Daily Show” in a bow tie. Why did you choose this over the more common new anchor accessory, the long tie?I though it was a crafty way set myself apart from all of the other tall, skinny, white guys with dark hair and glasses. I also knew how to tie it. It was always tied, never a clip-on.

Was there ever any “Behind the Music”-type scandal on the show? It was pretty calm, but my officemate was Vance Degeneres about two and a half years ago and we would get into it sometimes. We had our own fight club, all the reporters did. We’d beat the crap out of each other. It was a kind of tension release.

Speaking of “Behind the Music,” you often appear on another VH1 series, “I Love the 70s/80s/90s” as a commentator. What would you say made you a candidate for commenting on the trends of these decades?I pretend that I know what I’m talking about and say it with enough conviction. I did it as a kind of social service. I felt like I’d been so lucky ever since I came to America and that I’d reaped the benefits, so I wanted to pay it forward. I felt America’s youth knew too little about “Laverne and Shirley” and didn’t know anything about “Fantasy Island.”

What do you love about the 70s? The 80s? The 90s?I love 70s disaster movies. I still get choked up when Shelly Winters has a heart attack saving Gene Hackman in “The Poseidon Adventure.” I love “The Dukes of Hazard.” I’m not nuts about the Confederate flag, but I could overlook it. I loved “Happy Days” because there weren’t any unhappy days. I didn’t love “Saved by the Bell,” but I’ve found that that is sacrilegious on college campuses. When I’m strong enough, I’ll announce to world that I didn’t love “Saved by the Bell.”

Let’s talk about one of your newer projects, the book, “All the President’s Pets.” What made you want to write an expose on presidential pets?This White House stonewalls the press, and I wondered, “What are they hiding?” I know all about the animals in the White House. For example, Martin van Buren had two tiger cubs, Calvin Coolige had a wallaby. I figured that the animals in the White House actually are making the decisions. I thought I’d make use of useless information, and I also got to make myself a main character. I’d like to play myself in the movie. It’s a thriller, kind of like a combination of “All the President’s Men” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

Who usually has the more interesting stories, in your opinion: celebrities or regular people?Celebrity is defined so broadly that everyone that is everything is turned on its head. Politicians were really the first reality celebrities, but now there are so many. I’m kind of celebritied out. Soon there will be more people that have been on TV than haven’t. I don’t know if there are any unpublicized characters out there. I want to find them, but then I might ruin them.

Is it easier or more difficult to do investigative journalism now that you are more well-known and recognized?Being a fake investigative reporter means that you don’t need a credential because you just make stuff up. That’s my safety net. My real hat trick will be if I could become a real reporter. Then the world would have really turned on its head.

Any last words?I’m pretty sure that Knute Rockne invented the forward pass or was the first to throw one. I’ve been dying to come to South Bend because I’ve heard that it’s a beautiful campus.

Contact Molly Griffin at [email protected]