There’s a lot of ways to love omnipresent Mo Rocca: as a panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, as a correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning, as the host of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, and as the star of his cooking show, My Grandmother’s Ravioli. Or you may recall his early days as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Oh, yeah, he’s been on Broadway, too, in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. But his new, new gig is his CBS podcast, Mobituaries, born out of his love for obituaries. Now he has written a companion book to the podcast called Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving (S&S, Nov.). Even better, he’s here at BookExpo.
What gave you the idea for Mobituaries to begin with?
I always have liked obits, something I inherited from my father. Reading obits is like a daily reflection. There is something really special about reading someone’s life distilled in that way because it is about the life of that person, rather than their death. And I love profiling dead people because they don’t have publicists. They are so much easier to deal with.
Who was the first person you thought, “Hmmm, wonder what happened to good ol’ whatsername?”
The one that shocked me the most: Nora Ephron. Ephron was once on CBS Sunday Morning to talk about a play she wrote about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy called Imaginary Friends. She was asked how she wanted to be remembered. Nora said, “Are you kidding me? I have written a play about these two women, Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, who were so famous and now are barely remembered. I don’t expect to be remembered more than a few years after I’m gone.” Years later, Nora’s name came up in reference to a Mobituary we were doing and some of the younger staff members had never heard of her. There are just these remarkable people who are so important to us who are forgotten astonishingly quickly.
Why do you think some people resonate and others just waft away, even people who may have been very well-known in their time?
A lot of things, sexism for one. Women’s history wasn’t written or women weren’t allowed to use their talents. But some people just had terrible personalities. Thomas Paine, for example. He lit the intellectual fuse for the American Revolution through writing Common Sense, and six people showed up for his funeral. His obituary was, “He lived long, did some good and much harm.” At the end of his life, he ranted, had a drinking problem, and dirty fingernails. The famous figures from that era were activists turned statesmen, who knew how to pivot from firebrand to people who were good at compromise. Thomas Paine didn’t. He became someone who was too much to take. People were, like, give it a rest, buddy. We won, shut up already. He probably was like your annoying uncle at Thanksgiving.