By Richard Horgan
Nov. 7, 2012
From his earliest days at The Daily Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to his current gig at CBS Sunday Morning, Mo Rocca remains a field reporter at heart.
And, if the first few episodes of his latest Cooking Channel show, My Grandmother’s Ravioli, is any indication, Rocca will soon have another hit on his hands. Every Wednesday, viewers watch as he cooks family recipes with grandparents across the country. Whether it’s a kosher Shabbat meal with 76-year-old Holocaust survivor Ruth Teig in Scarsdale, NY or venison stew with 91-year-old widowed World War II vet Gaetano Varbero in Harrison, NY, Rocca effortlessly chats about the ingredients to a successful life and tasty meal. It’s yet another vehicle for the 43-year-old TV vet to go wherever the story takes him.
Birthdate: January 28
Position: TV personality, actor, writer, humorist
Hometown: Bethesda, MD
Career: Started as a writer and producer for the children’s TV shows Wishbone (PBS), Pepper Ann (ABC) and The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss (Nickelodeon). Was consulting editor for the adult men’s mag Perfect 10. Spent four years as a correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Author of All the Presidents’ Pets: The Story of One Reporter Who Refused to Roll Over. Became contributor for CBS Sunday Morning in 2006 and named correspondent in December 2011. Host of Cooking Channel’s Food(ography) and now My Grandma’s Ravioli. Panelist for NPR’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! Acting credits include Royal Pains, Ugly Betty and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
Education: Harvard University, B.A. in literature
Marital status: Single
Favorite TV shows: “Anything on TCM, Louis on FX, and of course CBS Sunday Morning”
Guilty pleasure: Frosted Mini-Wheats
Media idol: Eddie Cantor
Last book read: My Judy Garland Life by Susie Boyt
Twitter handle: @MoRocca
How did you come up with the idea for My Grandma’s Ravioli?
I had this idea even before I started working with the Cooking Channel on my previous show, Food(ography). I’m 43, I don’t know how to cook and, really, if I had a time machine, I’d go back about 30 years and I’d show up at my grandmother’s apartment an hour before she served Sunday dinner instead of five minutes before. And I’d spend some time with her in the kitchen and learn some cooking from her.
I spent a lot of time with my grandmother; I was very close to her. (She passed away in 2001.) But once that opportunity has passed, what can you do? So, I do the next best thing, which is learning from other people’s grandparents. To learn something when you’re doing a TV show is a great way to make a living. There’s something special about grandparents. I think it’s less complicated, sort of pure. The people that we found — and it’s hard to find people in non-scripted TV that are good and are not fame whores, that aren’t just desperate to get their own shows — are people who don’t have a lot of the clutter in their heads that I have, where I’m all caught up in stuff. It seems crystallized. Their values are really clear, and it’s great to spend time with them to not only learn how they cook, but why they cook.
|“It would have been much easier for us to sell the show if I had said I’m going to be cooking with these crazy grandparents that all got rejected from The X Factor.”|
How many episodes make up the first season of Grandma’s Ravioli, and have you been renewed yet for a second?
Season One has 13 half-hour episodes. I’m about to shoot the thirteenth with Veneta, who is a West Jamaican woman. We have a really great cross-section. The casting directors did a great job going to neighborhood senior centers, supermarkets, churches. Look, the well-known irony is that people who don’t want to be on TV tend to be better on TV than the people who are desperate to be on TV. So, it’s the opposite of The Real Housewives. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have that kind of success with this show. But these are people you would actually want to be related to. Being on TV is so far down on their list of priorities. These were people that were either hunted down by our casting directors or unwittingly volunteered by their kids.
We have not been set yet for a second season, but I really hope I get to do this show for a very long time. When you’re with someone who is really grounded and you engage with them, it becomes about a lot more than the cooking — and, especially if they love cooking, stuff just comes out. For example, Meena and Mona — great women both from India, both arranged marriages — came here over 40 years ago. Just hearing about their marriages and the fact that there is actually an unexpected upside to arranged unions, that could only happen if you were making cauliflower, beets and curry at the same time.
What was it like when you first pitched My Grandma’s Ravioli?
People didn’t quite get it. Even the networks weren’t quite sure what we were going for, but the executive producer and I really stuck to our creative instincts on this and said, “We’re not going to do a show with wacky grandparents.” A lot of people expected that: really zany, crazy grandparents. But you’ve got to have something like [Episode 1’s] Ruth who, yes, is really funny and enjoyable but also has a real life story to share. People care more.
The challenge for many networks, I think, was the idea of committing to something that doesn’t seem to have that “instant appeal.” It would have been much easier for us to sell the show if I had said I’m going to be cooking with these crazy grandparents that all got rejected from The X Factor.
For CBS Sunday Morning, you recently did a funny report about Columbus Day. Are you given free range there as far as picking the topics of your reports?
I’m my own personal Nielsen ratings survey. If I walk down the street, what people respond to me is very telling. The day after my first Sunday Morning piece six years ago, a couple of people walked up to me and told me they loved it. And I realized that I had done The Tonight Show for years, and it was fun doing reports for them. But people watch a program like The Tonight Show very passively. No one would ever say anything about them.
But Sunday Morning has this dedicated and very active viewership. The executive producer, Rand Morrison, is rightly revered in the news business and he’s given me a lot of latitude. My job is basically like going back to college and taking only electives. It’s what I always wanted to do. So I can go from Columbus Day, to the Electoral College, to men who dye their hair, to the birther controversy over President Chester Alan Arthur.
Have you used your Twitter account in any way to pick or research a Sunday Morning story?
Yes. I was talking recently to Shiopi, a really attractive, tall editor for Sunday Morning. And we were talking about this mutual friend, who is shorter. And Shiopi said, “We had a little tension in our relationship, because I said to her, ‘You’ve got to stop dating tall guys. It’s not cool; you’re taking tall guys away from tall women.'”
|“My job is basically like going back to college and taking only electives.”|
So, I put it out there on Twitter and I’ve never gotten responses like this. From tall women, saying my tall friend was absolutely right; this is ridiculous. ‘Short girls have to back off from tall guys…’ Then I had one short woman tweeting that if tall women can’t keep their tall men, it’s their problem. So, I’m going to do a Sunday Morning story on the predicament of tall women, and it’s a story I got from Twitter. It’s very personal, something very relatable.
What about the Gawker pick-up of your October 8 Columbus Day-timed Sunday Morning report, which they headlined Mo Rocca Reminds Us Christopher Columbus Was Kind of a Dick? What was your reaction to that?
Actually, that was my first tweet about it the night before the report aired, and I’m assuming that’s where Gawker got it from. I’d never tweeted like that about a Sunday Morning piece, but it was really the upshot of it — Columbus was a dick. He was a great navigator but a terrible administrator, basically an unemployed guy from Genoa who should never have been put in the position of leadership that he was.
We have to also revisit your recent PBS documentary Electoral Dysfunction. Having become something of an expert on presidential elections, don’t you just wish we were heading into an election decided by the popular vote?
I’m kind of tired of pretending that there’s two sides to the Electoral College vote debate. There really aren’t. If it’s going to be split at all this time around, we’re headed for Mitt Romney winning the popular vote and Barack Obama taking the Electoral College. When that happens, the Electoral College won’t just be suspended; it will blow up in a fiery ball. Republicans are not going to stand for it, and Democrats already got burned. So, finally, there will be unity in this country and people will say we’ve got to junk this thing. The Electoral College has totally outlived its usefulness.
If we had a popular vote contest, there’s every reason to believe that Mitt Romney would be trolling right now for votes in Orange County and Barack Obama would be making time for Sioux Falls, South Dakota, because the contest could come down to 100,000 votes.