Inside Late Night With Mark Malkoff Ep 9: Mo Rocca

Today he’s best known as a correspondent for CBS News Sunday Morning and a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, but longtime Comedy Central viewers will remember Rocca’s first on-camera gig on The Daily Show, where he was a correspondent for five years, from 1998-2003. He served a similar role on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show from 2004-2007.

Along the way, he’s also logged late-night appearances with David Letterman, James Corden, Jimmy Fallon, and Stephen Colbert.

On this week’s episode of Inside Late Night with Mark Malkoff, Mo Rocca shares what it was like to work at The Daily Show as it transitioned from Craig Kilborn to Jon Stewart, and the difference between preparing for an appearance on a late-night show and his regular gig on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. 

Rocca also discusses his new book, Roctogenarians: Late in Life Debuts, Comebacks, and Triumphs, in which he and his co-writer Jonanthan Greenberg profile a series of people who found success late in life, including the likes of Warren Buffett, Norman Lear, Dianna Nyad and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Click the embed below to listen now, or find Inside Late Night on Apple PodcastsSpotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Mo Rocca, it’s good to see you. It’s been a while. 

It’s great to see you, Mark. I’m happy to be talking to you, even though we’re not in the same room. Even though. 

Not in the same room, but we have been in the past. 


I believe that was you. So, I have so many questions. I’m excited to talk about your new book, but one thing, I was doing a bunch of research and I found this fascinating. I didn’t know that this was a term, but you know, you did Mobituaries and you know, you’ve profiled a lot of deceased people. You said that you had a friend at the New York Times and there was this term called “above the fold” and “below the fold” when somebody passed away. And when Johnny Carson passed away in January of 2005, apparently that was a big deal within the New York Times. There was a bit of a controversy?

Well, so a friend of mine who was, I’m not gonna name him because he sort of disputes this memory. But I’m sticking to my guns on this. He was an assistant managing editor there, so he was part of the group that would get together for the layout of the front page. And they didn’t end up putting Johnny Carson above the fold. And this friend washed his hands of it because he had not been in town. He had been on vacation. And he thought it was a big mistake to put Johnny below the fold and that that actually got some complaints. It was seen as elitist to put him down below the fold meaning on the lower part of the front page. I love stuff like this. My friend Lisa and I for years kept playing this game when people cared about print–the actual print paper itself. I hope they still care about print in some way the digital print. But we used to love to play about the fold, below the fold guessing who would go above and who would be below. And I’ve been wrong as often as I’ve been right, but that happened. I think it also, by the way, happened with Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes. I think that there was an argument among the group of people who decided to lay out. And there’s a term for it, the front page editors, I guess. Maybe that’s it. And that the mandarins of the Times felt that Don Hewitt was a dirty television person and belonged below the fold, and maybe that was sort of the thinking with Johnny Carson. 

Yeah. I mean, he had been off TV at that point, at least something like 13 years, but still it was like a media frenzy when he passed away. And I just, I didn’t know that that was the term for it. I found that interesting, yeah, “above the fold.” 

One of the things I miss most about the decline of the actual paper paper, because we can’t really all have this argument, even though nobody was having it before, at least I could have pulled some people into it. 

[Laughs] A little bit different. You know, I’ve been fortunate to be friends with Peter Lassally for a while. And, you know, he’s not a big interview person, but I can’t tell you how excited he was to talk to you. But just because, first of all, he was an admirer of your work and also CBS Sunday Morning was his favorite show. So when you approached him and did it. He was like a little kid. I mentioned I knew you and he would actually say to me He’s like can you find out from Mo when it’s gonna air because it took, like, I think it was like seven months or something for it to actually air something like that. I don’t know what it was. That was.. Yes, he was so excited and how it came out and everything so you made Peter very happy and a lot of People millions of people that saw it. It was it was wonderful profile. 

So Richard Lewis, I had never met him before. And he sent me a note after that piece aired about Peter Lassally, who was one of the producers of The Tonight Show, who had gone from Arthur Godfrey to Johnny Carson to David Letterman to Craig Ferguson. I mean, he really was, right, I think at one point is the late night whisperer. But yeah, Richard Lewis reached out to me and said, “You know, I met him so many times through the years. I had no idea of his life story,” because, for those who don’t know Peter Lassally before he began this extraordinary career in late night, he’d been raised in Holland and had actually gone to grade school with Anne Frank and then was sent to two different concentration camps. So he’d had this whole horrible, you know, first part of his life after an idyllic childhood, and then went on to this career in late night. So kind of an extraordinary life. 

I’m glad you were able to get it. I’m glad he said yes to you. It is one of those things where, I mean, you’ve met my wife, Christine, you know, Christine, I’ll just turn to her and be like, Mo is the only one I know on a major network that is profiling these older people where most of the shows would say anybody above 50 or 55, no. Unless you’re like maybe a former president or something, or Paul McCartney, no way. But the people that you’ve been able to bring back that haven’t been out on the spotlight for a while, did you have to kind of, I don’t want to say fight to profile somebody on your show, but is it one of those things where they just create a control whoever you want to talk to? Or do you sometimes have to really explain why they’re significant enough to profile on on a show like this that has so much prestige. 

There’s such a high comfort level that I have with the show and with our executive producer, Rand Morrison. So it sort of evolved. I didn’t consciously set out to profile people who had had already led great lives and maybe weren’t top of mind for people. It became something that I just really enjoyed doing for a couple of reasons: because older people tend to have better stories, older people in my experience are more comfortable in their skin. They care less about what other people think of them. But there was also something really for those reasons, that I found very appealing about these interview subjects, even if they’re selling a movie, even if they’re promoting a movie, Eva Marie Saint was in a movie. I can’t remember the name of it now. When she came on the show with a movie with Colin Farrell. And she wasn’t… it wasn’t her priority to sell it. So I didn’t feel like I was being sold. She just kind of was happy to chat. She’s actually kind of a shy person and she even actually at one point off camera said, “What do you think of the movie?” Which is kind of funny. It’s something you’re not oftentimes asked about. Asked by younger people who are much more in a political campaign frame of mind, which is I have to believe this is the greatest thing. Because I have to make this work. Eva Marie Saint, as you know, she has an Oscar, you know for for On the Waterfront, like she doesn’t… It was fun for her to do a movie. But she was much more at ease. Just kind of talking about her life. And I also think it’s just, I’m sort of an old soul. I had older parents growing up, and so I tend to gravitate towards these people anyway.

I love when you got Angie Dickinson because I got to go to her place as well. And that… But you actually, I wasn’t sure, I did, you know, I wanted to take photos of her place because it’s like you’re in the living room and you’re like, life-size cutout of Sinatra. There’s a photo of JFK. You go in the bathroom, and there was the band Journey. She had a poster of, I believe it was Journey. And it was one of those things where just the camera is that I was so glad you were able to show people where, yeah, her intimate living situation. And I just got such a kick out of her. I loved spending time with her. 

You know, I loved Angie too. And for me, it’s a little bit of a feel thing. Like, I have a kind of, I sort of think of some people as undervalued stocks. Like, here’s somebody that’s going to make the audience go, “Oh, my God, I love her. Right? Why aren’t we? Yeah, we haven’t heard from her in a while. Why aren’t we talking about her?” They’re undervalued stocks. And this is a different category, but I was very happy to profile Henry Winkler, who I became friends with afterwards, because I got in between projects. It was pre-Barry. He really wasn’t doing much. And I thought, “Okay, now I’m going to strike. This is the time when I can just have a conversation with him because he’s Henry Winkler, not because it’s part of a larger press tour.” And by the way, even if it were, Henry Winkler would still be great. But at that moment, he was what I would call an undervalued stock. And again, what I mean is that, people, I’m sure when he came on the television go, “Oh my God, of course, I love Henry Winkler. This is great.” So that’s what I want: people, how I want people to feel. And Angie was one of those people. It was my friend, Todd Purdom, a terrific writer, wrote an amazing book on Rodgers and Hammerstein, and longtime magazine writer. And he said, “I just went to a party and it was a really kind of fascinating assortment of people.” And he said, “but Angie Dickinson, she is great. She tells it like it is.” And indeed, like she said, you know, I said, “Are you a broad, a dame or a gal?” And she said, “I’m all three.” In talking to Angie, I know that she’s had a lot of pain in her life as well. She’s had a very full life. She lost her daughter when her daughter was very young. Yoo young. And what I asked about her daughter is I said, “What are your best memories of her?” And that’s really the only question I asked about her daughter. And I could feel things turn at that point. Almost a sense of relief and opening up from her, that “You’re not gonna ask me about the really dark, painful side of losing a child, having a child predecease you.” And so I’d like to think that that was one of the reasons that Angie kind of opened up and enjoyed the interview. 

I love looking at your career because Johnny Carson in New York, he would do these Walter Mitty-style videos where he would go. They filmed this actually the Friday before the first ever Tonight show Monday aired on October 1st, ’62. He went to Yankee Stadium, and he was with Mantle, and was with Roger Maris and Yogi Berra. And just he wanted to see what it was like for a regular person. He put on the the pinstripes and he was getting pitched to by, or he was pitching toward to the Yankees and doing all these things. And then he flew with the Thunderbirds and he did all these. But you had done a bunch of these. What are some of the ones that if you had to, like, Walter Mitty, that you’ve gotten to do that were your favorite? 

Well, I loved getting in a race car with Mario Andretti and going over 200 miles an hour. And actually, I wasn’t feeling well that day. And I could tell that I was having some sort of odd flu-like symptom because I actually have a pretty strong stomach. I’m very proud of the fact that when I did a piece for 60 Minutes Sports on marlin fishing and we went a hundred miles out to sea and some people on the crew, they were ribbing me. They were like, “How are you gonna handle this?” They were like real guys guys. They had been in war zones. And I was really, really proud that all of them threw up and I didn’t. Like I literally was the only person on our crew that did not throw up. And I think it sort of served them right because they were kidding me. I mean, I love them all, don’t get me wrong. But when I drove with Mario Andretti, as I got in the car, a two-seater, I thought, “Something’s wrong.” And so we drove, he was driving, I can’t remember how fast, it was over 200 miles an hour. And then I got out of the car and I did heave. I threw up everywhere. I went behind a dumpster, you know, off the racetrack. But I was also proud of myself because, I just, I don’t want to gross everyone out here, but I just sort of quickly rinsed out and I just continued on with the shoot. But other things I’ve done, I loved Bobby Orr. Now, I didn’t, it’s not like I went and I played in a hockey game. I did put on skates and we sort of, I’m going to show what a big hockey, ice hockey buff I am. We kind of skated around whatever with our sticks. And, uh, but I will tell you this, that Bobby Orr, kind of anyone who’s an ice hockey fan, he’s kind of a god, right? And as soon as we met each other, he realized, a few minutes in that I was not a lifelong ice hockey fan, that I had really boned up and studied really hard. And I could sense a few minutes in, I think he might have even said, “You’re not a longtime hockey fan.” And I said “No, I’m not but I’m still excited to do this and I’ve read all about you.”  And I  think he was relieved.  I think that, for many athletes at least, they don’t like the people who are nerd out about their their records. They don’t.. it makes them uncomfortable, or it bores them and he had a great time and then later on he did another interview and it got back to me and I was very flattered. He said, “That’s the best interview I’ve ever done.” I just think he was happy to be with somebody who was enthusiastic to learn who he was, not just sort of show him how much they already knew. 

Carson and Letterman, both, like, that the least that they want. And the inclination of a lot of comedians is [to say] “Dave. You know, I mean, you got me into comedy or my comedy hero,” and it’s very hard sometimes that they just want just someone to talk. I mean, to talk about comedy, but to just be a regular person, it’s hard so that you got his respect that way. I wanted to mention Johnny did race with Mario Andretti in Indianapolis, and I think it was ’67 or ’68. I just wanted to point that out for the listeners. Also, I wanted to mention Carson had, he took some classes and he had a photographic memory for faces and names. I’ve known you for a while. Do you have that ability? Because I’ve seen you in action. And I mean, I remember my wife, Christine, hadn’t seen you for a bunch of years and you only met her maybe once or twice. And it’s like, Christine, and it’s like, “Oh my goodness, do you have that ability?” 

You know, I wish I did. I do have the ability to remember particular facts and details of people’s lives. I’m not great. I’m happy, and I loved interviewing you and Christine for a piece about guys with taller women, which I loved doing that piece for CBS Sunday Morning. You guys were great together and you are great together. 

Thank you. 

It was a Valentine’s Day piece. But I do remember, I’m good with details about people. And I oftentimes wondered, somebody once said, “How do you remember, how did you remember that about me?” That in third grade, I was in a production of Oklahoma, and we didn’t even meet until we were 35. And I self-examined, and I think it’s when I like a person, I just absorb everything. And then there are people in my life that I cannot… I can be told 30 different times a very basic piece of information, it doesn’t stick. And it’s not that I actively dislike that person, but there’s not a chemistry, There’s not something.. it’s not sticky for some reason and I just and I don’t make space for it. 

They just, certain people don’t hold your attention like the time that you were on a date and you fell asleep. 

Oh my god. Yeah, and that is and I can’t love that story I cannot reveal the topic because it will give away who the person was, but I went on a date and I still remember it was that I’m okay It was at a restaurant, at a Bistro in the West Village and the person just kept talking. And then I fell asleep sitting upright. I thought, “I cannot believe I’m falling asleep while this poor guy is talking and talking about something he was an expert in. It was not a sleepy subject. It was actually kind of a really provocative topic.” And I thought, “This is a sign.”

Makes a good story. Yes, I think that’s the sign of all signs. What was it like? I mentioned Dave Letterman a little bit earlier. you went on his show in January of 2014. Did you grow up watching him? And what was that experience like? 

I didn’t, but I’ll tell you. And I like David Letterman. I always thought he was, I guess, for at least a good long stretch, just flat out the best late-night host because I always thought, “How fascinating is it that I’m watching an interview with some celebrity and maybe even a celebrity that I love, and I’m more interested in what Dave is thinking while the interviewee is talking.” And I thought, “That says something.” And he’s not actively stealing focus. He’s not, he’s, in fact, it’s because he’s listening and engaged with the person that I can see the wheels turning and I want to know what he’s thinking. I certainly want to know what he’s going to say next, but that’s more interesting than what the person’s actually saying. And I thought, “That’s something.” That’s certainly charisma, but that’s a very special thing that I think set him apart. When I went on, I was quite nervous, and my friend Gideon Evans, who I’d met and become friends with [on] The Daily Show and then was the showrunner on my cooking show My Grandmother’s Ravioli, which was sort of the hook for the interview, came with me, and I don’t know if he even remembers saying this to me and it’s a very poignant memory to me now. I think he could tell I was nervous and he said, “Just remember, you’re going to be able to say that you were a guest on David Letterman.” And it was as if, like, the aperture of the whole situation just changed. As if I sort of pulled out from the situation instead of being in it and being fretting and being nervous. Pull back and I kind of look at the situation and went, “That’s just a, yeah, a cool thing. I’ll be able to say, hey, David Letterman, he was this great late-night show host and I got to be a guest.” And that Gideon just completely reframed it in that moment in such a sweet, almost parental way to say what, don’t think of this as like stakes, like, “Oh my God, you’ve got to kill.” You’re gonna, what a great thing to say, you had this great life experience. And I’ve used that at times when I get nervous, you know, with Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. We started as kind of a standup tour. And I thought, okay, I want to try that. I want to try doing real standup. And there have been a couple of venues where suddenly I can hear, or I can almost hear my heart beating, like, boom, boom, boom, boom, which only happens to me in live situations. Because remember that The Daily Show was taped and, you know, taped before a live audience. And, you know, and actually, of course, Letterman was as well. But the most nerve-wracking is when it’s actually live, right? Oddly enough, a morning show like The Today Show, when I’d make appearances there and I’d have sort of jokes lined up, I could actually hear. I hear like people who do a lot of cocaine, somebody I know, a really, really talented person. I’ve never done any cocaine, and I’m not advocating it in any way. But I remember a brilliant friend of mine, actually a Pulitzer prize winner, saying that he remembered with a collaborator doing so much cocaine that he could like see his heart beating. Like, you know, and so anyway, when I would go into the Today show, I’m comparing like Matt Lauer and Katie Couric to cocaine, I’m like, but anyway… you know, when I would go and have to do actual live, I would get really, really nervous. But I was that nervous before Gideon said that with David Letterman. How’s that for a round about answer? 

I love that. Steven Wright told me it was one of his college friends who gave him advice. It might have been Barry Crimmins, who’s a comedian in Boston, just to defuse the situation when he made his Carson debut because it was very strange. Peter Lassallywas responsible for that, but told him something about just flipping the switch. It’s like a power charger. And it’s just like, you’ve done this in the clubs. You just pull the switch and you just, you’re in the club. Whatever it was, it doesn’t work for everybody, but it worked for him. And I’m glad that you were able to get that Letterman and right before he retired, ’cause he left in, but 2015. So you just got it in. 

And I’ll tell you another thing also. I think that Sean Hayes, who I’m friends with, had given me this suggestion, as well. So it’s a little different, right, than going on to just stand up. I’m pretty sure it was, Sean has told me this, but I think it was before the fact. He said, “You know, when you make your first appearance on Letterman, he really does not want you coming in with a bit. He does not want that.” I mean, obviously if you’re doing a stand up, that’s different. But if you’re coming in as a guest the first time, don’t do that. Like he wants to get to know who you are. And that also was very liberating as well because then I, because I, coupled with what Gideon said to me, I sort of thought, there’s really nothing I can do to control this situation anyway. Like, this is a master. Let me just see what happens. And I have to say, even walking out, I can’t believe I did this, because I’m not a klutz, but I walked around the wrong side of the couch. So it was a very, it was like kind of a bumbling moment. So when he said, you know, “Mo Rocca!” and I came out and I would walk stage of the couch instead of down to shake his hand. And so there was a moment. But it didn’t really matter. And then I sat down and then I just went, “All right, he’s going to ask me questions.” And I actually think it was a pretty good segment. 

I love that you got… Sean Hayes became Don Rickles, almost, to Dave Letterman, roasting him after a bunch of appearances. It was so funny. But I really… That’s interesting. Yeah, you build that, that rapport. You know, you’ve been on Fallon five times, Conan twice. You’ve gone on a lot of these shows like Colbert and Corden and a lot of comedians really want to go in tight or prepared. But for Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, you told me that you really, you cannot write ahead of time and prepare stuff because the audience will, they can tell. And that has to go from one situation. I’m like if you go on a Colbert, you’re prepared versus going on Wait, Wait and just having to wing it. How do you do that? What is the process? And what is that fear like? Does it ever go away? 

Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me I don’t find particularly stressful. I’ve been on it for so long, over 20 years, and I’m sure there have been waves, and maybe it also depends on, you know, maybe something else going on in my life. It’s hard to say, but the last few years when I’ve been doing it, I don’t feel nervous. I think part of it is kind of relaxing into myself because, you know, I guess it’s a corollary to the whole thing. I think it was Bill Maher who said when you become established as a comic, they’re already laughing during the setup. You have a running head start with each joke, right? And so it’s a lot easier than proving yourself. And somebody said that to me about Wait, Wait, I think at one point I was nervous. And they said, you’ve been doing this for so long, the audience is just happy to hear you. And the other people have been on for a long time. So this is not, this is not high stakes. And so I think that’s an important part. Also, the contract with the listener, I think, and it’s a real one, is that these are a group of friends, kibitzing together, and you, the listener, are listening in. And an interesting thing happened during the pandemic when we couldn’t be in the same room in front of a live audience. Peter Sagel, the host, said to us, you guys are going to have to listen to each other even more and build off of each other more, right? Because you’ve got no live audience anymore. So you don’t have any audience really to play to. So you have to listen to each other. And I kind of loved it. And I became very happy to sort of be a setup for somebody. Even if I didn’t have a joke and somebody said, you know, a plumber in Minnesota, you know, found a gold bar in a, in, you know, whatever in a toilet or some silly story. And then I would feel free to just kind of say, “God, that reminds me of the time X happened,” which might not even be funny. But then Paula Poundstone might build off of it and kill. And then the producers that say afterwards, “Thank you. That was great because it really helped get things going.” It’s a pretty wonderful format to be part of. 

Yeah, no, it’s amazing the run that you’ve had, tell us about your new book. I know you’ve been running around signing books and doing lots of appearances, and there are a lot of Carson people that you mentioned in the book. 

It’s funny how that happens. It’s a generational thing, I guess, and happened in my last book, Mobituaries. So this book is called Roctogenarians: Late in Life Debuts, Comebacks, and Triumphs. And you know, because for so long, I’ve interviewed, and I’ve gravitated towards ,older people. I wanted to do a book with my collaborator, Jonathan Greenberg, that really told stories, real stories of people currently and from the past, who killed it late in life, who accomplished a lot late in life. They’re not necessarily breakthroughs. Some of them are. Some of them are comebacks. And as the subtitle would suggest, some of them are kind of capstones. Architects, for instance, kind of famously peak late in life, like just keep going and keep going, and so many world-class architects have lived and worked into their 90s. You know, I think without getting on a soapbox here, ageism is real, and it’s really stupid because there’s all this great talent. There’s all this great human capital and to just sort of dismiss it out of hand. Obviously, this is a very contentious topic right now with the presidential race, but and we’re hearing very much and, you know, and yes, seeing sort of the downsides of aging. Okay, we understand, we get it. And, you know, but there is another side to this. And the population’s aging, whether we like it or not. So this book is a counterpoint to all the negativity. 

You know, people like Mel Brooks, who until I guess maybe 2000, he had The Producers, which on Broadway, I think it was set a record for Tonys and he’s still doing his thing. I mean, it’s incredible. I think he just turned 98. I know he’s featured. Rita Moreno, talk about Estelle Getty, her big break at 62 for the Golden Girls, Frank Lloyd Wright? The Guggenheim, was he in the late 70s by then or was he in his 80s? 

When he was in his late 70s, but the design was submitted when he was 84. And like a lot of people, in his case, he was repurposing a design basically for a car park that was going to be in the mountains of Maryland, that spiral. And the great artists, the abstract expressionists of the day were outraged by the architecture, which they thought did not suit the art that would be hung there. A lot of people thought he was past his prime. But, you know, Falling Water is to Western Pennsylvania as you know, the Guggenheim is to Manhattan. It is now is such a part of the environment that it’s hard to imagine it without it. The three comics, all of whom Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear who were all featured as you know, the fathers, the founding fathers of comedy in the book all of them obviously had spectacular careers by their middle age, but they had so much in common and they thrived so well into old age that we had to include them. I mean, all of them were the children of Jewish immigrants. All of them were, you know, fans of musical comedy, the Marx brothers, the Ritz brothers, vaudeville growing up, all of them served during World War II, which was really, really formative for them and their commitment to, you know, democracy and intolerance, which I think informed their comedy in a really big way. And they weren’t, of course, just great friends who vacationed together when they lived on the East Coast. They’d go out to Fire Island, but then on the West Coast when they migrated there, they would spend weekends together in their pajamas just laughing with other icons of comedy. It’s really hard to overstate that so much of what we consume was shaped, the way we view our world was forged by them. It’s undeniable. 

It is true, Carl Reiner was one of the, I was lucky to go to his home a few times to have him on the podcast and he was writing books until his 90s. He was always so busy with projects. I’m like, you’re making people my age look bad with just how productive and how focused… 

I mean, I think what’s interesting is that when you talk about old age like this, it’s difficult not to lapse into cliche, But these guys have such authority. So when they say things like, as they all have, or in the case it did, and his two of them have passed on, obviously, when they say things like ”Laughter makes you young.” You know, if you hear a random person in your life say that, you might smile and go, “What a lovely sentiment.” But they really meant that and they said that with authority. But I think what they also meant is that engagement keeps you young, because they remained engaged. Actually, the least of them probably was Mel Brooks, who they all, I think, and Brooks himself would agree, was sort of crankier than the other two. But Reiner and Lear especially, remained extremely engaged with the world and with their networks and with mentees. And, you know, Rita Moreno is the same way. 

Yeah, she is amazing. 

It’s an active choice to do that. And I do think that’s what kept them. It’s not a coincidence that they all have lived so long. 

So Jay [Leno] never had you actually as a guest to sit down, but he had you as a correspondent, correct? 

That’s absolutely right. My very first appearance was about presidential pets, and I had a book out at the time about presidential pets. So, this was in the fall of 2004. He had me when I came on, sort of hold the book, and so it was a nice little plug for it. But I never was actually a guest. Frankly, one of the things that I thought was kind of remarkable and a sign of the times and no longer.. is the amount of money that they had to spend. 

Oh, network television back then? Yes.

And I think that Jay was grandfathered in because after they started tightening belts for other people, they still had crazy budgets. I’m whispering to you as I have no one else will hear, but I would go on these shoots and I would put down a credit card for incidentals. Okay. And we’s at the end, I would check out and they go, “Oh, no, they covered all those for you.” I mean, they just said, and that was, I have to thank Scott Atwell, who was the touring producer, the overseer, the tour, and he can’t get in trouble for this at this point, the statute of limitations had passed. But I think he would just say, “Oh, no, no, no, we’ll cover it all.” And I think they, I would like to think they were doing that for all the correspondents, but also he would go like, I think I pitched the thing.  I said, “Oh, I want to do like the Mesoamerican roots of Spring Break in Cancun, the piece about that. And they were like, okay, that’s quirky and fun. So instead of it being a two-day shoot, we went down for a week. We stayed in a really nice hotel. And there were like nine or 10 people in the crew,  it’s crazy, the amounts of money that were being spent. And I was living as I do now in New York. And so when the piece would air, so right, these are obviously pre-taped, these seat beaches, when the piece would air, they would fly me out just to literally so that Jay could go, “Here’s Mo Rocca, when I come out.” And he’d go, “Oh, tell us what you have.” “Well, Jay, you know, I wanted to explore the historic roots of Cancun. Take a look.” And then he rolled the piece at the end. He’d go, “Mo Rocca, everyone.” And I’d wave. And I thought, great. It was a chance for me to see friends in LA. But I mean, this is a little maybe too much of how the sausage is getting made. But I just couldn’t get over how much they were spending on production. 

Yeah, it doesn’t happen anymore, at least on one of the late night shows. I know they wanted some of my friends on that have done TV and they said, are you gonna be here in LA anytime soon? And they didn’t wanna pay for their flight, which back then it was like, if they wanted somebody on it was…

One day I was, it’s kind of crazy. I walked out of my shrink’s office and there was like on the street, was Conan O ‘Brien and his wife and they weren’t going to the shrink. I was coming whatever So it was in the part of Manhattan… And so and I knew them a little bit and Conan so friendly and so we were talking at this very topic and he was getting ready Getting ready to move from the 1230 to 1130, right? Okay at that point what you can tell me what year this is. 

Oh I think that was it was 2009 or 2010 when Conan got The Tonight Show or something or something like that 

It was a very friendly chat. And I was saying this very thing. I said, you know, I he knew that I’d been doing pieces on with on Jay show And he said it’s crazy like the budgets and then kind of goes. Yeah, it’s not like that ordinarily, he said. And he was talking about about Late Night, right? Yeah, like the Late Show. Sorry his his 12:30 show, He goes,

Yeah, Late Night.

He joked. He said, oh, yeah. He said when we started this show, we’d say, “Yeah, we’re thinking about a sketch for the last act of the show. We’ll build a giant robot, and it will explode.” And he basically was saying that, like, when the show began, the 12:30 show, that they just had free rein to spend whatever they wanted on production. And that, like, by the time his tenure on that show was wrapping up, because of how the economy had changed and late-night economy had changed, it was It’s like those things were long gone. 

It was. All the writers would have to stay and do a lot of times 12 hour days and they would get their individual dinners ordered from like the best restaurants. And then it’s like no way. And then they did like a pool of, they would just order food. I guess it was cheaper that way just for the writers to all share. I don’t know how they saved money that way, but apparently they did, but they were cutting. They were definitely cutting corners. Marilyn Maye, you know, she went on Carson dozens of times. She, you did a profile on her, I got to sit down with her. You told me, and I don’t think I mentioned this on the podcast ’cause I talked to her I think before you told me that apparently Fallon asked her to come on and she refused to come on because they wouldn’t let her bring her own accompanyist or her own musicians. That’s what you told me, is that true? 

I know, I just wanna be really clear though because not just because I love Jimmy and… 

He’s great.

…that The Tonight Show wanted to have her on but as a sign of I think of Marilyn’s kind of her uncompromising standards and I really admire her for that she didn’t want to go on any late-night show unless she could come with her full band. I mean that’s just the way she is. I mean she’s now 96 and she’s still touring and she’s a master. But I thought that that was really cool, that she wouldn’t go on any show unless she could have her band. And I think it just wasn’t possible, and I don’t know that any late night show could have accommodated her. 

She really said no to The Tonight Show

Yeah, that’s my understanding. And there was nothing acrimonious about it at all. I think she just thought, “This is what I do, and this is how I do it. And if I’m going to go on TV, I need to do it under my terms.” And I think there was mutual respect on that score. 

I want to mention The Daily Show. I mean, you were there from, let’s see, to 1998 to 2003. You were there at the tail end of Craig Kilborn. I have talked to people that were there around that time when Jon Stewart came. And it’s amazing to think that this guy did not have at all final say of what was going to get in the script, what he was going to say. And you witnessed this transition. One of the writers who, he just passed away, Tom Johnson, basically told me, he said, you know, we all were upset when Jon came in and he wanted to change The Daily Show, and we were all upset and then, but then gast-forward to two years later, we’re winning Emmys, he was right. But there was lots of resistance. What did you witness? 

What I remember most distinctly was a meeting that was in Madeleine Smithberg’s office where the entire staff came together. It was probably a few months into Jon’s tenure, and Jon was trying to explain to everyone that the show needed to have a point of view. I don’t know if he used those words, but that’s essentially what he was saying. And I do remember people looking really worried and thinking, “Uh oh, does this mean that the show is going to become preachy?” And I think that was what the concern was, that there was a safety and kind of the scattershot nature of The Daily Show under Craig Kilborn because everyone was a target, you know. Somebody, it was a writer for the New York Times I once once described the show as” the kid at the back of the shooting spitballs” and and I think that was the appeal of the show, like the show was kind of like an a**hole who would you know kind of attack anyone kind of randomly and then Jon said, he wanted it to have more of a point of view I think that worried people because they thought, “What does that mean? Is that going to become preachy?” And I do remember people exchanging looks about that. And obviously he was proved right. I mean, it could have continued in the Kilborn vein and look, it could have continued being very successful, but it would never have broken out in the same way. I do think that, you know, I don’t want to get, you know, hyperbolic here. But when I think about what Jon did to The Daily Show, I think a bit less as, “Oh, he was a great comic.” I don’t even really know Jon’s standup very much. I think I went to see it once. We all went. I don’t know much about Jon’s standup, but I always thought that his talent was, and this is a very grand word, was Vision. He had a vision for the show, and that’s what was so powerful. 

It’s amazing with Kilborn because, first of all, he was only on for two years or so before he got his big CBS thing. It was really a quick rise. Or maybe he was on for actually… ‘96 it started. So yeah, I guess he was there for maybe three years. And originally they didn’t have an audience. And then he became this big star. But I just remember Mike Myers coming on to plug one of the Austin Powers movies. And he would do the five questions. And one of his questions to Mike Myers, and I think it seemed like it upset him, was, “Canada, what went wrong?” That’s what he said to Mike Myers and everyone in the audience is laughing and Myers is like, he has a grin on his face, but that was Kilborn. That was his thing. 

You know, it’s funny, by the way, 

No one else does that, by the way. 

Yeah. It’s funny. About the lack of a studio audience because The Daily Show went, excuse me, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me went through that too, not having a studio audience. And then they said, “Okay, we’ve got to change things up.” And we all went, “Oh, we’re all going to have to get on planes and and go to Chicago every week.” But it was worth it. And it was worth it, of course, with The Daily Show. Yeah, I only did two pieces under Craig’s tenure. And so, no. 

Oh, that was it. Okay. I always think it was fearless, but when you did the whole, and it’s historic now to look back at Indecision 2000, it was you and some of the correspondents, and you asked, was it John McCain’s trivial pursuit questions? And this was the first time that ever the correspondents were around presidential candidates. You went to New Hampshire? 

Yeah. So this is, I think, probably my fondest memory of The Daily Show is Vance DeGeneres, whom I’m still good friends with, who I love, and was my office mate. And everyone loves Carell for a good reason, not just fans worldwide. He’s just a really decent human being. But the three of us went up, and that’s when the Indecision 2000 jackets um, I’m in a walking closet right now, this should be somewhere in here, and we all we all had breakfast actually recently because Steve did Uncle Vanya on Broadway and we went to see him and before his matinee we had breakfast and uh and we all realized we all still have our jackets, our Indecision 2000 jackets. But that was the debut of the jackets and it was a Republican debate. it wasn’t a primary. I would later went back for the primary and that was with Nancy Walls and it was a slightly different setup but uh, but it was a debate and so they put us on the road and the three of us were there and what was so special and kind of crackling about that moment in that time is that people didn’t… outside of sort of college kids, didn’t really know what the show was yet. We had these jackets on. Underneath we we had, you know, neckties and we were nicely dressed. So we looked like actual news correspondents just ever so slightly off. And so people really didn’t know. I think they knew who are these three guys with matching overcoats. So there’s something a little off. It wasn’t like the show would be a few years down the road from that, where everyone would go, “Okay, Daily Show, what are they gonna ask?” And you know, I did indeed raise my hand .I took the first I asked the first question of the three of us, and it was a question from the international edition of trivial pursuit. I think it’s an insight into why John McCain was such a successful politician, is that He didn’t flinch he didn’t go. “Oh, there’s obviously a jokester here. He just completely with a straight face, he did indeed had to be what somebody whispered in his ear. But he just completely got what was going on in the moment and just went, “Björk.” And he a question about the Icelandic pop singer. And I always thought that was part of kind of his magic. And then the next day, Carell did the legendary bus ride with McCain, where he asked a question that really did throw McCain off and and the New York Times wrote it up. But that trip was really, really special. And not just because it put the show on a larger map, but just because honestly, the three of us just had so much fun. And we were just recounting it the other day. It was an over-the-shoulder shot where we were at a press conference taking notes, but we were in fact just doodling and doing like little Valentine’s Day cards and things like like that. Just had a great time. 

What was it like being back at the final taping. I know you were there and most of the correspondents and Springsteen was playing at the very end. 

You know, it was, the very end was really special with Springsteen and dancing around. That was very special. It was nice. 

It wasn’t what I thought would be memorable in Stewart. Like maybe like being close to, I would get very emotional. I think if I was there for that long and there was no, no, he was not sentimental. It seemed like when he was doing his goodbye, which really surprised me. 

One of the things I noticed about it, which was interesting, and I think may explain what you’re saying is, I was really struck that as we did the rehearsal, and I hadn’t been on the show and you do the math like 10, 12 years, what really struck me was that right after the rehearsal, we were called in, like in pairs, and given notes. And I wasn’t offended by this at all. I just thought, “Oh my God, he’s treating this like a regular episode.” And I found that fascinating, but it also made sense. ‘Cause Jon was so in it all the time, but there was no sense of like, I’ll just toss one off or this will be fun or whatever. Like, he was like making edits to the copy. I think the show was overstuffed, and I also think they should have put correspondents who hadn’t been on the show in a long time in context because I think it was there was just so many people that that had little tiny bits, and I also think I’m sorry this is very self-serving but… 

No I love hearing this.

…you asked me. But I do think that they should have I don’t know how they selected the studio audience, but it would have been nice if it was composed people maybe partly who had watched the show 20 years before if it whatever it was 15 years before. But you got the sense that it was an audience that was probably current watchers, which is fine, but I don’t know I think it, to use that horrible word, it should have been curated differently and I think it maybe should have been an hour long because everything went by in a flash 

Yeah, I can’t believe that with commercials or whatever. That’s not a lot of time for a goodbye show. 

You know, I will tell you one thing if you If you’re an obsessive and you have it taped at the very end right before it cuts out. This is very sweet. Jon grabbed me and hugged me and it was he like at the very end, just as it cut out if you say as it happened I thought I was so sweet that he hugged me and then somebody, and I guess I was still out when it aired that night. So I didn’t watch it as it aired. And then somebody said, I was watching and it was very sweet. He grabs you. And so I bring that up not just because it’s nice for me, but it’s, but Jon was emotional, but maybe it was just only at the very end on the dance floor with different people that he could kind of let go. 

It could have been. I mean, Dave Letterman got over that. He was very emotional leading up to it, but he’d gotten out of his system. So by the time he did the final show, he was okay. But I do want to point out Dave, during that montage with the Foo Fighters, Dave was not present to watch it on stage and just to feel that the last segment ever on the show, he was backstage where the coffee maker was. And just for whatever reason, he just couldn’t experience that with an audience. And maybe that was just too emotional for hom. I’m not sure, but yeah, I found that fascinating that he wouldn’t be there for like the last part of his show in front of the audience. People deal with it different ways. Carson, you know, Jim McCauley, who was Carson’s stand-up guy, said Johnny’s not going to have any sentimentality that’s inappropriate and that Johnny has no… And then at the Bette Midler, he cries. Johnny cries. And then at the final show when he’s saying goodbye to America, tears in his eyes. So you never know with some of those people what it means to them. 

Well, I mean, this isn’t a big surprise, but I remember I asked Bette Midler when I profiled her. I asked about that and she, look, she was, and she’s, I think, a performer that… how do I put this? I think that’s so in it that she doesn’t sort of, she probably went on there not going, “Okay, this will be a really historic performance because it’s one of the last,” I think she went and she did her thing, which is why he liked her because she was that overused word “authentic.” But I think I did say to her because I didn’t know all that much about Carson at the time. And I said, oh, did you keep in touch with him or something? And she just went, “No, he wasn’t that type of person.” And she even bristled a little bit about it. And she said, “No, that’s not that’s not who he was.” And of course, we all, I mean, anyone who knows much about him at all knows that. But I didn’t when I asked her that. 

Yeah, there were some guys, It was a very small club of people that he I mean he felt like this love for for bet for certain people and stuff. But with yeah, he was very very shy man very. Yes, small group of people. Your book. How many books have you written? You’re so prolific. I’m gonna guess is–this like you’re 13? 

Oh It’s my third. 

It just seems it seems… 

That I won’t shut up about them. 

Maybe it’s just because I follow you on social media and I see people people post your books and talk about books and I’ve read some and I that’s hilarious how off I was. 

You know, it’s fine. And let me just tell you the very first one I wrote, which is all the president’s pets, the story of one reporter who refused to roll over, which was political satire and a thriller was sort of Charlotte’s Web meets the Da Vinci Code and featured me and the late UPI reporter Helen Thomas And I won’t tell you, well, I will because, you know, 25 people bought it, but I think most of them liked it. And and she was a reincarnated turkey buzzard. But it was about all the different pets who have lived in the White House and and how they kind of conspired to make decisions. And I encourage people to, if they can even find a copy, it’s out of print, just to buy one for 35 cents on eBay or whatever on Amazon. Because I’m very proud of it. I had a great time writing it. It was a real rush. The last two books Mobituaries and this, I’ve done with my good friend Jonathan Greenberg, and I love doing them. And one of the things I love doing is, I love creating a mix for people, and I love surprising people. I like people to read about, you know, I think of everything in my pieces. I think about this when I actually do an individual field piece or when I can put a book together, co-write a book, is about a mix between protein and carbs. You want something that’s going to nourish you, that’s going to fortify you, but then you want some sugar, you want a rush. So that’s why you have Mary Church Terrell, a civil rights leader who, at 86, led sit-ins at segregated Washington, D.C. lunch counters. She’s a major roctogenarian. That’s a story that fortifies you, but then I have Mr. Pickles, the Houston Zoo tortoise who became a first time father at the age of 90 because that’s fun. And so, and I love playing with that. That sounds pretentious, “playing with it,” but I do love that. I think it’s very important that people turn the page and be surprised, be delighted, a word my father liked. 

You have so many people that Carson had on your Diana Nyad on the show. 

You’re reminding me. Of course Diana Nyad was on Carson because Diana Nyad in the 70s during a very rock and World Period when SNL was new, Diana Nyad and the East and Hudson Rivers were absolutely toxic and disgusting. She swam around the island of Manhattan and it made her a celebrity athlete. She went on Carson, which was a real mark of what a big deal she was. But then she tried at the age of 28 to swim from Cuba to Key West. She did not succeed. She put the dream away for 30 years. She resumed oy at 58, and what’s even more remarkable is she kept succeeding and failing until she did it at age 64. So we had to include her. We had to include her because Annette Benning’s performance as Diana Nyad, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, is one of those performances that’s just so crazy amazing. You go, “Oh, this woman doesn’t deserve an Oscar. She deserves like a congressional medal of honor for this performance.” 

I’m so glad that you put her in your book. I said show, But I meant the book, and I mean you profiled everyone… talk about late night: from from Joan Rivers You’ve interviewed Jon Stewart, Fallon, Colbert probably more than that. But just the fact that you’ve been able to do this. It was so special to have you on. Everybody go out and buy Roctogenerians. It’s available wherever you buy books. You do you did the audio book I’m guessing. 

I narrated the audio book.

Mo, thank you for in this. It’s so good seeing you. It’s been a while. 

It’s great to see you, Mark. And thank you very much. And it is remarkable that Carson himself keeps popping up. And it’s maybe just a sign of what I gravitate towards, but it’s interesting how many different figures from different walks of life that are profiled in this book and in my last book, Mobituaries, have Carson connections.

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