Mo Rocca on "Mobituaries," celebrity deaths and what we get wrong about Billy Carter

Salon talks to Mo Rocca about presidential history and why New Jersey should re-name a rest stop after Meryl Streep

Published November 11, 2019 2:30PM (EST)

Mo Rocca ("Salon Talks")
Mo Rocca ("Salon Talks")

Mo Rocca had a diverse trajectory as a TV writer and personality, from serving as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” to writing for the PBS children show “Wishbone,” to most recently working as a correspondent on “CBS Sunday Morning.” But despite all that living, Rocca is obsessed with death — and not in the Woody Allen sense of worrying about his own demise. Instead, Rocca is doing his best to ensure that people, along with certain things that die — like the station wagon and Prussia — get their due.

That is the premise of Rocca’s new book, "Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving." Rocca, who I sat down with on “Salon Talks,” is a dazzling vessel of vast information. In speaking with him, it became clear that on some level “Mobituaries” is Rocca manifested as a book.  It’s truly an incredible amount of information, often on topics you didn’t think you might be interested in, but Rocca’s detailed research and comedic flair make it compelling. For example, in his chapter “Heroes of the New Jersey Turnpike,” he delves into the lives of the namesakes of the Turnpike’s rest stops, from Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, to poet Walt Whitman to James Fenimore Cooper, author of “The Last of the Mohicans.”  (Being from New Jersey myself, this was especially interesting.)

There’s also the inexplicably captivating chapter on celebrities who died the same day, starting with Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, who both passed on June 25, 2009. Perhaps it’s the randomness of life, Rocca explained to me, why so many are captivated by this chapter of well-known people who left us on the same date, from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (July 4, 1826) to Margaret Thatcher and Annette Funicello (April 8, 2013).

Rocca also addressed a demise he was happy to see, and one which touched him personally: “The Death of a Diagnosis.” Rocca, who came out publicly years ago, detailed how homosexuality had been classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until this diagnosis “died” in 1973. As Rocca noted, instead of helping people like a diagnosis is designed to do, this diagnosis did the reverse by making countless lives more challenging.

"Mobituaries," like Mo Rocca, will make you smarter while making you laugh. Come to think of it, I hope my obituary one day (in the distant future) includes that very line about me.

Watch Mo Rocca's “Salon Talks” episode here, or read the transcript of our conversation below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mo, either your career is the most carefully created one ever or you just can't say no.

I mean, it's probably a combination between the two. There is some randomness to it, but now I'm seeing that it's starting to take shape. Now the pieces are making sense.

Is there a thread, a common line, in any of it?

Well, I love history. I love people's beginnings, and I like to be generous with people's stories. I'm finding that, now in writing this and with the podcast I do that’s connected to it, I like looking at historic figures. I'd say cutting the past some slack and seeking some understanding from it.

I love to take things that I'm interested in and if I execute them properly, then I think that a contagion sort of takes effect. I think other people will become interested in what I'm interested in, if I'm truly interested in it, right? I mean, the pieces that I've done on “CBS Sunday Morning” when I haven't really been interested, they haven't worked. I think that's sort of a lesson for life and creativity, I think, right? And I love to — I mean, this sounds so trite, it sounds like I'm a pageant contestant — I love to learn new things. I really do love learning new things and I feel like sometimes the best jobs I've had I should get course credit for.

In this book, I've got to tell you, it is remarkably researched. I learned so much. I didn't go with any expectations. I knew you had a podcast, "Mobituaries," but tell people first if they're not familiar with the podcast or the book, what are Mobituaries?

A Mobituary is an appreciation for someone or something that didn't get the sendoff that person or thing deserved the first time around. It could be somebody who was once wildly famous and sort of fell off the map. It could be somebody who remains a household name, but I think is not really appreciated for what he or she should be appreciated for. It could be somebody like a forgotten forerunner who did a remarkable thing and was never even appreciated in his or her time. Or it could be a thing. You know, there was no obituary for the station wagon when it finally died in 2011. They're basically things that I'm pretty interested in.

And it’s not an academic reference book. It has a lot of humor.

Remember the variety pack of cereals, which I preferred much more than the big box? This is the history book version of the variety pack of cereal — so some Frosted Flakes, some Sugar Smacks, and then there's a couple that are a little healthier, and then there's Froot Loops.

To give people a sense of the range of the obituaries you cover, you go from people to politics to the heroes of the New Jersey Turnpike, where you spend time talking about the various rest stops. I'm from Jersey, so I love this. I didn't know all of the rest stops there. Vince Lombardi is probably my favorite, being half Italian and all that. What made you gravitate to that? Why did you want to do an obituary? Because you did one for each one for Woodrow Wilson and Vince Lombardi and the list goes on. I think Grover Cleveland.

And Molly Pitcher. Not to be confused with Molly Hatchet, right?

Not at all!

I love that they're called "service areas," but we know they're rest stops. There are 12 on the New Jersey Turnpike. I think many people passing through the great state of New Jersey, that's the only experience they'll have as they drive, if they're on a road trip. And I think that's an itch that I wanted to scratch for other people. Who are those people? Who is John Fenwick? And wait, there's James Fenimore Cooper. John Fenwick founded the first Quaker colony in the Americas. James Fenimore Cooper wrote “The Last of the Mohicans.”

I imagine how many Tinder hookups that could have been because you say "meet me at the John Fenwick," but then the other person goes to James Fenimore Cooper. So I actually advocate in this book, renaming John Fenwick for Meryl Streep, since she's a great New Jerseyan, and then there'll be no more confusion. It'll be Meryl Streep and will be James Fenimore Cooper.

It's odd when you think about the heroes there and why there's not a Frank Sinatra. Not a Jon Bon Jovi? I mean come on, how about Bruce Springsteen? It could be The Boss Rest Stop. People would go there as a tourist attraction. Now Alexander Hamilton on some level is become probably a tourist thing where people take pictures because of the play.

And the Auntie Anne's probably is 10 times the price of other Auntie Anne's because it's at the Hamilton Rest Stop. Aaron Burr who killed him actually is buried in New Jersey.

Now you've talked about deaths are celebrities, deaths that are actually good, deaths that are bad. There's one that I found troubling was the death of dragons. I going to call fake news because I believe in dragons. Tell us the story.

This is one of those things. I was listening to the audiobook of a biography of Thomas Payne who's also in the book and there was one little line a parenthetical basically that mentioned that in 1735 a man named Carl Linnaeus — I remembered that name from high school biology because of Linnaean taxonomies — but that Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, went in 1735 to the city of Hamburg in what is now Germany for an exhibit of a seven-headed Hydra that everyone in Europe was going nuts over this. It was like a Picasso show at MoMA. Everyone was rushing the show and he walked in there and he said, "What are you talking about? These are a bunch of snakeskins sewn together with a weasel skull and some feet inserted and some guts of another animal stuffed in there. This isn't a real creature." He said, "God wouldn't create a creature with more than one head." And just like that everyone's belief in dragons, which had existed for millennia, undone.

I immediately said, "Well this is the death of a belief and that it happened due to one man who was a scientist and also had a lot of common sense was kind of a remarkable moment in history." For years I've had so many factoid stuffed in my head, I think — I'm not sure where my medulla oblongata is, but I think that's the part that's been sore for all these years. So I'm just glad that I can just purge and put it all into this book.

In “Mobituaries” you talk about something everyone seems to find intriguing, the deaths of celebrities who died on the same day. You have a whole chapter on Farrah Fawcett and how she and Michael Jackson both died on the same day in 2009. There’s something so gripping about it.

People are intrigued by the whole idea of famous people dying in threes, but the dying on the same day, it's a whole other level of fascination, I think. Jim Henson and Sammy Davis Jr, two geniuses, dying on the same day. If they could only have spread out their deaths by 24 hours. Each of these guys deserved his own news cycle. Orson Wells and Yule Brenner, Orville Wright, Mahatma Gandhi, I mean, then the crazy one, John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all on the same day. Annette Funicello and Margaret Thatcher on the same day. I think what it does is it's a very heightened version of the randomness of life that we fear or — and as you said this to me before we started rolling, Dean — about unfairness, that it just seems when Farrah Fawcett, we all loved Farrah Fawcett, and she's suddenly overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson. It somehow that taps into a sense that life is just so unfair sometimes and I think that's maybe what we're connecting to there.

You make a great point that she talked about cancer, a form of cancer people were not talking about, and her death deserved more attention simply to elevate that.

And that was a shocker. And it's interesting, right? Michael Jackson's, his story was about pop music, about race, about celebrity justice, about fashion, about so many different things. Yes, it was a huge deal and he represented so much, but we all loved Farrah. She deserved a little bit more love.

I'm glad your book, though, reminds us of her because you don't remember what she went through.

Right, and just to be clear, I talked to Sharon Lansing who is a pioneer, the first woman to run a major movie studio, in her modeling days was beginning a friendship with Farrah and Sherry Coast who founded Stand Up to Cancer, and she said, listen, "Farrah had anal cancer which no one wanted to talk about and she was willing to do it and then she was willing to cut her famous hair off in public." It validated why we cared about her all those years because she wasn't just beautiful. She seemed like a really decent person.

When you see celebrities die in the same day, though, does it make you think "When I die, I hope I'm the most famous person that dies that day?"

Yeah, I would like to be the most well-known person who buys the farm the day that I do, but what can you do?

Let's talk about some deaths that we like. One that you talk about in the book is deaths of diagnosis—one being the death of homosexuality being a mental illness. I know you've come out and people know that about you. Tell us why this diagnosis actually flew in the face of what diagnosis are supposed to do.

Well, what's interesting about when the American Psychiatric Association had labeled homosexuality a mental illness it was in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is a catalog of mental illnesses, since its founding in 1952 until 1973 — really it stayed in until 1974 — but this was a really damaging thing of course. It was a reflection of cultural attitudes, but it also gave scientific validation to this terrible stigma, which then of course informed laws, harsh anti-gay laws in the United States. And diagnoses are meant to help people, right? And I'm sure that many of the members back then of the American Psychiatric Association, and we know this, many of them were doing their best and wanted to help and many of them were opposed to the diagnosis. But it took activists, it took people questioning the so-called science in this case to get it overturned.

And it took a heroic man named John Fryer, who was an openly gay psychiatrist, to help overturn this and to convince the governing body or the leadership of the APA to remove it from the DSM. And you know, I write about this in a personal way, not only because I'm gay, but also because in 1974 when the membership voted it out, that was the year that my family got the World Book Encyclopedia. I love the World Book Encyclopedia. I have such fond memories of coming home after school and lying on my stomach on the red carpet in the family room and paging through the facts from different countries. But I would read the homosexuality entry over and over again and it was pitifully short. I think I thought if I read it enough times, new lines would appear that would tell me something optimistic and hopeful about my future.

In retrospect, the entry wasn't that bleak. I mean, it reflected pretty much the time. But little did I know that at that time when I was five years old — and I wasn't reading the encyclopedia then, I've read the 1974 book a little bit later — little did I know at the time that these huge changes were happening that I wanted to memorialize.

I think it was a great point. Also, you touched on some other things here, some other deaths of myths. One is that gingers are inherently bad, or vampires, or criminals.

I mean it's either exotic or somehow seems a dangerous or that I guess that the stereotypes about gingers, redheads, being more hot-headed. But I did think it's interesting that it comes from Renaissance era painting when Judas, to make him stand out from the 12 apostles, was depicted with red hair. And it's interesting how these things start or how they're reinforced.

Let’s talk about politics. One thing I was so intrigued about is how you did a chapter on Billy Carter, Jimmy Carter's brother, who became an albatross of Jimmy Carter near the end of his term. He became the embarrassing brother. You actually went to the Billy Carter service station in Plains, Georgia. I saw a picture of you on Twitter. Did you learn anything? Did you go for this book?

Oh, sure. I'm a big presidential history buff and there's a long tradition of troublemaking presidential brothers. They start with John Quincy Adams, his brother Charles Adams, who was called a mad man possessed by the devil. He was called that by their father, John Adams, who was also president. Ulysses S. Grant's brother Orval was mixed up in a kickback scheme. Bill Clinton's half-brother, Roger, his code name was actually Headache from the secret service.

The mother or brother, if you will, of all troublemaking siblings was Billy. And I'm 50 now. So I vaguely remember this kind of garish, outrageous, buffoonish guy going on shows like "Hee Haw" and on Merv Griffin and doing big belly flop contests and things like that and constantly being the butt of jokes on Johnny Carson. But I also vaguely remembered that in this very colorful family, their mother, Miss Lillian, Lillian Carter, Jimmy and Billy's mother, volunteered for the Peace Corps and went to India when she was 68 years old.

She was a remarkable woman. But I remembered that people said, "No, no, no. Billy's actually very smart." So I wanted to go back and I talked to Dan Rather, who had profiled him. I talked to President Jimmy Carter about him and I talked to Billy's widow Sibel and their wonderful six kids. And they've described a man who was smart, who was really hardworking, who was funny and battled alcoholism. And in the last very proud chapter of his life became a big advocate speaking to groups of people, a lot of blue collar men who were struggling with alcoholism. And so he really, to put it bluntly, cleaned up his act and was a pretty great guy at the end of his life. And look, we only have so much capacity how we're going to remember people, so much bandwidth as they say, but I'd like to increase that for someone like Billy. So we can remember him more compassionately.

That’s part of why I found this book remarkable. It almost seemed random, but then when I speak to you, it's not random. It's connected because your personal interests are in presidential history. And I've been to some of the museums like the library of Dwight Eisenhower's, I've been to Kennedy's, I've been to a few others and I find those remarkable. So when you see something like the brother of a president, I could see why, if you like presidential history, it's not just a joke to you, it was actually heartwarming.

I think it also taps into a kind of fascination, fear maybe, we have with randomness. It was somewhat random that Billy Carter is this man 13 years younger than his older brother who's living his life, expects to take over the family business. And then his brother decides to run for president and he loves his brother and he and the rest of the family support Jimmy, but it's going to affect their lives. Their father ran the peanut business and it was a substantial business. People said peanut farmers, but this is an agribusiness basically in a small town in Georgia. But Billy had expected to take that over and the father died when he was very young. Jimmy had to come home, he was a Navy officer, and take it over. And then when he became president, the business was put into a blind trust and Billy had no recourse. The only way he could make money was becoming professionally Billy Carter and listen, he was in his late thirties with six kids. I couldn't have handled it. That was a lot to handle. And when you really hear his story, I don't want to call him a victim, but I mean we all are subject to randomness. But you know, he didn't run for president.

In thinking about deaths in terms of politics, and one that was very negative, is death of representation. You make a great point in your book asking the question, when do you think the first African American was elected to Congress from the South? I don't think most people would ever know. Tell us a little bit what you mean by representation dying.

So this chapter is also called "The Black Congressmen of Reconstruction," which I know sounds like a funk band, but the black congressman of Reconstruction are these men who, after the Civil War — more than half of them had been enslaved — were elected to the U.S. Congress, two senators and, depending on how you sort of chart Reconstruction, about a dozen House members. There's a famous engraving, lithograph, in 1872 from Currier and Ives, which you should look up on the internet because it is a stunning image. To me, I wanted to do a story about them because Reconstruction has so long been viewed and taught, if it's taught at all — blink and you missed it in high school history — but the period after the Civil War has been taught as just a big failure, and it did ultimately fail.

But what's gotten lost is there was huge hope, heady hope and inspiration during this period for the 4 million freed slaves. Voter turnout among African American men — again, women wouldn't gain the vote for another 50 years, of any race — was really high. I mean crazy high in the South. These were all in the South. They were all Republicans. You know, the party of Lincoln. And so I wanted to talk about their lives, a few of them, and what they represented at the time. I also think the reason I like this story is in particular there's one named Blanche K. Bruce, the other black Senator from the period also from Mississippi occupying the same seat that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy — how symbolic is that? — had occupied before the Civil War.

Blanche K. Bruce married an African American woman named Josephine Wilson. She was a socialite and their home in Georgetown was kind of the Mecca for what was I guess then what you'd call the black caucus. Supreme Court justices, white, other senators and House members, white, would come to their home and visit with them. To me that's what sort of makes it all the more heartbreaking because when you realize that there were people back then that were willing to go with this, it said, the war is over. This is the way it's going to be. There are now black members of Congress. They were definitely snubbed, OK. The Bruces were snubbed by people. But there's an editorial in a Wisconsin paper at the time, a mainstream white paper, that scolds the white congressmen who are socially snubbing them.

So I don't know if I'm making sense. In a way it makes it all the more heartbreaking because there were people that were willing to behave in ways far more advanced than we give them credit for now.

The success of these black members of Congress and black voter turnout is what gave rise in the South to the Jim Crow laws and disenfranchised African Americans, a struggle that goes through this day with voter ID laws. We continue to have this fight right now. So last thing. We're talking about people. You've done your best to relive their lives, give them their due. What do you want to be remembered for?

I thought about what the first line of my obituary would be. I thought that it would be something like, "Mo Rocca, who made people interested in things they didn't expect to be interested in, died today. He was 135." Something like that. Maybe that'll change, but look if someone stops me on the street and says. "Oh, that piece you did on CBS Sunday Morning, that was really interesting. I didn't know that." Even better yet when they say, "I didn't think I'd be interested in that at all. And I was." I love that. I love when in a story like Billy Carter when people would go, "Oh, this is going to be fun. This going to be a gas, it's going to be about the guy with the beer and all that." And then they go, "Oh wow. That was really poignant." And conversely, I love when people say, "Oh, you did this thing on the black congressmen of Reconstruction. I heard Reconstruction and I thought, Oh, this is going to be like a really heavy duty history thing. But it went down easy." So that's what makes me happy.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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