On stage and hopping around on one foot, Mo Rocca mulls an audience question with increasing anxiety. An audience member has asked him to make up a funny bogus life story on the spot. “I feel the need to satisfy you,” he said. “And yet I find your request very strange.”
It wasn’t the first or the last awkward moment for Rocca, who spent the last quarter of his show at Lisner Auditorium last Friday fielding other strange audience requests. Yet Rocca managed to pull out a funny answer for almost all of them, which is surprising, because Rocca freely admits he is not a standup comedian and that all his material is planned out well in advance.
Rocca got his start on Comedy Central by doing a series of reports about the graves of past presidents, acting on a love of history more than comedic instinct. Rocca’s a satirist, part of a new wave of current event-related humor that builds on the legacy of “Saturday Night Live’s” weekend update back during the Al Franken years.
A 1991 Harvard grad with theatrical aspirations Rocca, decided that going to New York and taking the traditional route of auditioning for shows was not for him after all. “I knew that was kind of the easy way out,” Rocca told The Hatchet. Instead of starving off-Broadway, he turned what he called a “yen” for history into a series of comedic reports that helped launch his career as a pundit and satirist on CNN. Rocca insists that he never pictured himself in this line of work and credits his success to “pursuing an interest that didn’t necessarily make sense.”
All of this comes out during his live show, which was a strange combination of autobiography, satire and political analysis, with a screening of some of his more outrageous TV footage thrown in for good measure.
Rocca began his on-camera career doing feature segments for “The Daily Show.” He left the show to work on a book a year and half ago, but for many, it’s his work on the Comedy Central faux news show for which he is best remembered. While he says he loved working there, he also admitted some of the tactics involved in gathering fake news bothered him, feeling that sometimes formatting the segments for television killed their natural humor. “There are definitely instances where I’ll just get a reaction shot of you and then turn the camera around and I’ll ask a wacky question and make it look like you’re just stunned by my question,” he admitted.
Rocca is an equal opportunity derider, taking shots at George W. Bush and John Kerry with equal ease and disdain. That’s probably for the best, since the bipartisan crowd at Friday’s show erupted into simultaneous cheers and boos whenever either candidate’s name was mentioned. Rocca, who is reluctant to say which party he belongs to or which candidate he will vote for, prefers to look at politics through a historical, not an ideological prism.
“That’s one area where I think I can make a difference, if I can find a way to get people interested in history and make it fun, as dorky as that sounds, because that’s just lacking right now,” he said.
“If people had any clue what the Gulf of Tonkin was, they might have reevaluated the search for weapons of mass destruction and even Iraq. ‘Wait a minute? Are we sure?’ President Johnson just lied to us, that we were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, which is why the Vietnam War escalated. I’m not comparing Vietnam to Iraq, but just simple things like that,” Rocca said.
Of course, the evening was a long way from being serious. Most of the night’s history jokes came from pictures of Rocca in front of nearly 30 presidential graves. Rocca discussed his exploits in pornography, children’s television, his relationship with Larry King (“It’s like performing for your grandfather,” he said) and the time he hung out in an art museum with early 90s rapper Flava Flav. While it was far from a typical standup routine, Rocca’s performance was consistently entertaining with the kind of political punditry and obsessively quirky mannerisms he’s built into a career.