Politics and Humor
With Mo Rocca
"The Daily Show"
Thursday, April 17, 2003; 10 a.m. ET
What is the importance of political humor? Why is it so prevalent in America? How do political satirists handle delicate stories during times of national stress? How has the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" dealt with the war in Iraq?
Mo Rocca, correspondent for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," was online to discuss humor and politics.
Rocca holds a B.A. from Harvard University where he became president and writer of the Hasty Pudding Show. Before joining "The Daily Show," Rocca worked on a number of children's television shows including the PBS series "Wishbone" and Nickelodeon's "Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss."
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Scranton, Pa.: What would you say would be the best thing to do for someone wanting to break into humor writing, assuming the prerequisite of being funny has already been met? How did you get your start?
Mo Rocca: I wrote and produced for PBS' Wishbone, a series about a Jack Russell Terrier who imagines himself as the hero of a different classic novel each episode. (The purpose was to familiarize kids with the themes of classic literature through the eyes of a dog ... why not?) Then I became the consulting editor of Perfect 10, the only adult men's magazine that features models without breast implants. Kids TV, then adult soft-core pornography ... it was inevitable that I'd end up a fake reporter.
This of course is not the ONLY roadmap but it was my chosen path. The most important thing is to write material that YOU think is funny. If you don't think it's funny, but you're convinced that other people will think it is, well they won't. (Just try diagramming that last sentence.)
Oakton, Va.: Do you think Comedy Central is sufficiently committed to the Daily Show? After all, you only get a half hour, and Fox runs their comedy news show 24 hours a day.
Mo Rocca: Because WE are the original no-spin zone, we don't need to waste time. Plus they have Geraldo.
Shirlington, Va.: I'd like your Mopinion on something: Do you think the subjects of Daily Show interview segments ever get it? And when does that happen? It seems they are all chumps from the start, and that everyone is in on the gag but them. Is it just the curse of sarcasm-challenged middle America?
Mo Rocca: As the show's profile has grown, so has the unlikelihood (is that a word?) that the interview subjects get hoodwinked. It's all for the best. No matter how big the laughs are, it's not worth going to hell. After all, it's just basic cable.
Washington, D.C.: All of us have long debated over your ethnicity, could you please tell us where your family is from?
Mo Rocca: My father is Italian-American. My mother is from Colombia. I was raised outside of D.C. You may know me as a former member of the Bethesda cartel.
Charlottesville, Va.: Mo, thanks for talking to us today.
At the risk of asking the eternally trite question, how does a comedian/comedy show strike the balance between being sensitive to wartime issues, and honoring their innate duty to criticize and make light of current events?
Second, in a time of war, which unlike any other in history, is all broadcast almost simultaneously to our "instant gratification" culture, how does comedy/political satire play a role in the escapism many seek? Do you feel that making comedic criticism about the war and those perpetrating it is made easier given the large amount of dissent and protest?
Mo Rocca: It's much easier to make jokes about sensitive issues if there is some dissent, some conflict.
When it comes to war, we focus more on the mainstream coverage of the event, rather than the event itself. People dying is never funny. Protest puppets are always funny.
Louisville, Ky.: I very much enjoy your appearances on the great NPR quiz show, Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me! It seems that show would be an awful lot of fun to be involved in. I've especially enjoyed Paula Poundstone, though I must say if I were her I would make some sort of attempt to listen to some kind of news programming so I would know at least two or three answers per show.
Mo Rocca: Carl Kasell is a god. When we've done live shows, he walks out on stage first. When he starts speaking and everyone recognizes the voice, women in their 40s and 50s revert to their former teeny-boppers-at-the-Beatles-concert selves. They fling their tote bags aside (most of which have a stray banana mingled in with their New Yorkers and Nations) and go nuts. After the show they'll come up to me and say, referring to The Daily Show, "I hear you're on a wonderful program. If I had a TV, I'd watch it." I love NPR.
Dauphin Island, Ala.: Mo, rarely do I miss the show. How do the writers on the Daily Show walk that fine line between honest political humor and sarcasm?
Mo Rocca: The biggest danger is to become preachy or sneering. I love being silly and loopy from time to time. When we're making from of the coverage of event, we have wide latitude in choosing content. If war seems heavy-handed, we can always check in on Mariah Carey.
Atlanta, Ga.: Mo:
Which President has been the better target for political humor: Clinton or Bush (Version 2.0)? Do you see any potentially great targets on the political horizon? Perhaps Ashcroft?
Mo Rocca: Clinton the philanderer and Bush the bumbler (Version 1.0) were irresistible but nearly two-dimensional. Bush 2.0 is more complicated. You have to work harder.
We haven't heard a lot from Ashcroft lately. Sharpton should be a blast. But I gotta tell you, Georgia, it sounds like your governor may be asking for it with the reopening of the state flag debate.
Plano, Tex.: Mo: I was the education adviser and did educational marketing for the second season of Wishbone. I didn't meet you, but your scripts are legend. How is writing humor for children like or unlike writing humor for adults?
Mo Rocca: Wow! I lived in Plano, Tex. for the show and can I tell you how disappointed I was. I never saw one damned tumbleweed.
Writing for kids is harder in one sense, in that you can't let characters waste a lot of time rambling. Action is essential.
Alexandria, Va.: What is your basic week like when the Daily Show is taping? How many people are on the writing staff?
I so want your job.
Mo Rocca: There are about ten writers on the staff. The correspondents (four of us fulltime) write, too, of course.
I wake up at 7 and immediately eat a bowl of oatmeal and half a glass of Orange juice. (Too much sugar in a full glass.) By 8 I'm at the gym to work out with my trainer Chris. Chest and arms on Monday, back and shoulders Wednesday, legs on Friday. Abs every day. After the workout I blend myself a protein shake (adding two bananas for good measure), then shower and get dressed. I'm at work by 11.
San Diego, Calif.: Hello Mo! I see you on all sorts of TV programs beyond The Daily Show. I don't see as much of the other Daily Show correspondents (with the exception of Stephen Colbert in his advertising debut of a Mr. Goodwrench commercial.) Are they ever jealous of your popularity and threaten to beat you up in the locker room?
Mo Rocca: I bruise like a grape. Hey, you're up early, San Diego!
Washington, D.C.: Mo,
I'm in love with you. Will you be mine or do you already have a special someone?
Mo Rocca: I can't be everything to everyone.
Send me your specs.
Baltimore, Md.: Whom else do you respect doing satire right now?
Mo Rocca: Brit Hume.
Arlington, Va.: Hi Mo,
Let's say a little boy (bald headed, very cute) has cancer, and his dying wish is to be a writer for "The Daily Show." "Oh," he says, his trembling hand clutching a stalk of broccoli, "How I wish I could write for my favoritest show, before I die... OF CANCER."
Now let's say said cancer-stricken boy is slightly older and probably doesn't have cancer, although the boy/man can't afford health insurance so who really knows? And he's not bald, although everyone in the hairazzi enjoys pointing out that he's balding.
Is there any way this person could get a chance to write for "The Daily Show," even if it means cleaning Mo Rocca's toilet with the gold toothbrush Jon Stewart gave him for his loyal service? How does a 26-year-old writer get his foot in the Dream Store that's selling his fantasy of writing for his favorite show?
Mo Rocca: This email is truly sick. How can you even joke about using my gold toothbrush to clean my toilet?!
Maryland: It seems like there is an ever changing pool of (mostly) white guy fake reporters on TDS. Every one of them seems as able as the next. What does this say about either the sort of performance required by the "reporters" on the show, the oversupply of such white guys, or the lack of resonance of this sort of humour to other sorts of people?
Mo Rocca: I'm actually an octaroon.
Seriously it's not an issue of resonance. I walk down the street in New York, I get harassed by everyone. (It makes me feel pretty.)
Arlington, Va.: Can I assume that you and the rest of The Daily Show team of correspondents didn't like doing taped "hey lets make this stupid guy look even stupider" segments?
Mo Rocca: You got it.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Mo --
Is the Daily Show coming back to DC anytime soon? I was busy campaigning the last time you were here!
Also, is Mo short for something?
Mo Rocca: My father was the ambassador to Mozambique in the late '60s when I was born.
Laurel, Md.: You were so funny on the Today Show when you reviewed "Joe Millionaire" saying that Evan was some Cro-Magnon Neanderthal. That was so mean, but I almost fell off my couch laughing.
Mo Rocca: Thank you! I feel so bathed in the warmth of the Today Show family. Katie, Matt, Ann, Al and I had such a wonderful seder last night!
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Rocca, I really enjoyed your commentary for VH-1's "I Love the 80s" bit. How did that work? Did they show clips & ask you to comment? Did you enjoy the experience? Thanks.
Mo Rocca: Thank you. I just finished taping "I Love the 70s" for an August broadcast. Expect VH-1 to run with this. I can't wait for "I Love the 30s." I've got way too much Busby Berkeley shtick to unload.
Pinion, Mo: I just love the Daily Show, and in particular, I love "That's Quite Interesting." I also really enjoy the "field interviews," and have wondered for a long while how much of the time, when you go out and interview real people, do the people know (or seem to know) exactly what's going on? How many are really convinced they're being interviewed by, like, "Dateline"? Also, I notice that there seem to be fewer and fewer field interviews these days and wondered why that is. Are there concerns about travel safety in the current environment? Do people find the in-studios funnier? Is it because it's less expensive to stay in the studio in front of a green-screen and pretend you're elsewhere and Comedy Central is basic cable?
LOVE the show, thanks for taking the time with my questions.
Mo Rocca: Thanks. There are more in-studio pieces now. They can be written up till the last minute (no editing time needed) so they're more timely.
Honestly we never lied to people about who we were. Usually the wackier interviews came to pass because the interview subjects, aware that we were Comedy Central, just wanted to get their stories out.
New York, N.Y.: Aside from Perfect 10, where do you get your news?
Mo Rocca: The New York Post.
Washington, D.C.: I just wanted to let you know that I'm a big fan! You are too funny on VH-1's "I Love the 80s!" Did you have to practice naming all the New Kids on the Block in rapid fire many times to get it right?
Mo Rocca: Nick, Danny ... I've already forgotten. Now that I'm in I Love the 70s I have to worry about the Jacksons and The Partridge family.
Silver Spring, Md.: Hello Mo,
I'm a big fan of The Daily Show.
Has anyone on staff considered running for a political office? I bet that if you and the Steves ran a campaign for John Stewart he would be able to become the next governor of Maryland (even if he got nothing done, at least it would be entertaining).
Mo Rocca: That's so funny because Jon's big hero is, in fact, Spiro Agnew.
Fairlington, Va.: I'm a mid-30's Jewish, white male raised in American suburbia, and I think I'm sorta funny. Can I become a Daily Show correspondent? (I assume you are simply collecting all of us).
Mo Rocca: It's not enough to be a mid-30s male. You MUST have dark hair and glasses.
Fairfax, Va.: What does Steve Carell smell like?
Mo Rocca: Strawberry Shortcake.
Arlington, Va.: Good morning Mo! Do you see any connection between the kind of socks a politician wears and his political beliefs?
Mo Rocca: Politicians who wear little tennis socks with the balls at the back should not be taken seriously.
Fairfax, Va.: If there was one person you could get on "The Daily Show" who would it be?
Mo Rocca: Osama Bin Laden. I would call the cops before the scheduled taping and we'd catch him!
Washington, D.C.: Do you find the show's popularity amongst the 18-24 age bracket surprising?
Mo Rocca: Surprising, no. Hot? Yes.
Washington, D.C.: Where do you get your bowties? They are the cutest!
Mo Rocca: Paul Stuart. 45th and Madison. Thanks. I tie them myself.
Falls Church, Va.: Mo, does Daily Show get any angry mail from anyone who didn't think your war satire/comedy or any other subject matter appropriate?
Mo Rocca: We're constantly moving offices to avoid the mail. Standard security.
Ann Coulter Was Right!: Mo:
"We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity" -- thus spake conservative attack dog (dogette?) Ann Coulter after 9-11. Well, gee... we've invaded Iraq, at least TRIED to kill their leader, and now there are swarms of Baptists at the border, at the ready to convert the godless heathens (this is true, by the way).
My question: Which is funnier: Ann Coulter's original quote? The fact that this quote is becoming reality? Or that Iraqi Information Ministry guy?
p.s. The Daily Show ROCKS (Rocc's?)! About the only news show I can stand to watch anymore.
Mo Rocca: The word for female dog is not dogette.
I wonder how Ann C. would feel if Uday had included her in his wall of hot western women. Bet she'd be singing a different hymn.
Washington, D.C.: Do you see yourself as using comedy to promote a political viewpoint or as exploiting politics to get a few yuks -- or both?
Mo Rocca: Mostly the latter. But we do have a viewpoint and it's not partisan. If a politician of any stripe says one thing and does another, we're there. Hypocrisy is great fodder for comedy. So is poo. (sp?)
Alexandria, Va.: Why do you think the left dominates the field of political humor? Why can't conservatives be funny? Case in point is the last page of the Weekly Standard.
Mo Rocca: Have heart. Bill Kristol is just one letter off from the star of When Harry Met Sally. (at least phonetically)
Mo Rocca: Thanks guys -- got to go. I am feeling flabby.
© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company