By Yash Egami
Mo Rocca, former correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and a frequent guest on the Today Show, CNN, MSNBC and VH1, is known for his hilarious takes on pop culture and politics. His recently published book, All the Presidents' Pets, delves into the true and not-so-true stories behind the animals who inhabited The White House and their famous owners. He's currently hosting a new series on Animal Planet called "Whoa! Sunday." The television personality had a chance to chat with one about his experiences with advertising, animals and his love of lotions.
So do you have any favorite commercials?
I've always had a thing for those sweeping Sunday-morning commercials, the really expensive ones during "Meet the Press" by like, Archer Daniels Midland. Or the United Airlines Gershwin-themed commercials. Those are the commercials I want to see in cinemascope.
Did you like any from this past year's Super Bowl?
I liked the Budweiser commercial where the pilot of the plane threw himself out. I thought the GoDaddy.com commercial was great. I have no idea what Go Daddy is and I don't think it really matters. But I thought it was hilarious, especially with the Senate panel member who needed a respirator.
But I was like a lot of people, a little weirded out perhaps by this fixation with not only animals but also with sex and this almost remote intermingling of the two. It's a little bit strange, like advertising is almost devolving in a way. Maybe it was always meant to appeal to the most primal basic instinct, but it makes sense I guess, at least the sex part. It's almost like two conflicting trends, one is sort of infantilizing, like 'Animals are doing kooky things and talking!' and the other is about sexuality.
What do you think about advertising in general?
Often times I think it's better than network programming. Advertisers have less to fear from TiVo than they think, because certainly when it comes to network comedy, the shows are for the most part so bad. And I'm not saying that people would tune in specifically to watch the commercials, but I don't think they're the drag on programming that they used to be. Maybe when sitcoms were at their best and advertising hadn't caught up, there was a disparity, but less so now. The creatives behind 30-second spots are the biggest beneficiaries of our shrinking attention span. It may be in the end that 30 seconds of comedy is what best suits us.
What do you like to watch on TV?
A lot of cable news, so I watch those wretched Ditech commercials. And the Viagra and Cialis ads. Those ads are so un-sexy. They're not nearly as sexy as Shelly Hack as the 'Charlie Girl.' She would have been much better at selling that stuff than the ads they have on now. (Singing) 'And they call it, Cialis?'
What do you think of celebrities endorsing products?
I'm more old-fashioned about movie celebrities and think they should keep a certain distance. But Catherine Zeta-Jones must have taken out a lot of student loans because if it's not enough to be an Oscar-winning actress and married to Michael Douglas that she also needs to be doing ads for T-Mobile, she must have some major debt. Otherwise, I'm not sure what it is. Maybe she was blackmailed.
But it's pretty commonplace for a lot of big-name celebrities to be doing commercials overseas in places like Japan.
I actually lived in Japan for a short time. Celebrities are framed differently over there. One of the most fascinating things was arriving at Narita Airport in Tokyo and seeing a huge ad for a car where Jodie Foster was lying across the hood. She looked like she should be serving drinks at the Kit Kat Club or something. But what's so interesting is, we don't think of Jodie Foster that way here, and this was in the early '90s when she had just won the Oscar for 'Silence of the Lambs?' and the impression that we get is that she doesn't want us thinking of her that way either. So I thought that was very strange seeing Jodie Foster as this sexpot selling you a car.
You're heavily involved in politics and gave a lot of commentary during the Presidential elections. Did you think the Swift boat ads and others made it a dirty fight?
The most damaging Swift boat ad was the second one where you heard John Kerry actually talking during his House subcommittee testimony. That was the most damaging because it didn't appear to be as sliced and diced too much and it was his voice. The first Swift boat ad seemed more dubious. But just in general with campaigning, what the Republicans proved is, and probably any smart advertising person could have pointed this out also, if you have a very simple message, no one will fault you for repeating it over and over again. The average voter in general, that soccer mom in suburban St. Louis, is so incredibly busy that she doesn't have time to evaluate a message that's complex. So if George W. Bush says, 'I will leave no child behind, I will leave no child behind,' over and over again like Rain Man, then people tend to accept that. A lot of teachers will tell you it's actually a bad program, but on the other hand, I wasn't sure what the message of John Kerry's convention was. I know what the message of George Bush's convention was. Each night may have had a different title, but it was nonsense; it was all about 9-11. It was all about the world will blow up if George Bush isn't re-elected. So it pays to have a really simple message that's pounded into people's heads, because with so many different channels and venues, you can't expect people to not click away within a few seconds.
The ad that didn't backfire that I thought would backfire was the one that placed John Kerry a few feet away from Jane Fonda, which I think everyone accepted as being doctored afterwards. But for whatever reason it worked, and I suppose that had to do with Kerry's poor response team. The George Bush ads were also more likeable. He let the narrator sling the mud for him.
Have you ever done an ad or commercial?
I did an ad once for a mental institution. It was a print ad that ran in the Washington Post, and it was a picture of me looking very tormented. It was for getting psychiatric treatment for troubled teens and I was probably 17 when I booked it, it was very exciting. I auditioned and they said, 'You're great as this very troubled teen. When they shot it, I actually wore this sweatshirt that I had purchased when I saw the musical 'Cats.' So I turned my 'Cats' sweatshirt inside out, which made me look even more troubled because it has a little ridge on the inside so it looked very beat-up and I had to stare right into the camera. And they said, 'How troubled can you look?' And I said, 'I'll cry for you.' And it was actually because the lights were so bright that I stared up at one of them and it made me cry. So they took this photo and it was a quarter page in the Washington Post, and the caption was, 'You can't live with him. You can't live without him,' which I thought was so fantastic. If Larry Clark, the guy who did 'Kids,' had seen it, I would have been cast, though I was probably too old at that point. But the best part about it was, my best friend's mother said (and my real name is Maurice), 'Oh, Maurice is so wonderful in that ad! Is he a patient at that hospital?'
And then there was talk about me doing an ad campaign where I get in a plane and throw tequila out the window over the jungle in Costa Rica. I have no idea what it was for and it didn't get beyond the general discussion phase. And it wasn't an issue of the danger, someone said you don't want to be in a plane over the jungle throwing tequila out the door because you might get sucked out, although I kept thinking it would be really wonderful to be above the canopy of trees in the Costa Rican jungle and see that, but it occurred to me that Costa Rica has made such an incredible effort to preserve their natural environment. Eleven percent of Costa Rica is protected, which is one of the highest percentages in the world, and eco-tourism is really flourishing there. And I didn't want to be known as the guy who dumped tequila and broken bottles all over the jungle. So I didn't do the ad.
I did do an ad for the place where I buy my suits, Paul Stuart, and that was very nice. Although I was a little taken aback when they didn't give me anything for free. After I shot it, I said, 'Oh, um, so listen, am I going to get a deal on a suit?' And I was expecting them to say that I get a suit for free, and there was a pause, and the marketing person said, 'Uh, we were actually going to give money to charity on your behalf.' I felt so guilty, and I was like, 'Uh, I meant a free suit for charity.' And they said, 'No. Just name a charity and we'll give a donation.'
I should be doing an iMac ad or something or dancing around with an iPod. I love the design of it and I love the look. I think it's great, and that's what I should be shilling.
So I guess you learned the power of advertising pretty quickly.
One of things that reminded me of the power of advertising was, I get to go on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News and talk about anything and everything. So I was once asked to go on CNN to talk about graduation speeches. I don't know what I know about commencement speeches, but I said, 'Okay, fine.' So I went on and it was with Daryn Kagan, and if anyone on CNN could be compared to Teri Hatcher, it's Daryn Kagan. So I went on there, and I thought I'd like to bring a prop, and I use Kiehl's lotion a lot, and they don't do a lot of advertising. So I decided that I'm going to bring some Kiehl's lotion with me and try to get Daryn Kagan to apply some on air, because it would be kind of weird and funny. So she asked me, 'If you were giving a commencement speech, what would you advise?' And I said, 'I would advise people when they graduate to take time finding themselves and just really relax and not to rush things. And one of the best ways to relax is by applying salves and balms like Kiehl's.' So I took out my Créme de Corps from Kiehl's and said, 'Daryn, can I put some on you?' And she said sure, so I squirted some cream on her hand and started rubbing it in and onto myself, and it was really kind of erotic, if you're really creepy. Two days later, I get to my apartment building and there's a crate of Kiehl's products, and they were like, 'Thank you so much!' So if you don't actually get cast in commercials, you can still reap the benefits of being on TV.
Talk about your latest project for Animal Planet.
Every Sunday night there's a two-hour block of family programming (not that Animal Planet programming is inappropriate for families usually.) Think of 'Wonderful World of Disney.' And it's called 'Whoa! Sunday.' It will be for 30 Sundays and the shows are all discreet and they're obviously all animal themed. And the continuous thing is that all of the shows are wrapped by me. So I'll do like 10 to 12 minutes of comedy throughout the two hours, which is actually a lot. So for instance one show we're doing is about 'world's biggest, baddest bugs.' One of the interstitials that I did was I went to Grand Central Station to try and change people's opinions about cockroaches. Cockroaches are actually really amazing'they can live for a week without a head. And they can live for a month without eating, and if you have a wound, you can use a cockroach and apply it as a salve. And many Chinese people keep them in ornate cages as a good luck charm.
But I shot a promo for the show with a kangaroo, a yak, two zebras, a python, a cobra, a peacock and an African turtle. The kangaroo has extremely strong hind legs and toenails sharp enough to disembowel an opponent in an instant and it actually went nuts right behind me. I didn't flinch at all so the producers were very impressed with me. I'm dealing with one of the best animal handlers in the world, a guy named Steve Martin. We were afraid the animals would poop, and the interesting thing was that the yak, which is so gigantic, is actually really boring, except for the fact that it has pink milk. None of the animals pooped on set except for the African turtle, which is tiny, and the pile of poop was bigger than the turtle itself, which was really cool.
So how did you wind up hosting this series?
Truth is, I have been hired by the IRS to do an undercover audit of basic cable, which is why I've been on about 35 different channels. I have to do Univision and BET and then I will have been on every single cable channel at which point I will deliver my report. I've actually been on Telemundo, so I'm doing pretty well.