Former “Daily Show” correspondent Mo Rocca really loves geography. Like, really — whenhe met a National Geographic staffer at a wedding in Washington, D.C., he decided to drunk text the organization’s CEO to snag the role as moderator of its annual Geography Bee.
“I told him that I knew every capital of every country in the world and always wanted to host or moderate,” he says. “I knew him a little bit already, but I drunk texted him and said, ‘Look, I know the capital of Tonga for heaven’s sake.’ That’s what it takes in the world of geography.”
Rocca, who is still a correspondent but over at “CBS Sunday Morning,” admits the CEO wasn’t thrilled with a late night text but agreed to chat and eventually brought him on as this year’s host of the final round of competition among fourth-through-eighth graders on May 25. In its 28th year, the 2016 winner of the Bee will take home a $50,000 college scholarship and go on an Alaskan expedition aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion ship.
We chatted with Rocca about geography, his children’s series “Wishbone” and the election season.
What’s your own background with geography?
My best friend growing up was from Chile and his mom worked for the World Bank. She would bring home these reports with the per capita income of each country with the biggest city and capital listed, and we’d pore over them. I had a 1974 World Book Encyclopedia set and I’d pull them off the shelf and lay on my belly going through page after page, memorizing facts and briefs, the capitals and major crops. The only issue was that it was very outdated. I almost had a nervous breakdown when the Soviet Union fell apart — there was a cascade of -stans.
Where is your geography weak spot?
The Caribbean is my weak spot. You’ve got a lot of similar-sounding capitals.
The Bee began because National Geographic felt there was a lack of geographic knowledge among young students — do you still think that’s true?
I remember geography was under Social Studies when I was in fifth and sixth grade. It was static, like it was a finite subject where you just memorized boundaries and topography and capitals and you’re done. In doing that “CBS Sunday Morning” piece [with last year’s Bee winner], it became clear that geography is anything but static, for natural and bad reasons. Geography is always changing, and naturally that affects politics and the connection of people to the planet. It’s a really rich, fluid topic, not just memorizing a map.
You got your start in TV with “Wishbone” — a favorite of mine. What did you learn from working in children’s programming?
I’ve had a lot of different jobs in TV, but “Wishbone” is the one I go back to all the time. It’s like storytelling boot camp because I was taking some of the greatest stories ever told and distilling them for 6- to 11-year-olds through the eyes of a dog. It sounds silly and funny, but many people in children’s entertainment will tell you that you shouldn’t think of writing for children. It becomes condescending and cloying. Kids don’t indulge lazy writing and storytelling. The plot needs to be dynamic and lean and move because kids will just be bored and tune out.
Being a former “Daily Show” correspondent, what do you think of covering this election season now that it’s turning out to be a wild one?
It’s certainly exciting because it’s unprecedented on so many levels. I think a lot of the challenges comics are having is that it’s difficult to get in front of it so you’re just reacting to what’s happening. There are usually patterns and personas are well-defined and you can get ahead and make fun of it, but no one knows where this is going.
There’s this annoying development term called “joke-on-joke,” where you’re making a joke on something that’s already a joke. Like you can make fun of Al Gore for being really boring or George W. Bush for mangling his sentences, but the characters in this election are all so gigantic there’s no room to exaggerate who they are already. We’re just slack-jawed.
The 2016 National Geographic Beewill air on the National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Friday, May 27.