Dog Days: An Interview with Mo Rocca

By José VergaraJune 24, 2022

Dog Days: An Interview with Mo Rocca
FOR A CERTAIN generation of American readers, stories by Poe, Shelley, and Ovid will always be associated with a Jack Russell Terrier. It sounds like a fever dream, but for two years and 50 episodes, the PBS show Wishbone retold classic stories, introducing them to children by dropping the eponymous dog with an instantly classic theme song into their plots. It’s a bizarre concept with remarkably impressive results and an enduring legacy.

One of the minds behind the series was writer Mo Rocca. Now a regular correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning, Rocca has credits ranging from The Daily Show to My Grandmother’s Ravioli, from Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! to his Mobituaries podcast. But Wishbone was his first television gig and, in retrospect, the place where he learned most about writing — a literary boot camp full of dog puns and flamboyant costumes.

Rocca wrote on the show’s two seasons, including the episode “Rushin’ to the Bone,” which was based on Nikolai Gogol’s play of mistaken identities, The Inspector General. Given my own interests, I was eager to speak to him about this Russian connection in particular.


JOSÉ VERGARA: I’d love to hear about your time on Wishbone.

MO ROCCA: It was an amazing experience. Of all my professional experiences, that’s the one that I’m no longer even surprised that I keep going back to. It was my first job in television writing and doing a little producing, but primarily writing, for this show that was developed by a friend of mine, Stephanie Simpson, who, interestingly enough, was a major in Russian language and literature at Yale. It was a great experience, because until then I was acting in New York theater, at least trying to. You know, going to auditions, getting whatever job I could, doing a lot of temp work to pay the bills. Then she called me and said, “Would you consider coming down to Texas for the show?” and something in my gut told me this was the right thing to do. That was a really good kind of dues paying. You know you can’t really expect to stay in New York or Los Angeles for the best jobs, certainly early in your career.

So I went down to Texas when I was, I guess, 24. I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but it was a really special kind of TV job. It was almost like going to grad school, because it was for PBS, so our network executive rather than being someone who came down and said, “Oh, her hair needs to be blonder, and you need more product placement,” was more, “Okay, so what are the themes we’re going to tease out in the Odyssey?” or “What do you think we should be doing for this Hunchback of Notre Dame episode?” You know, what part of the book should we really center? I’ve never been to grad school, but I imagined it was sort of like a seminar. It was a very steep learning curve for me, and I think because I was writing for children, it was possibly the best training I could have gotten, because kids have a really good BS meter, and when the writing is bad, when it’s just sort of marking time, just having characters jabber to fill time, they lose interest, so the storytelling has to be really lean and dynamic. We would have focus groups as the episodes were in development and mine was a group of kindergartners. It was great to show them things and see what held their attention.

And how did you end up writing the “Rushin’ to the Bone” episode?

I ended up working on the whole series but five of the episodes ended up being mine, and as we got more into the season, we all became a little bolder about making different kinds of choices so rather than just the big titles in the Western canon. One of the other writers did an episode on African folktales. I did one on legends and stories from Mexico, so I combined the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe with the origin story of Mexico itself and the Aztecs on Lake Texcoco, how they built the Aztec Empire, and how that shows up on the symbols on the Mexican flag.

But the final one — it might have been the final one that I did — was “Rushin’ to the Bone.” I know that one of the reasons I wanted to do it was this idea that plays are meant to be seen not primarily to be read. I grew up reading lots of plays, and I loved it because it was something I could do from home and in my backyard in Bethesda, just reading Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, but I knew, of course, that plays are really meant to be seen. I wanted to use the medium of television to impart that idea.

Why the Inspector General in particular?

I wish I could remember. I think it’s that I went through a bunch of different candidates. I guess you’d call it absurdist, right? Gogol. I think you’d call it absurdist, right?

Sure, I would say so. The true absurdists from the 20th century certainly looked back to him and pulled a lot from his texts, so in that sense, he’s part of that canon.

It felt like a great way to say, “Well, this is classic, but it’s also this sort of tradition of absurdist comedy.” I thought it would translate well for kids and to a half-hour format. Many of these, I’m guessing, would have had to have been in the public domain; it was definitely an episode where much more of it was in the flashback sequences, because the way that Wishbone worked is there were twin plots: the contemporary fictional world of Oakdale intertwined with the story with a piece of literature. But this was weighted much more heavily to that, because I think the feeling was kids will like this, and we can spend more of the time in this world, really getting a sense of the rhythm of the language.

I watched it this morning before our call. I hadn’t seen a full episode of Wishbone in many, many years, and I hadn’t seen this one probably since it first aired, and boy, the production design is out of this world. They wanted to do something perspective skewing. I’m not sure this really means anything, but it kind of looks absurd, the lines on the set. Everything’s kind of askew in a comical way. I think we hadn’t done anything that was Russian. Stephanie must have had something to do with this, my friend. It might have just honestly been that I was on a jag of reading plays from that period, because, as I said, it was like going to grad school. I mean what a luxury to get paid to read these works and try to figure out which is the best candidate.

It’s my understanding that you all were writing and producing these episodes really quickly, right? That that strikes me as similar to grad school — tons of reading and tons of writing.

Yeah, yeah, although I will tell you I was very scared at first, because I was somebody who, as an undergrad, wrote my papers at the last second. I’m not proud of that. That’s just the way it was. So, this was a little scary, but there was also a lot of freedom. That’s what was wonderful in retrospect but also kind of scary. When I was watching it this morning, I thought this was when we were encouraged to be this way. This was bold for children’s television; other bosses would have demanded that the contemporary story be a very literal corresponding mistaken identities plot. I was proud watching it today that it touched on the idea of celebrity culture, when, you know, people become famous and how an audience willfully perceives that person to be different, even people who know these suddenly famous people personally. It was kind of cool that the contemporary story had more of an abstract connection to the mistaken identity thing.

I have to confess I didn’t watch the show growing up, despite the family connection.

How old are you now?

I’m 33.

You’re actually probably right in the range, because it’s people in their early 30s now that watched it.

I showed my daughters the episode this weekend, and it definitely struck me as different than a lot of children shows in how impressive the production design was.

It was lavish, it was. It’s almost impossible to imagine a contemporary production that lavishly done. I know obviously Netflix has things that they spend a lot of money on, but I think that the budgets were something like half a million for an episode. It was totally nuts. Look, I was told I was the beneficiary of it — not in terms of my salary — but in terms of being able to just say, “Oh, I want to create this world. I’m doing H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine” — that was my first episode — “Can we create a world, whatever it was, a million years in the future?” It was just bananas the kinds of sets they were building. This was not a lot of CGI, so they were real sets that were being built, and the reason they could do that is a lot of the money came from the purple juggernaut, from Barney, because the same family that produced Wishbone had produced Barney. Bob Dole ended up complaining about the deal that they made with public broadcasting, because, he wasn’t wrong, he said taxpayers are basically financing this show that’s making this private company tons of money. Still, that ended up trickling down to Wishbone, because they wanted another hit of that scale, but Wishbone was never going to be a hit like Barney because, frankly, it was just too rarefied — a TV show based on classic literature. But, listen, it was all good. We got to do the show we wanted to do with really significant resources.

Do you think a show like Wishbone could exist today, or was there something special about the time?

I think it could just because there are so many venues now. I might be biting a future hand that could feed me, but I also think a lot of things like Netflix are kind of junky. There’s a lot of junk. The promise of these streamers comes with a big caveat: just because they seem to have limitless resources, they want stuff that’s more reliably popular.

I haven’t thought of this before, but Wishbone is a great argument for why PBS is important. I remember an executive coming down from Washington for the first screening of a rough cut of the Oliver Twist pilot, and her notes were about story. This is not typical for a network executive to be emphasizing this stuff. Resources exist in abundance, but it would take a really wise executive to spend it that way. I think it’s possible. On Apple TV, I see things that don’t get a lot of press that are well produced and are high quality. I was in the middle of watching this series on 1971. I thought, “Whoa, it’s all archival,” but it’s a really great history series on music in 1971 and what was going on. I thought, “Wow, somebody certainly has the legal fees for all the clearances.” A lot of money on this very smart series.

Probably over the long haul, though, I don’t know how you measure it in public television, Wishbone probably was profitable, generated a lot of donor gifts, because the series was evergreen. It was smart. Like a classic book the way we defined it then, it was something you could go back to over and over again and find something new. As far as children’s television goes, it was a classic. People watched the episodes multiple times. It wasn’t as disposable as other stuff. I think a far-sighted network executive would spring for a series like that.

You know, I recently mentioned to someone that I was going to talk to you about this, and she said basically the same thing, that Wishbone was an introduction to literature and shaped her as a reader. That’s mission accomplished, I think. Going back to Gogol, did you have any connection to Russian literature or Russian theater before or after?

I wish I could remember. I read it, and I was so happy that I was genuinely laughing, which, let’s face it, it’s really rare to read a comedy written more than 10 years ago and to genuinely laugh, not to put yourself in that position of going, “Oh, I can see how people thought it was funny at the time.” I just thought it was genuinely funny. I don’t remember which translation I read. I might have it on a bookshelf somewhere in here … A little slim purple volume I’m picturing … I remember laughing and feeling like this is the one. We can do this, and looking at it today, it does work in a half-hour. Considering also that the play itself only gets like 20 minutes of that 30 minutes, but I think we did a pretty good job of condensing it.

You studied English at Harvard, right?

I was basically an English major. I don’t say this regretfully, because it’s not like I was just staring at a wall for four years: I was very involved in theater and extracurriculars, I was prolific in many ways, but I was not a great student. In fact, it’s one thing that I’m a little ashamed about is I didn’t write a thesis. Harvard didn’t have a drama major. Harvard had a very small conservative curriculum, so in a puritanical way, they still viewed theater and drama as suspect. So, if you wanted to major in that, you had to apply for special permission. Now I think they have it. For junior year, there was a lot of dramatic literature, but otherwise I did the core requirements. A lot of the stuff I was reading for Wishbone was stuff I was supposed to have read before and never did, frankly. I’ve never thought of it in these terms, but I think Wishbone was kind of my senior thesis project.

I was going to suggest the same thing.

It kind of was. I mean, because to take a classic work and tease out a thread of it and make that work in 30 minutes for kids through the eyes of a dog is like a literature assignment from a professor on acid. It’s an insane assignment: take these works, turn them into half-hour TV shows for kids six to 11 years of age, and make the lead character a dog.

I’ll need to try that in my classes sometime.

I didn’t know I needed that assignment, but it trained me for my career.

I was curious about that, too, specifically with the Gogol piece but more generally. What did you find challenging and rewarding about the process?

Oh, I just found it! The translation. It’s the English version by Eric Bentley. “The name of Eric Bentley is enough to guarantee the significance of any book of or about drama.” Robert Penn Warren said that. Nikolai Gogol has been called by Vladimir Nabokov “the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced.” Oh, my God, it’s so funny. I have all this stuff highlighted inside. I wonder if I highlighted the portions that I wanted to use in the script. I haven’t looked at this in 25 years.

Anyway, it was certainly rewarding. I felt that way watching it today. It’s rewarding that you can get to the end of a half an hour and not have the trains collide, but they’re still running kind of in tandem with each other. That’s pretty rewarding. The challenging part of it was how to draw a parallel that was recognizable, that didn’t leave people perplexed but wasn’t literal. I think the easier but less satisfying thing for me and for the audience would have been a contemporary plot that was simply about Joe, the boy, being mistaken for someone else, but this idea that Wishbone in auditioning for this television commercial would inhabit a role that ultimately was unconvincing just as it was in the play and that an audience would willfully overlook the obvious, which I think is part of the comedy of the Inspector General. The townspeople just assume that he’s the height of sophistication, that he’s a real cosmopolitan. He clearly isn’t, but there’s something about that in celebrity culture. They do that with politicians a lot of the time, so I’m glad that we could make it more about that rather than a literal mistaken identity thing.

Have you ever experienced mistaken identity?

Oh, sure, it’s always a little embarrassing, too. There was a period when Ira Glass, who hosts This American Life, did a TV show, so people suddenly saw what he looked like. They loved his radio show for good reason, his radio show, but for this brief period his face was on billboards, and people would call me Ira. I had very mixed feelings about it, because I’m a huge admirer of his, but, I can’t lie, it’s a little diminishing. I’m sure he would have felt that way. I’m guessing maybe some people called him Mo Rocca. I know him a little bit, but not very well, so it’s a little weird. It’s just embarrassing, too. I remember once I was crossing a street in Chelsea, and a woman freaked out. I didn’t want to disappoint her, but then I was also witnessing this and realizing that she had made a mistake, so it’s awkward on many levels.

I hope you’ve at least profited from this?

It’s public radio. No one profits.

I was also struck by the dog entertainment theme in your life.

Isn’t that crazy? I don’t blame my mother, but we didn’t have a dog growing up. I used to joke that it was killed abatement on my part for not having a dog, but I hosted a show on Animal Planet, I wrote a book about presidential pets, mostly dogs, I wrote for this show with a dog, I once hosted a celebrity dog runway show. I’ve never had a dog. I’ve had two cats.

At some point, it must feed itself, right? You get hired to do these things because of previous work, but was it intentional in any way?

I love that — “it feeds itself.” Maybe that doesn’t work with dogs. The only thing that has come up is it makes me feel like I’m generally comfortable around dogs, but I feel extra pressure to be one of those people that regardless of the size or the temperament of a dog I feel pressured to be somebody that’s just completely at ease with dogs, that if I’m not, people will be like, “You wrote for Wishbone, and you don’t know how to pet this dog.” I’ve met enough dogs that that I can fake it. I promise — I don’t know to whom I’m promising — that I’ll be open to getting a dog. I want to have the right lifestyle for that. It’s a responsibility, and cats are much easier.

What was Soccer the dog like?

He was a great dog. I think he was pretty successful. He had done a bunch of commercials. His trainer, Jackie Martin, is really a remarkable woman. She had been trained by Frank Inn, who trained Lassie. (It’s apparently a very small world of Hollywood dog trainers.) He was somebody that people really look to, and I believe he trained Jackie. I don’t know if this is quite right, but Soccer might have been one of the last dogs to audition. I’m not even sure that they were thinking of a Jack Russell Terrier, but the good thing about a Jack Russell Terrier is that they have huge amounts of energy, and to do multiple takes that’s really important.

The dog can’t bond with too many people; otherwise it makes shooting impossible. The dog could only maintain the bond with Jackie, who was off camera signaling to do different things. Joe, the kid who was the owner on the show, had an affectionate relationship with the dog, but you couldn’t just grab the dog at any moment and snuggle with him or whatever, because it would mess with the dog’s focus. So, that’s all to say that the dog was truly a star in that we kind of kept our distance from him. We loved him, but it wasn’t a crew of 60 people all kind roughhousing with the dog. We realized we needed to give the dog space to make his job easier.

He had a couple of stunt dogs, and one of them was female, Phoebe. She was pretty great. Soccer didn’t like water, so for the Odyssey Phoebe did a lot of that. I can’t remember the name of the other stand-in dog, but for The Red Badge of Courage, there were gunshots. He didn’t like loud noises, so anything that involved loud noises or water, Soccer was in his trailer.

If you were to produce an episode of Mobituaries about Soccer, what would you say?

The dog who came to fame playing Wishbone. I don’t know the date he died. I think it’s around 2000. He was pretty great. Most dogs, by the way, in TV shows are female, and it’s very clear that he’s not in the opening credit sequence, so he was also a groundbreaker in that way.


José Vergara is assistant professor of Russian on the Myra T. Cooley Lectureship in Russian Studies at Bryn Mawr College.

LARB Contributor

José Vergara is assistant professor of Russian on the Myra T. Cooley Lectureship in Russian Studies at Bryn Mawr College, where he teaches all eras of Russian culture and specializes in prose of the 20th and 21st centuries with an emphasis on experimental works. His first book, All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature (Cornell/NIUP, 2021), examines the reception of Joyce’s fiction among Russian writers from the 1920s to the present day. His writing and interviews have appeared on Literary HubAsymptoteWords Without BordersMusic & Literature, and World Literature Today. He can be found @thejosevergara.


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