How should a podcast honor a largely-unsung Founding Father, more than two centuries after his death? In the case of "Mobituaries with Mo Rocca," a musical production number and comic roast seemed like the most fitting means of paying tribute to Thomas Paine.
The English-born Paine grew up in humble circumstances and arrived in Philadelphia on the eve of revolution. His pamphlet "Common Sense" became one of the bestselling publications in American history, inspiring colonists to cut ties with England.
Without him, there might not be a United States. Yet, when Paine died, only six people showed up at his funeral. The paltry obit that was published at the time summed up his life in this line: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm."
To add insult to injury, a crazed fan dug up his bones.
Today, there seems to be some confusion over Paine's historical significance. "People may have known he said, 'These are the times that try men's souls'; they may know that he said, 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again,'" biographer Craig Nelson explained. "They may know that he wrote 'Common Sense,' but they don't really know who he is."
So, this past summer, visitors gathered for a memorial do-over at the very site of his death: what is now the popular Greenwich Village piano bar Marie's Crisis. The title of the bar is a nod to Paine's series of "American Crisis" pamphlets published during the Revolutionary War – a rallying cry for citizens and soldiers alike.
Paine also called for the end of hereditary monarchy, which was a treasonous act at the time.
He would go on to write "The Rights of Man" and "The Age of Reason"; the latter publication became one of his most polarizing, since Paine attacked organized religion.
In this episode, Mo Rocca tries to understand why Paine isn't as well-remembered as his fellow revolutionaries, and gives him the send-off he deserves with an original production number written by Tony-nominated composers Laurence O'Keefe ("Legally Blonde") and Nell Benjamin ("Mean Girls"), and a roast from "The Daily Show" comedian Lewis Black.
Other surprise guests include comedy legend Carl Reiner, and "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!" judge and scorekeeper Bill Kurtis.
After all, make no mistake: No Paine … no gain of Independence!
You can download episodes of "Mobituaries with Mo Rocca" for free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, iHeartRadio, Spotify, Stitcher or Tunein. New episodes will be available weekly. For RSS feed click here.
- "Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving" by Mo Rocca, published by Simon & Schuster (a division of CBS), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon
- "Mobituaries" (Simon & Schuster)
- Follow @MoRocca on Twitter
- "Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations" by Craig Nelson (Penguin), in Trade Paperback and eBook formats, available via Amazon
- "Tom Paine and Revolutionary America" by Eric Foner (Oxford University Press) in Trade paperback and eBook formats, available via Amazon
- "The Rise of Thomas Paine, and the Case of the Officers of Excise" by Paul Myles (Thomas Paine Society UK) in Trade Paperback and eBook formats, available via Amazon
- "Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses" by Bess Lovejoy (Simon & Schuster) in Trade Paperback and eBook formats, available via Amazon
- Marie's Crisis, 59 Grove St, New York City