The use of parody and satire can serve as ironic twists to thought-provoking truths, or it can perpetuate anger and angst and create unrest. Freedom of speech is like the powers of super heroes or villains – words can be used to stimulate positive or negative outcomes. This statement may seem too serious when referring to current topics of First Amendment rights in the “Joy of Censorship” created and performed by MAD Magazine’s senior editor, Joe Raiola. The show will be hosted at Motorco Music Hall on Sunday, May 4th at 7pm and is co-sponsored by Regulator Bookshop, Motorco Music Hall and Durham Library Foundation. The Joy of Censorship is continuing its 21 year journey of traveling to 43 states and presenting a one man show in libraries, colleges, and music halls. And liken to a rebellious Johnny Appleseed, Raiola has been planting and sharing deep lessens and spreading thought-provoking and political satire about the First Amendment to vast and diverse audiences. The program outline includes “broad discussions on banned books, movie ratings, the Federal Communications Commission, Supreme Court decisions, religious freedom and the true meaning of obscenity. It also traces the unlikely and colorful history of MAD Magazine (established in 1952), including a slide presentation spotlighting many of MAD’s most controversial covers and articles. A Q&A session will follow the presentation.”
Reading his press clips and skimming over his background, information and website resources, one could easily misunderstand Joe Raiola and categorize him based on the nature of politically charged topics and social satire of his interests. His works over the endless years provide deep insights beyond typical controversial hype and banter, but as the Senior Editor of MAD Magazine, he may even crave the heated rebuttal and visceral responses to keep providing inspiration for his comedic content. In 1984, Raiola began his professional comedy writing for the National Lampoon Magazine and then joined what he touts as “the Usual Gang of Idiots” at MAD Magazine in 1985. Now he is Senior Editor at MAD. He also founded the Theatre Within as a nonprofit, with the mission to further the performing arts as a positive social force. The Theater Within’s Annual John Lennon Tribute has been evolving and reaching national attention for over 33 years, from the time it began as a small neighborhood tribute in New York City. He is also the Executive Producer for the Annual John Lennon Tribute, the only concert in America officially sanctioned by Lennon’s wife Yoke Ono. Past performances by top artists include Jackson Browne, Patti Smith, Steve Earle, Judy Collins, Taj Mahal and Cyndi Lauper. With their lofty goals and humanitarian missions, Raiola said, “There's nothing I do that I'm more proud of than producing it and bringing it together.” His goal is to fulfill “John Lennon’s vision for a better world by raising money to help feed the hungry, fund education programs for homeless children, build music schools in the Third World and support hurricane relief.”
Beyond his words and actions with Joe Raiola
The following interview provides more insight into his thoughts, productions, and just being a comedy writer.
Q. While trying to peel back the layers of motivation in your work, one can concludes that you sound like a humanitarian at heart. Maybe you don’t want that persona? What are your driving passions for your works and platforms?
I’m really lucky and fortunate to have so many good things going on. Having a bit of a performing career in theater, you put it all together, and it's just cool. I'm doing things that I love. I think about my youth and my driving passions were just to generate laughs at the root of it. I love hearing people laugh and comedy is the heart of what I do. As I get older I can say it's healing and all that but the heart of it is, generating laughs. I'm not a traditional standup comic but I started out that way. I was doing the comedy circuit in the 70’s but I could not do the confines of the 10 minute set-ups. I gravitated to theater because I wanted to do full pieces and shows that I did not need to be just funny. It's liberating not having to be just be funny.
With The Joy of Censorship, there are always relevant and controversial issues and I’m able to have fun with it and tackle very serious subjects in a fun way. I’m doing what most comedians can't do in the world we live in now. In comedy clubs there are restrictions on words that you can and cannot use.
Q. In each of your works and media platforms, do you see forms of power or influence in your comedy and social satirical platforms, somewhat like Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart?
There is a definite point of view. You mentioned John Stewart. It's interesting how it all works. John Stewart was a MAD fan like Stephen Colbert and influenced by (MAD Magazine’s satirical approach). It made impacts on their (style of) comedy, which influences us (the MAD Magazine staff) because we pick up on the greatness of what they do.
People think of music (genres) as traditions that get passed on from generation to generation, and musicians work with those traditions (to create and recreate music). Comedians work in a tradition too. It really is a generational thing too and is past on (by many other performers). The genius of John Stewart is that he is a comedian but also a journalist with great political satire and ‘body fluid humor.’ And what I do on stage is influenced by lot of people like George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, etc. and influenced by MAD. It's got different sensibility in it and hopefully something original too. But I'm working in a very particular comedic tradition- satire. It always has deeper points beyond the laugh.
Q. It’s hard to believe Mad Magazine originated in 1952. For those who are not familiar with MAD, how would you summarize its core concept and how has it evolved throughout the years in the digital age?
There’s a lot there. If you talk to any of the editors at MAD, what they would say about the essential of MAD message is that we never had a message beyond being funny, and it was to question authority. That always was and remains MAD’s essential message. The target of our humor has been hypocrites and those in power. It doesn't matter if they are Democrats or Republicans. Hypocrites are in businesses, sports, and celebrities and those people are (more interesting) to make fun of. MAD has a rich tradition of doing that for 50 years. MAD even made fun of Walt Disney and it was groundbreaking – the idea of someone making fun of Walt Disney was revolutionary at that time and MAD continues this tradition.
Talking about MAD’s evolution, I would say this, MAD always had a self-deprecating brand of humor. And we were famous for others saying that the quality of the magazine was poor, that the editors were morons, writers and artists were a gang of idiots, and that our readers has low standards. Completely and totally self-deprecating humor was the MAD brand. Over the years MAD still has that voice but evolved the sense of humor in satirizing politics, business and adult themes. MAD has a rich political satire tradition and in this aspect, it is stronger than ever. We also have a daily blog and subscription for the iPad. The fact that MAD exists as a (print) magazine is just remarkable (these days). It speaks to the quality of the magazine and I think that it touches a cultural nerve and is still loved (by readers worldwide).
Q. As part of the MAD administration, you are part of the touted “the usual gang of idiots” – what does that mean? Is it like a code of honor at MAD?
It's an interesting question and I've never been asked that before. I don't know who invented that term. I don't have the answer to it. But I know that “the usual gang of idiots” refer to all of us editors, writers, illustrators, and all the people who put MAD together. Our staff is small. MAD’s editorial staff is only nine people. But writers and artists are from all over the country and, in fact, all over the world. It is an amazing group of people that put MAD Magazine together. For example, there's a wonderful feature in MAD called Planet Tad, a blog of a teenage boy and a couple books which is written by Tim Carvelle. He was the head writer of the Daily Show just recently. He's a super talent and now a voice in MAD, a wonderful writer.
Q. As MAD Senior Editor, what are your roles and duties these days?
I work at the only place in America where if you’re mature, you get fired. We are comedy writers – what I refer to as comedy sweatshop where, in the morning, we ask each other, who do you want to make fun of today? That's what we do and we make fun of people, but starting with ourselves. Nothing that exists in the comedy world can do so without being controversial. Comedy can't help but to be controversial by the nature of making fun of or taking humor out of human behavior. It's a dirty job and someone has got to do it. As editors we have our fingerprints (in working with various contributors ) to determine the editorial focus. I'm not qualified to do anything. I have no skills other than humor.
Q. What was the inspiration of organizing Theatre Within as a nonprofit and the John Lennon Tribute?
Theater Within hosted workshops that go back to 1962 in New York. It was founded by my acting teacher, Alec Rubin, and it was a place to develop my work. The studio was just down the block where John (Lennon) and Yoko lived. When John was shot in 1980, we took it badly and we were deeply devastated. We decided we had to do something and did a tribute in the neighborhood. We had no idea that it was the only one in New York City at that time. It felt good and we kept doing it. For many years it was a neighborhood event. Make a long story short, after 24 years (of hosting the event) Yoko found out about it and in 2006, we turned it into a nonprofit entity. We were attracting major music stars like Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, and Judy Collins and it turned into the longest-running tribute for John Lennon in the world and the only tribute that Yoko sanctioned. It’s become a beautiful cultural event.
It's an amazing thing about John and how important he still is. The core message of love and peace is not just relics of the 60s, it’s eternal. That message resonates still. John was loved in New York and still loved there like nowhere in the world except Liverpool.
Q. The year 2013 marked the 20th Anniversary of The Joy of Censorship. What does 20th represent? Is it the number of years of delivering the content using different platforms, or a reflection of Mad Magazine, or something else?
I've been performing this show for 21 years, in 43 states, and wow, I can't believe it myself. The reason why I have been able to do it so long is because (the content of) the show changes every couple years and because there are always different First Amendment controversies, like right now with Don Sterling, the owner of the Clippers NBA basketball team. There's always weird shit happening that allows me to keep the show really current and fresh, and because the First Amendment is so central to American values, there is continued interest.
Q. Because of the polarized nature of censorship, freedom of speech and topics you take on, does it ever get dangerous with the audience members? What drives your convictions to continue in these climates?
I've had things that happened over the years and performed in the most conservative places in the country (Alaska, Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, etc.) and pissed some people off over the years, but mostly I’ve been received warmly where ever I go.
My shows are uncensored shows. I don't speak in euphemisms to talk about topics. I use real words. When I was performing in Mississippi, I used the (n) word and half of my audience was half African-American. As soon as I said the word, 15 people got up and walked out. After I used that word, I got a minute as (the rest of the audience) was evaluating me and trying to conclude if I'm an asshole or a racist. They're going to walk out (if they think that). It didn't come to do that because it became clear very quickly that I was making a much broader point, and they completely got it. I remember the Q&A after that show. An African-American woman asked me, ‘What would you say to those people that walked out? If you could say something to them, what would you say?’
I told her I would say to them that I respect their right to get up and leave and take a stand. They are not going to be in a room no matter what the context is when that word is used. If it's too hurtful or offensive to them or for any reason, I respect and honor their right to get up and leave. That said, I stand by what I say and how I say it. It's not the role of a comedian to make people feel comfortable. That's not our job. I cannot tailor my material to be non-offensive to everyone. Some people will find me offensive. It's not my intent to do that. I don't use words to jar. I have too much respect for words to do that. I come from a tradition in which comedians use that word to expose racism and fight racism. That's what Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin did. Chris Rock does it too. I don't make apologies for my use of my words because I stand by them.
Q. How do you adapt to the people’s responses when expressing these controversial topics?
For the most part, audiences have not seen me before and it’s their first time to see me. They decide in the first five minutes whether they like me or not. And if they decide to like me and their feeling about me is good, they are going on a journey with me. If they decide early, nahhhhh, they think I'm putting them down or think I'm not respectful of their point of views, or I’m shallow or narrow mined, then they're not going to go with me anywhere. When audiences that want to laugh, to be challenged, and want to get into some real juicy stuff, that's inspiring and encourages me. Getting a chance to roll this (in the shows) is challenging and a wonderful opportunity which I enjoy doing.
Q. Are there bottom line messages that you want the audience to really get in “20th Anniversary of The Joy of Censorship”?
Each generation has to grapple with these controversial First Amendment issues. Not only in each generation, we have to do it every week it seems. We have to continually affirm First Amendment rights but also decide what the limits are going to be. We have to continually grapple with this stuff and exercise your First Amendment rights or you'll lose them. One of the things that has changed for me over the years is that I'm much more likely to do now is speak about First Amendment restrictions – and there are clear restrictions.
The First Amendment is applied and restrictions are things that evolve, something that we have to decide culturally every single day. I think about this in terms of the Second Amendment (right to bear arms). If something is not restricted in a wise way, the “right” becomes dangerous.
Q. What are wise restrictions?
Ahhhhh, that is the right question to answer and I don't know the answer. You have to have the right question to ask, and it has to be asked and grappled with. It's not ‘anything goes.’ We have to grapple with what are wise restrictions. You can see why this show has been running for over 20 yrs. It’s because of the issues itself that are the core of our (cultural) values. Coming back to how we started in a way – it's good to laugh about this stuff and good to have a sense of humor because there are just no set or ironclad answers. It feels good to laugh, doesn't it?