A Political Satirist Expounds on Censorship, Free Speech and Bad Words

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by Walter Ryce


Satirist Joe Raiola intends to be provocative and is not shy about using words that make many people cringe. He says humor that makes people comfortable is just “a massage.”  Photo: Mike Thut

Satirist Joe Raiola intends to be provocative and is not shy about using words that make many people cringe. He says humor that makes people comfortable is just “a massage.”

Photo: Mike Thut

Joe Raiola – political satirist, stand-up comic, MAD Magazine editor emeritus, and director of the 30-plus-years of the John Lennon Tribute concerts – counts among his “Mt. Rushmore of comedy” the legends Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

He sees in them a common thread of unapologetic use of language to excoriate the hypocrisies and ills of society – even counter to public opinion or good taste.

“Gregory called his first book Nigger,” Raiola says. “His mom asked him why. He said, ‘Mom, whenever some racist uses the word he’ll be promoting my book.’ I love that. It speaks to my sensibilities as a satirist.”

Raiola calls them “great fearless comedians” and says their bravery and conviction gives him free rein with language. So does the context of his one-man show, The Joy of Censorship: Free Speech and Comedy in the Age of Political Correctness, which he’s bringing to Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur this weekend.

He first conceived of the show about 25 years ago, has toured it to almost every state in the country (44 and counting), and intends to hit them all. In it he talks about the duty of comedians and satirists to deliver the truth with laughter, about the forces that try to restrain free speech, his forefathers of political satire. He’ll talk about the constructive and destructive power of words. Like nigger.

“I would not dishonor Dick Gregory by not using that word,” he says. “This is all the juice of the show. It’s what makes it a provocative show. It’s an important show now.”

The show’s changed over the years, he says, because there have been events in that time that have changed the landscape of free speech, comedy and culture. The first was 9/11. Or at least the atmosphere of fear and compliance that followed in its wake.

“That changed the tone dramatically,” Raiola says. “You had cartoons and music being banned” – Bill Maher lost his job at ABC, for example, after making controversial comments about 9/11. And Raiola observed an entire culture stiffening into a seemingly reflexive, uptight stance.

“It inspired me to go out with guns blazing [even] more,” he recalls. “Those are the times it’s most important for art of any kind.”

The second event was the 2015 shooting and killing of 12 (and injuring of 11) people at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. This happened while Raiola was at MAD Magazine.

“That had a major psychological effect on us,” Raiola points out.

He says that Jewish and Christian people and members of other religions are made fun of all the time, but that there has been a fear of treading on Islam. And fear, he says, is a breeding ground of censorship.

“The other really cataclysmic incident was the election of Trump,” he says. “It really shows you the limits of the influence of comedians. We were united in despising Trump. We could see how dangerous he was. Satire is important, but maybe not as important as voting. We took that personally. He defeated us.”

President Donald Trump has cast the press and media as the enemy of the people. AWashington Post headline claims that as of April 2019 he’s made more than 10,000 false or misleading statements. He’s questioned whether Saturday Night Live’s satirical jokes about him are legal. That is scary to Raiola.

“If Saturday Night Live is illegal, what is legal?”

Raiola says there have been less seismic but just as consequential forces working against the power of satire and free expression: the Supreme Court using free speech and the exercise of religion to justify discrimination; social media substituting for real political action with re-tweets, likes and sharing; “cancel culture” smacking down comedians – like Samantha Bee, for calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” – when they’re deemed to have crossed a line.

Raiola’s show wades into controversy and politics, but he says he tries to keep it fun and funny; he shows stuff from MAD Magazine and talks about its role in dissent and mockery. (He was on the magazine’s staff for “an embarassing 33 years,” according to his bio.)

The “rants” section of his website contains lots of explicitly political humor, targeting both major parties. One recent rant, titled “National Emergencies I Would Declare Right now,” includes “the average length of a baseball game feels longer than the Mueller investigation.”

“Satire reveals truth through humor,” Raiola says. “The role of the satirist is not to make people feel comfortable. That’s a massage. That’s not what I do. I show up to provoke.”

So the show will not hold back, which Raiola sees as fitting in a library named after an author who was banned for decades for his own tendency not to hold anything back. There will be talk of scandalous subjects, but it won’t be a Michael “Kramer” Richards reactionary spew. There’s bound to be serious intellectual wrestling over censorship and free speech, but with some facet that makes people like Raiola go, “Holy shit, that’s interesting.”

Longtime MAD Magazine senior editor Joe Raiola brings ‘The Joy of Censorship’ to the Sierra Madre Playhouse

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“I’ve pissed off liberals too, but no one has killed me yet.” — Joe Raiola

“I’ve pissed off liberals too, but no one has killed me yet.” — Joe Raiola

For 33 years Joe Raiola took satirical aim at every imaginable sacred cow as the Senior Editor of MAD Magazine. While he likes to note that he “specialized in making funny noises in the hallway,” he also saw the magazine as an important bastion of free speech ever since it was criticized as dangerously subversive during the 1950s-era McCarthy hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Now retired, Raiola remains active by touring his solo comedy show, The Joy of Censorship, nationwide, including a one-night-only performance next Thursday, May 30, at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. Speaking from his home in New York City, he promises a show that will mix social commentary with humor, including visual samples of some of the most controversial cartoons in the history of MAD.

“It’s a comic performance with elements of standup, storytelling, and some of it in the guise of a lecture on free speech and comedy,” Raiola explains. “It’s a fun theme for me and I bring a little bit of “MAD” to it and show some pieces that were censored or banned for one reason or another.”

Raiola came up with the idea for “Joy” when he was asked by a librarian to present a talk on MAD to a group of children’s librarians, since the magazine was the most stolen magazine in the young adult section. Raiola was a professional standup comic at the time and his 40-minute presentation went over so well, he decided to create a show in which he could dig deeper.

“Libraries are interested in censorship, and I wasn’t aware at the time that MAD was almost shut down in the McCarthy era,” says Raiola, who was invited to bring his show to Sierra Madre by Todd McCraw, a Playhouse staff member. McCraw is the stage manager of the Annual John Lennon in New York City, which Raiola has produced since 1981. (Proceeds from the Tribute help fund free workshops in creative expression at Gilda’s Club NYC for those whose lives have been impacted by cancer.) “This whole thing is Todd’s fault. Blame him” Raiola quips.

“The subject of censorship turned out to be more important to me than I realized,” Raiola continues. “MAD was the only EC comic that survived, and it revolutionized satire in this country. It’s inspring that it was born in an era of fear, repression and censorship, because vibrant satire is a sign of healthy free speech. But we now have a president questioning the legality of Saturday Night Live, so it’s time to keep the spotlight on these issues.”

While Raiola has presented ‘Joy’ at countless professional conferences, public libraries, colleges and regional theaters in 44 states, he has never brought it to Southern California. He notes some surprising things about the places he has performed at.

“I like doing red states like Mississippi, Utah, Arkansas and Kentucky, where I’m not as likely to have an audience that agrees with me,” says Raiola. “But after a show in West Virginia someone once told me, ‘That kind of comedy doesn’t go over here.’ I’ve pissed-off liberals too but no one’s killed me yet.”

“I don’t generally use vulgar language, but if I’m quoting Samantha Bee on Ivanka Trump, I say the actual word she used, not the ‘c-word.’ I can use words that most white, male comedians can’t or won’t, and that makes it interesting. Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor are on my Mount Rushmore of stand-ups. What do they have in common? No one could tell them what to say, how to say it, and they never apologized. They were fearless, and exposed racism, misogyny, using forbidden words in service to making a real point. “ 

Sierra Madre Playhouse Brings Joe Raiola To Town

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By Rebecca Wright 


Joe Raiola is bringing “the Joy of Censorship” to southern California.

Joe Raiola is bringing “the Joy of Censorship” to southern California.

"When comedy is censored, free speech is in danger.” Joe Raiola knows what he is talking about. The comedian served as an Editor of MAD Magazine for over 30 years, and in that time he wrote more than one controversial piece. One piece in particular (featuring an illustration of the prohpet Muhammad) caused enough of an uproar that in subsequent reprints part of it was omitted.   Despite that, he enjoyed a successful career doing something he loved, an opportunity that not everyone gets. Eventually though, his time at the magazine came to an end. Raiola likes to joke, “Jesus died at 33 and so did my career at MAD.” 

The magazine moved from NYC to Burbank, but Raiola was not willing to make the move himself because, he was and still is, heavily involved with Theatre Within, a non-profit that is dedicated to helping cancer survivors by offering free workshops on topics such as art, meditation and more. As part of his work at Theatre Within, Raiola produces the Annual John Lennon Tribute concert, the main fundraiser for Theatre Within. Every year since 1981, prominent artists have come to perform and honor the memory of John Lennon. 

Raiola describes himself as “very fortunate” to have had the opportunities at MAD and Theatre Within. He draws on personal experiences as well as current events to develop his comedy, and his current show has toured for many years and made it to 44 states. This month, on his first trip to Southern California, Raiola’s show, The Joy of Censorship: Free Speech and Comedy in the Age of Political Correctness, will be coming to Sierra Madre. 

His show will be an evening discussing comedy in light of the First Amendment, and especially in light of comedians who have recently apologized for their jokes (e.g. Kathy Griffin). His work is also informed by the bold and often controversial acts and jokes by comedians before him. As Raiola puts it, “The purpose of satire is to reveal truth through humor,” and therefore he is seriously interested in when and how what comedians are allowed to say appears to change. He believes that comedians should always be aware of what they are saying, and take responsibility for that, but that they should not “cede ground.” 

Raiola is fascinated by words and language, and he uses many controversial and offensive words in his act, though he clarifies that he uses them “in context.” He raises the questions, “What are acceptable images/words?” and “Who is the judge of what is and is not acceptable?” As he examines these questions, Raiola also looks at slurs and who owns them. According to Raiola, “If an oppressed group does not reclaim a slut, it remains the property of the oppressor for as long as it stays in use." He also discusses the history of MAD Magazine, complete with images of the content that was censored. His own work is included. Raiola describes his show as an “edgy provocative evening.” 

Former Mad Magazine editor speaks on First Amendment in Great Falls

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BY TRACI ROSENBAUM


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You won’t find many people from New York who are happier to be coming to Great Falls than Joe Raiola.

For over 30 years, Raiola was a contributing member of the editorial staff for Mad Magazine. Now, he travels the country talking to folks about free speech and the First Amendment.

“I spent pretty much my entire adult life — if you could call being editor of Mad Magazine having an adult life — at Mad,” said Raiola. “Given Mad’s history, the First Amendment and free speech have long been something that has been really important to me.”

 Great Falls is one of the stops on Raiola’s speaking tour titled “The Joy of Censorship: Free Speech in the Age of Trump.” The event is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, June 14, at the Great Falls Public Library.

In two decades of speaking, this is Raiola’s first public appearance in Great Falls.

Founded in 1952, Mad Magazine satirizes all aspects of American life, from politics to entertainment to public figures. It’s well-known for its gap-toothed cartoon icon Alfred E. Neuman.

“Mad was created as a magazine in an era of tremendous censorship,” said Raiola. “I kind of think of Mad as a comedy writer’s revenge because in an era of tremendous repression, there was this magazine that revolutionized comedy and revolutionized satire. It’s kind of proof, also, that in the long run, censorship doesn’t really work.”

For Raiola, it’s always been the comedy writers and comedians who stood on the front lines of the battle against censorship, stretching the boundaries of the First Amendment and daring to criticize those in power.

“Without free speech, you have no satire, and without satire, you have a dictatorship,” he said.

Although his speaking engagement’s title is about censorship and free speech under President Donald Trump, Raiola discusses the subject from many angles under many regimes. He even dives into how the First Amendment relates to the Second Amendment.

“In a way, (the First Amendment) is under constant attack and scrutiny. It’s got to be redefined in every era,” Raiola said. “I think those two amendments are central to the way we talk about ourselves as a culture.”

Raiola’s subject matter is volatile, but he knows he’s making people think when he can stir up people from both sides of the aisle.

“I especially like performing in red states,” he said. “I’ve been walked out on in California and Mississippi over the many years I’ve been doing this. It’s the job of the satirist to expose truth through humor, no matter who’s in power.”

Throughout his long career, one of the moments working at Mad that stands out most to Raiola is the shooting at “Charlie Hebdo,” a French satirical weekly newspaper that was targeted by a terrorist attack in 2015 that killed 12 people and injured 11 others.

“Everyone at Mad, we all felt that it could have been us,” Raiola said, “and it had already been made clear to us at that time that publishing satiric cartoons could be a dangerous game.”

The incident made Raiola and his fellow writers take stock of the importance of what they do. He wrote a statement in support of the publication and appeared in public to deliver it.

“Talk about an important free speech issue,” he said. "The idea that you could potentially be murdered for expressing your opinion in a cartoon is a pretty chilling thing. But I’ve got to tell you something, it didn’t stop us.”

Raiola is also proud of Mad’s influence with young readers, its continued ability to be sharp politically and its dedication to unapologetic satire.

Joe Raiola: Nonprofit President Helps Cancer Fighters Find Harmony Through John Lennon's Music

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BY PAT KIERNAN


Even for just a small audience, Judith Caporale gives a passionate performance.

A proud Joe Raiola watches as she does what she loves.

She wasn't sure she'd ever be able to sing and dance again after doctors discovered a brain tumor in 2012.

Raiola's "John Lennon Real Love Project" is a free songwriting workshop for cancer fighters and survivors. 

Since joining, Caporale has built confidence and once again feels at home in the spotlight. 

"This has given me life," she said.

Raiola is the president and artistic director of the nonprofit "Theatre Within." He launched these workshops in 2014, first at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and now at Gilda's Club in Greenwich Village.

Raiola's love for John Lennon inspired him to use his music as medicine, lifting the participants' spirits through song.

"One of the things about John is, he was not just a great artist and a singer/songwriter and a rockstar, he was an activist, and he had an important message, and part of that message was giving a damn," Raiola said.

Participants are given a guitar and, over the course of a few months, learn the basics of songwriting through Lennon's music.

"The workshop participants are really inspired by John because he frees them. He gives them permission to write about whatever they want to write about," Raiola said.

Raiola says watching people’s growth over the course of the workshop is proof that life doesn't have to stop after a cancer diagnosis.

"I'm touched by people's bravery to be fully expressed. And it is a leap of faith, the creative journey of the heart, of the voice and to be full and to take that risk of really being yourself on the page or on the stage."

So, for helping these cancer fighters find harmony in their lives, Joe Raiola is the latest New Yorker of the Week.