BY SUSAN PIPERATO
Joe Raiola works hard at pissing people off—but he also tries to make them think and laugh in the process. Being a professional parodist and satirist isn’t easy, he readily admits, but somebody’s got to do it. And he means got to. In post-9/11 America, Raiola sees a greater need than ever for shaking people up by showing them what’s corrupt, morally bankrupt, and just plain inane about our politically correct culture and Operation Iraqi Freedom and Patriot Act-era government. “Striking nerves,” in his own words, is what he does best. But making parody and satire his passion and his art is hardly surprising, considering Raiola’s background. For the past 20 years, this longtime Ulster County part-timer has been working as a Mad magazine writer and editor, has performed, variously, in TV, radio, comedy clubs, and the theater, and now directs The Theatre Within Workshop, founded by Alec Rubin.
But now, given the current political and cultural climate, “the time is ripe,” says Raiola, for his latest one-man show, “Almost Obscene,” which premiered at the 2002 New York Fringe Festival, to “really start hitting some nerves, not that it wasn’t before, but to start hitting harder, maybe more like arteries.”
A native New Yorker who was drawn to Ulster County largely because of the Shawangunks, Raiola sees the opportunity to perform an upcoming benefit show for Save the Ridge at Unison as a privilege. “It really is [a privilege],” he says “Doing this show for the first time up here, both at Unison and as a benefit—it excites and feeds me to give away at this level. I know the pressure from this [controversy] will never let up. I get to bring my work to a much wider audience, and I will get plenty back from this. I hope the response will be overwhelming, because nothing is more valuable to me than knowing that I am doing everything I can to stop this fragile, sacred, very beautiful land from being turned into a friggin’ golf course right in the shadow of Gertrude’s Nose.” And, yes, doing “everything [he] can” to stop the Awosting Reserve development includes Raiola’s incorporating material directly related to the development proposal and the fight against it.
“Almost Obscene” is, in many ways, the offspring of its predecessor, “The Joy of Censorship,” a monologue Raiola developed following a librarian’s request for a Mad editor to lecture on Freedom of Speech. “I’m very interested in censorship,” he explains. “And its roots go right back to the Bible. God—our God, Yahweh—is the first censor, and he’s a failed censor. He forbids Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and they eat. Why? Because they’re human! God doesn’t understand or appreciate human nature. That never ceases to fascinate me.”
The idea of God’s being a failed censor is what Raiola calls “the staple” of both “The Joy of Censorship” and “Almost Obscene,” along with his take on Jesus as being both “supernatural” and “essentially humorless.” “As a kid, I was afraid of Jesus,” he says. “He scared the hell out of me because he was bleeding all the time. And he died for me? How horrible, how gruesome. But as an adult, I’m fascinated. Even off the cross, Jesus is so somber, so dour, he never says anything funny. There are no jokes, no riddles, no puns in the Bible. He walks on water, turns water into wine, ascends into a cloud. Why aspire to live like someone who’s not fully human? He’s like a ‘strange visitor from another planet with powers beyond mortal men, waging a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way’—he’s Superman! He doesn’t offend me. He’s a nice guy, who says wonderful things, and worries. I feel mostly empathy for him, because, boy, he has it rough. But I get the biggest laugh in the show when I say, ‘I don’t have a problem with Jesus, it’s God and I who don’t get along’.”
As a cross between a monologue in the style of George Carlin and a theatrical performance, “Almost Obscene” reflects “what a lot of people think and feel, but can’t say in our culture,” says Raiola. “Like, for instance, ‘God’s an asshole.’ Of course, as Carlin shows, there’s a lot of humor in religion. But what interests me is if we analyze our culture, we have to start there, with religion. That’s the roots of our culture—surprise, surprise! And if you analyze our religion, you find out that our whole sense of morality is actually immoral.” And the fact that not everyone who watches Raiola perform agrees with or approves of what he has to say only provides more fodder for his humorous rants. “Almost Obscene” was born after Raiola appeared on radio in Hastings, Nebraska, following a presentation of “The Joy of Censorship” without being told there was no seven-second censoring delay.
“I’d already caused a real stir on campus by referring to the Book of Genesis as a myth,” he says. “Then I went on radio and they didn’t tell me anything, so I used ‘f***’ to describe an Indigo Girls concert being cancelled by some high school principal, and it went out on the air. I was told to be more aware of my language, so I was, but then I realized how reeled-in I was, how I was watching my words, being careful not to upset people. I wanted to have a show that wasn’t tight-assed, that had no constraints, where I could say anything, let it rip. And I don’t have that freedom unless I’m onstage. Then you’re in my world, because you hired me. I’m doing material that’s meant to be likely to offend someone.”
And while Raiola knows he will probably not ever perform for the audience of his choice—“a bunch of Fundamentalists”—and accepts the fact that even fringe-theater fans will walk out on him at times, what really gets his ire up and makes him work is that there are “people who should get it but just don’t.” One case in-point is the journalist who interviewed him for the Staten Island Advance, but refused to run Raiola’s “Almost Obscene” promotional photo, in which he holds up his ring finger. “It’s almost obscene,” he says, “but they were concerned about what it almost said. They said, ‘Oh no, we can’t run that; our readers are really conservative.’ But they ran a story about this ring of parents who rape their own children, take photos of them afterwards, and swap the pictures with other parents on the Internet. That’s obscene. That’s not conservative [censorship]; that’s stupid.”
It’s such slices of “fake reality” and “truly twisted tragedies”—from the threat of “supposedly glamorous, in fact lifeless casinos” being built “in the shadow of the Gunks, the great white rocks, sacred to the Indians who now want to build lifeless casinos to cater to the white man’s addictions” to his personal “theory of holy books” (in which “the greater percentage of unadulterated bullshit in a religion, the more pages its books have”) to “unholier-than-thou atheists who believe in not believing”—that keep Raiola going these days. “I have a Mad sensibility of culture,” he says. And as a “believer” who “just doesn’t know,” drawn to Eastern religion and the Laughing Buddha, “who gets it, who knows that life is one big cosmic joke,” Raiola says what he aspires to, for himself and his audience, is “enlightened ignorance. What I tell people is, I’ve got the ignorance down all right. What I’m working on now is the enlightened part.”
Joe Raiola’s “Almost Obscene” will be performed as a benefit for Friends of the Shawangunks (with a reception immediately following) at 8PM on October 25 at Unison in New Paltz. Tickets for the show only are $14 for Unison and FOS members and $18 for non-members. To make a reservation, call (845) 255-1559 or e-mail info@UnisonArts.org. For more information on FOS and the group’s efforts to save the Shawangunk Ridge from development, call (845) 687-4759; write to P.O. Box 270, Accord, NY 12404; or visit www.savethegunks.com.