BY SCOTT RENSHAW
Joe Raiola might be bringing a potentially incendiary presentation to America’s reddest state, but you can’t scare him. He’s been to Provo.
Ten years ago, Raiola – senior editor for MAD Magazine – visited Utah County with his traveling program about our long national war against free speech. “People said, ‘They’re gonna hate you,’” recalls Raiola by phone from his New York City office. “‘They’re gonna string you up from your balls.’ Then I got there and they were wild – one of the greatest audiences I’ve ever had.”
Kansas on the other hand – that’s a different story. “I’ve been told some pro-censorship directors on the board of the library don’t want me there,” he says of a planned heartland stop. “I should say that again: some pro-censorship directors on the board of the library. Where do you even go with that?”
It could become yet another anecdote for The Joy of Censorship, a multimedia combination of history lesson, comedy performance and call to arms that Raiola has been presenting in some form for over 15 years. Drawing on events ranging from the attack on publisher William Gaines’ horror comics of the 1950s to post 9/11 restrictions, Raiola explores assaults on free speech from every possible angle.
Inevitably, that means he risks offending people – and he doesn’t seem particularly troubled by that idea. “Some people think that offensive speech should be banned,” Raiola say. “As if the Constitution has an ‘offensive language exception’ to the First Amendment.
One potentially touchy recent example Raiola addresses involves the response to comedian and Seinfeld alum Michael Richards’ infamous onstage racial tirade involving a certain “n-word.” “There are comedy clubs around the country that have banned the word,” Raiola says. “But’s it’s been used by comics in the past to expose and fight racism. [Richard] Pryor’s routine was ‘SuperN—r’ – and not ‘SuperNegro’ – for a very particular reason.”
“There may be people who walk out when I use the word, which admittedly has a terrible history,” he continues. “But I don’t censor myself in my anti-censorship show. I don’t use euphemisms. When I want to say ‘n—r’ I don’t say “the n-word.’ I make it clear that I have the right to use any word.”
Raiola would probably recognize the irony of a story about censorship having to disguise that “n-word,” and Raiola himself has been on television and radio enough to know that different media have to play by different rules. As a staffer of a national magazine, he has to play by those rules himself. “When MAD put out its legendary ‘middle-finger’ cover, a lot of mom-and-pop shops decided to not distribute it,” Raiola says. “And that was their right. I don’t think of that as censorship.”
The slope, however, is a slippery one, Raiola believes, particularly in an era of corporate consolidation. The NC-17 rating may not be legal censorship, but its economic impact on a film serves as de facto censorship. Broadcast television networks’ fear of FCC fines or viewer backlash leads to removing certain programs from the air. The ire of religious conservatives led to the editing of potentially offensive comments by Sally Fields and Kathy Griffin at last month’s Emmy Awards.
But where it would be easy to despair, Raiola – whose background includes stand-up comedy, theater and work with National Lampoon alumni – chooses to find the bitter humor in the situation. “For me, when you get into the psychology of this stuff, it’s hysterically funny,” he says, “ particularly when you expose the hypocrisy. It’s an endless sense of joy for me.”
“Endless” unfortunately, appears to be the correct word, and Raiola thinks that the threat to free speech is at a particularly high level historically. “We’re a culture afraid of the word,” he notes. “And when those words are put together to express opinions? Hoo boy!”