BY TRACI ROSENBAUM
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.