By Rebecca Wright
"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.”