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. “