BY DAN BAIN
Joe Raiola is not like most major magazine editors; that much became evident when I tried to call him and reached his voicemail. “Hi, this is Joe Raiola,” said a woman’s sultry voice. “I’m confused and troubled and I need your help. So please leave a message and maybe I’ll snap out of it.” Yep, this interview was going to be fun.
A 29-year member of MAD Magazine’s “Usual Gang of Idiots,” Raiola will be the keynote speaker at Write Now!, the May 3rd Triangle Freelances Writers Conference. He is also planning to perform his one-man comedy show of 21 years, The Joy of Censorship, in Durham, Charlotte and other North Carolina cities when he’s in the area.
This man knows humor writing, and I was excited about the opportunity to chat with him about it. Once I got past his voicemail and had him on the line, I wasn’t disappointed. Hope you won’t be either:
DB: Let’s start with the basics – what is your job title?
JR: I’m Senior Editor at MAD Magazine, but do not be impressed.
DB: What can we look forward to from you at the Write Now! Conference in May?
JR: I don’t know how to give you a preview, because I really don’t know what I’m doing. (Laughs uproariously.) One of the reasons I’m coming down there is to talk to writers, but I don’t want to come off as though I know what I’m talking about because that would be very foolish.
DB: Can you promise us some laughs?
JR: I believe I can, but if I really want to honor my title as Senior Editor at MAD, I should answer that question by saying “Absolutely not. I’m probably going to be dreadful.” It’s a tricky thing talking to writers and the last thing I want to do is come off as some know-it-all. I don’t know what I’m doing really. I just stumble along. And even though I feel incompetent, I’ve managed to keep working somehow.
DB: Have you always known that you had a propensity for humor?
JR: In sixth grade I went to P.S. 36 on Staten Island. We had a yearbook where we had to say what we wanted to be when we grew up. Most boys put down astronaut, racecar driver, you know, that kind of stuff. I put down comedian. So I knew, because what I enjoyed doing most those days was eating pencils and sticking quarters up my nose, and I thought, wow, it would be nice to do this for a living. You know, it certainly beats having a real job. I’m not qualified for anything, by the way, other than comedy. I have no other skills, really. No one would hire me.
DB: I’ve often thought most companies need to create a position called “chief morale officer” – that person’s only job would be to keep the rest of the company entertained, sorta like the court jester of old.
JR: I have a personal rule about jobs – if I can’t work at a place when I can cluck like a chicken when I walk into the lobby, I’m not interested in working there.
DB: Do you do that every day at MAD?
JR: For a while I did. You know, I can do it, that’s for sure. And I did for a long time, but after three or four years the clucking got a little tiresome, so I moved on to something else. There’s always something. The show begins the moment I walk in the lobby door. It begins nowadays with different running bits, but the main focus revolves around the phrase, “It’s an outrage!” I’ll usually start with that and I’ll rant about something for half a minute or a minute or until the security guards in the lobby ask me to move along. It’s great doing comedy for lobby security guards because they’re a captive audience; they can’t leave. It’s their job; they have to stay there. And since I work for a company that’s renting space in the building, they have to show me a certain amount of tolerance. So they’re a good audience.
DB: How are your duties different as an editor from what there were as a writer?
JR: Well, as an Editor I work on other writer’s stuff instead of just my own. But in a way it’s all the same: it’s a continuum. Look, here’s the deal at MAD: If you mature you get fired. In order to stay on staff you have to refuse to grow up in some fundamental way.
DB: What’s a typical day like?
JR: MAD is a comedy sweatshop. I sometimes have to be in the office as early as 10 in the morning, and as soon as I arrive I have to make fun of people. It’s tremendous pressure and there are so many people to make fun of I’m not sure where to start. I frequently spend the entire morning arguing with other editors over who to make fun of on that particular day. And then we argue over how to make fun of them. It’s hard to imagine anything worse.
DB: Well, God bless you, and I’m sorry you have to live that way,
JR: Sometimes we argue all morning and before you know it, it’s time for lunch. And then we have to come back to the office and pick up the argument later. (Pauses.) Look, basically what we do is make fun of people – starting with ourselves.
DB: Tough life, huh?
JR: Yes it is and very few people understand just how difficult we have it at MAD.
DB: Who should read MAD Magazine?
JR: Uh, everybody. Everybody! Who shouldn’t read it? What kind of question is that?
DB: You understand, I’m not asking for my own sake, but for the few doubters.
JR: MAD has always had tremendously broad appeal because it’s always had legions of young readers. But about a third of our readers are over 30. MAD’s appeal, I think, is that its retained its adolescent roots in terms of its style and humor, but it’s also very smart. There’s really sharp political satire, some of the best in the country, coming out of MAD. So there’s a lot of variety in the magazine and that’s why it’s still around after over 60 years.
DB: Do you feel there’s a stigma about it?
JR: No! Nooo. A stigma? What do you mean by stigma?
DB: Faux intellectuals who might make fun of those of us who enjoy MAD.
JR: Well, smart people like MAD, even though the MAD voice is that we’re idiots and the quality of our magazine is low and only a moron would read MAD. When you get right down to it there are only two kinds of jokes in the world. One joke is, look at me, I’m a major idiot; and the other joke is, look at you, you’re a major idiot. And those are basically the two jokes. MAD’s humor was always self –deprecating humor. MAD was cheap, MAD had low standards our readers had low standards, and that was always the MAD voice. And it still is the MAD voice to a large degree. Although if you look at MAD over the years you’ll see it’s evolved and now how more of that “look at you, you’re a major idiot voice.” That’s especially reflected in the stuff we do on celebrities and politicians.
DB: Do you write with a target audience in mind?
JR: Not really. We try to make each other laugh. If we’re laughing we’re foolish enough to believe that someone else will find it funny too.
DB: How do you know when something is funny?
JR: (Pauses.) Well…because we’re…laughing.