MAD Man Gets Mad About Gag Mentality

THE SEATTLE TIMES, by Mark Rahner
April 11, 2009


“The Joy of Censorship” sounds like the kind of pamphlet Orwell’s Winston Smith could have written, cheerfully and without irony.

But it’s neither, coming from one of Mad magazine’s “Usual Gang of Idiots.” In his one-man show, Mad senior editor Joe Raiola riffs on various assaults on the First Amendment that include movie ratings, the USA Patriot Act and the Federal Communications Commission. As what passes for an authority figure at what passes for an institution built on satirizing such things, Raiola sees our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech threatened. He’s bringing “Joy” to half a dozen Seattle-area libraries starting this weekend. (For a complete schedule, visit www.joeraiola.com.)

But is Raiola actually hauling off and suggesting that in the United States of America, the freest nation on earth, the superpower that spawned Toby Keith and by extension his film, “Beer for My Horses” … there’s censorship?

“It’s a shocking thought,” Raiola dryly answered.

Though Raiola, 53, has been doing his “Joy” show for 15 years, he’s never brought it to the Northwest, and he said now is a very good time for it.

He cites the “fleeting expletive” case challenging the FCC before the Supreme Court, and the awkwardness with which broadcasters handled Jesse Jackson’s election-season remark about threatening to cut off a certain part of Barack Obama’s anatomy.

“I call them the Federal Censorship Commission,” said Raiola. “It seems to me now that you can get free speech if you pay for it. On XM satellite radio, on HBO and Showtime. But if you can’t afford that, then you’re stuck with what the FCC gives you and we have to live by their rules. Something about that is fundamentally wrong.”

Oh, yeah, he says: We also have the Orwellian “free-speech zones” into which protesters are herded, and until recently a ban on photographing the coffins of U.S. soldiers. “What, me worry?” indeed.

“The wonderful thing is, these libraries are giving me carte blanche; they’re letting me say what I want and they’re not restricting me in any way,” Raiola said.

Raiola said the USA Patriot Act has put libraries at the center of a culture war, pitting librarians against government officials now allowed to search their records, and even preventing them from discussing it. “Not long ago, the winner of the American Library Association Intellectual Freedom Award couldn’t come to receive the award because they were not allowed to reveal their identity legally,” he noted. (The 2005 case is John Doe v. Gonzales.)

Raiola also devotes part of his show to a behind-the-scenes look at Mad, whose influence is hard to overstate. Begun as a comic book in 1952 under the E.C. label, Mad became the standard-bearer for social and political satire and skepticism, mocking authority and skewering hypocrisy, reaching its peak in the Vietnam and Nixon era. Now its sensibilities permeate every corner of pop culture.

“Mad itself has this rich history because Mad was born in the ’50s during Red Threat in the communist era, in the McCarthy era. If censors had their way Mad would never have come to be,” Raiola said.

The landmark 500th issue comes out later this month — when Mad will be reduced to a quarterly because of the tough economy. At its peak, Mad’s circulation was more than 2 million and now it’s about 200,000, Raiola estimated.

“Everyone in print media, we’re trying to figure it out,” Raiola said. “There’s a sea change here. That Mad still exists at all is amazing because the environment for publication and magazines is very poor. I think, hopefully, there’s going to be this period of transition hopefully, there’s going to be this period of transition and Mad will resurface in some vibrant way.”