Raving MAD Man: Blasphemy and Humor in the Berkshires

boston magazine, by Bill marx  
August 2004


In his one-man satire, Almost Obscene, Joe Raiola, Senior Editor of Mad Magazine, is mad enough to step, repeatedly, on the third rail of American culture: religion. “After the tragedy of 9/11, I wanted to make my voice heard, not just on the politics of the day but on something more dangerous – the psychological roots of our culture, God and the Bible,” Raiola says. “Especially how Jesus, war and politics relate to censorship.”

The resulting theater piece is an incendiary combination of performance art and standup comedy: Raiola first appears on stage on his hands and knees, symbolically humping the ground before launching into riffs on Iraq, the cowardice of the FCC, the perversity of the Patriot Act, the Catholic Church and other timely targets. Almost a quarter of the show is improvised, with the baleful influence of the Bible providing its unchanging spine. “I would rather worship the Wizard of Oz than the God of the Bible,” declares Raiola. “Our God is supposed to be good, but let’s take a look at his résumé. Good for what and who?

And what exactly does Raiola have against Jesus, who most comedians consider far out of bounds? “Jesus doesn’t have a sense of humor,” he answers with a chuckle. “He never says anything funny in the New Testament, and nobody ever says anything funny to him.”

The New and Old Testaments are usually places where even the bravest comics fear to tread, including the jokesters at Raiola’s magazine. He admits he’s taking mascot Alfred E. Neuman’s quest to “question authority” into edgier territory. Some theatergoers don’t like seeing God poked fun at. Even in New York’s East Village, where Almost Obscene premiered, each night two or three people walked out. No doubt some members of the audience in western Massachusetts will flee into the Berkshires woods as well. That’s fine with Raiola.

“My director said it was a great sign,” he says. “It showed that the show was alive, that I was hitting a nerve. I talk a lot about what people have thought of but not articulated.”

So what kind of God would Raiola create if he had the power? “I don’t relate to Jesus, who is part god, part human,” he says. “I want a happy god, with a sense of humor and fully human."