MAD Magazine editor speaks on censorship, First Amendment rights

Victoria Garcia

As a young boy, using the f-word saved and changed the life of comedian Joe Raiola.

In fact, if he hadn’t screamed it at the top of lungs as Sister Grace Anita attempted to beat him with a heavy-duty yardstick, there’s no telling if he would have ever made it out of second grade Catholic School, let alone become the senior editor of MAD Magazine.

When attending any of Raiola’s performances, one can be certain that none of his material will be cleaned up, turned down or sanitized. For the past 15 years he’s been presenting “The Joy of Censorship” at colleges and libraries across the United States and still the show is never the same thing twice.

When Raiola first introduced the show in the early ’90s at a library in New York, he didn’t know much of anything about censorship. It was a subject that he wasn’t even highly passionate about and much of the performance was presented off the top of his head.

But when he started getting phone calls from people eager to schedule additional performances, he became serious about making “The Joy of Censorship” even better than what it already was.

“I started getting educated in terms of not only my own history, but the history of MAD Magazine, which I was woefully ignorant of,” said Raiola.

The three-part show focuses on issues that revolve around the First Amendment as well as the development and story behind MAD Magazine.

“It’s been sort of an uncensoring process of my own voice,” said Raiola. “I’m learning to put my voice out there, and so the material of the show is always evolving.”

Friday, Nov. 2, Raiola shared the performance with a small audience from the Topeka and Washburn community. Having performed for a group of Topeka/Shawnee Mission’s librarians earlier that day, he expressed excitement at the opportunity to share some new, more lax material with the evening’s crowd of college students and adults.

“I’m really interested in language, and just like an animal pees to define its territory in the wild, I try to define the content of my material very early on,” said Raiola. “I don’t say ‘a-hole’ when I mean ‘asshole,’ I don’t say ‘frick’ when I mean ‘fuck,’ I use the real words.”

By judging the environment he’s in and the people in the audience, Raiola makes the decision on whether or not he feels like including different portions of the show.

“This is a university environment, it’s a little different because it’s an evening show,” said Raiola. “A lot of the material is the same, but I try to keep it fresh for myself so I’m not always doing the same thing.”

While Raiola’s choice of words may make people in the audience uncomfortable, he doesn’t believe that what he’s saying as a performer is at all vulgar.

“‘Nigger’ is a perfect example of a word that is so much about context, because black comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor used that word to expose and fight racism,” said Raiola. “I’m not trying to diminish the fact that ‘nigger’ has been used to marginalize, discriminate and hurt people, but they needed that word at that specific time to get their powerful point across.”

Because Raiola believes that all language is powerful, he struggles with the fact that society undercuts certain words that, in his opinion, possess such potency. As a writer with a love for words, he believes it necessary to use real words and eliminate all the beating around the bush.

“What makes certain words so vulgar is that people refuse to use them enough,” said Raiola.

Significant portions of Raiola’s performance are centered on America’s attempts to censor the parts of society’s history that they believe are uncomfortable. Raiola thinks that a large portion of the American language is designed to protect people in power.

“I don’t understand the psychology behind banning certain words,” said Raiola. “I could only see it being beneficial if in banning certain words, we could in fact physically ban those things from plaguing humanity, like war, disease and Bush for example.”

In Raiola’s opinion, 9/11 changed everything in terms of censorship. He believes much of censorship is born out of fear. Raiola’s preview to his show was a half-hour compilation of a number of songs that Clear Channel Radio pulled from their airwaves post-9/11 out of fear that they would offend people. Such songs played were John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and Edwin Starr’s “War.”

“It greatly concerns me that Americans are more concerned with the sexual preference of SpongeBob Squarepants and Albus Dumbledore,” said Raiola. “It’s disturbing that the government can react faster to a Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction than they did with Hurricane Katrina.”

As a child, while he was not allowed to curse, Raiola’s parents did not mind him reading MAD Magazine, as it was a pretty common read in suburban New York during the 1960s. In the sixth grade, he already knew that he wanted to work in the business of humor.

After college, Raiola focused on performing on stage and working in radio, something that he is quite passionate about as he still appears on the WDST 100.1 FM in Woodstock, N.Y.

For eight years Riaola made a living as a cab driver before beginning his first professional work as a writer for National Lampoon, meanwhile submitting his work to MAD Magazine. A year later he joined the Unusual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine.

Today, most of MAD Magazine is freelance written. Two-thirds of its readers are teenagers and one-third consists mostly of those more than 30 years old. The majority of the cover art is geared toward the teen demographic.

“While we have a lot of fart humor, our content also consists of sharp, stinging political satire,” said Raiola. “The culture feeds us what we need to complete an issue, but it’s still fun to brainstorm ideas and ask ourselves ‘who do I want to make fun of today?'”

His advice to young adults is the essential message of MAD Magazine: question authority.

“Question authority to the highest possible level whether it be political, religious, or that of any expert,” said Raiola. “Continue to think for yourself; don’t let anyone silence you – consciousness is power.”