The Seeds of Insanity
Raiola was 3 when he had the tonsillectomy. His parents told him he was going to a party. Strapped to a gurney, he found himself staring into the eyes of a doctor who was wearing an ether mask, and was convinced he was being murdered.
Five years later, while visiting his aunt’s house, Raiola heard “Wonderfulness,” Bill Cosby’s first album. He felt validated by the cut about the misery of tonsillectomies.
“He was telling my story,” says Raiola. “All about how they promised him ice cream and he was vomiting. Cosby was taking this really terrible thing and mining it for humor and laughs.”
Raiola knew at 8 that he’d be a comedian. “I’m not bragging,” he says, “but this is the way my life unfolded. I knew early on that when I graduated from Adelphi University (in 1977), that I’d do comedy. I had no desire or qualifications to do anything else.”
He drove a cab until 1984, since college prepared him for nothing. “This was the wake of the sixties,” he says. “You could take your own courses and there were little to no requirements.”
He never took a test in college or math or science or language. He passed on the SAT in high school, though he did suffer through the PSAT, where he did well in language, but ended up in the bottom one-half percentile in math. He found no practical uses for geometry, calculus or algebra, because he “never gave a (expletive) what X was.” Yet Adelphi administrators recognized Raiola’s creative gifts, and accepted him as a provisional student. He took the fun courses, earned honors and graduated as student body president.
The presidential thing had a lot to do with Raiola’s, well, let’s call it charm. “I was definitely the class clown,” he says, “but I was also the class moron.”
Indeed, Raiola was “the kid eating quarters” and sticking pencils up his nose. He was a method professional even then, preparing for a life in comedy. In high school, for example, he performed a 10-minute monologue about urination. He specialized in adolescent boy humor, though “not everyone appreciated it,” he says.
He developed a high profile in college, performing gigs on stage and radio. He wasn’t universally loved, but rejection stifles no good comic. The fact that his material both thrilled and disturbed people was a plus.
Raiola would rather us think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he knows what he’s talking about. His ascent from class clown to senior editor of MAD involved luck, but you don’t get to that place in the publishing world without talent.
“Joe is brilliant and astute (except for the times he disagrees with me, of course),” says Charlie Kadau, his longtime friend and collaborator, and fellow senior editor at MAD.
“Claiming intellectual superiority is rarely the best route for a satirist, who then has to prove his intellectual superiority along with being funny,” he says. “Will Rogers, Woody Allen, Dave Barry and so many others communicate their wisdom much better from the ‘Shucks, but what do I know?’ approach, so Joe is in very good company.”
Raiola, like those other comics, worked initially for chump change. So he drove a cab, and with Kadau, had to get creative. There was the time they were hired to dress as kangaroos to promote an Australian film festival. “Seeing Joe bounding almost dangerously through Manhattan streets, into traffic and interacting with strangers with the total freedom the anonymity of a costume provides was a wonder to behold,” says Kadau.
The two got picked up by National Lampoon in 1984. It was a good time for the pub, which specialized in magazine spoofs like “Cosmoparody,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Not the Wall Street Journal.” Around the same time, MAD editors had placed ads for comedy writers in The New York Times and the Village Voice. Raiola and Kadau simply answered the ads.
“We hit with MAD very early,” says Raiola. “They started buying our stuff and when good fortune kicked in, it so happened that Al Feldstein, the legendary MAD editor, and the kind of person who oversaw MAD’s editorial development during arguably its most famous years (from 1956 through 1984), was stepping down, and there were openings. ”
Being that they were the young, local guys from Lampoon, the friends enjoyed decent street cred, but they didn’t get corner offices and expense accounts. “I remember the first meeting with (publisher William) Gaines,” says Raiola. “He said, ‘the (editors) tell me you’re very talented. I don’t believe them. Therefore, I propose to pay you as little as possible.’”
Raiola and Kadau became freelance editors in 1984 and started full-time a year later. (The team at MAD is known as the Usual Gang of Idiots.) Obviously, they’re both still there. As Raiola has said on a number of occasions: “MAD is the only place in America where if you mature, you get fired.”
Comedy requires stamina. “The most important thing isn’t luck and it isn’t talent,” says Raiola. “The most important thing is persistence. If I wasn’t still trying after seven years of driving a cab, I wouldn’t have been in the position to do this. But once you’re persistent and luck comes your way, then you have to have talent.
“Once you get the gig, and you remain someplace for a number of years, it’s all about your work ethic. Luckily, standards at MAD are very low. I find I can work at about 25 percent of my capability and that’s considered excelling.”
Free to Be He
In addition to his editorial role, Raiola founded and is executive and artistic director of Theatre Within, a New York nonprofit that furthers the role of the performing arts as a positive social force. There, he and Alec Rubin created the “Annual John Lennon Tribute,” the longest running such tribute in the world. Another of Raiola’s shows, “Almost Obscene,” was a hit at the 2002 New York City International Fringe Festival. Thanks in large part to “The Joy of Censorship,” which is coming to WilmU, he has become one of America’s most outspoken champions of free speech.
“Joe has always relished circumventing authority doing things he’s been told he isn’t allowed to,” says Kadau. “For a comedian, free speech is a must. Try telling a mathematician he’s not allowed to use certain numbers anymore. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin all titans that inform Joe’s comic worldview, had run-ins with the establishment over language words.
“That battle continues today, with assaults from both sides of the political spectrum. ‘The Joy of Censorship,’ which is constantly being updated, is a report from the front by a fully engaged defender of the First Amendment, who also happens to be extremely funny and engaging. ”
The show has both tickled and ticked off people in 45 states though that fact remains unclear. Raiola is doing Idaho in October, but he can’t remember if he’s done Wisconsin. “Which is sad for both me and Wisconsin,” he says. “I have performed in Delaware once before, though I don’t know if anyone remembers that except me.”
Comedy may be more therapeutic for Raiola than it is for his audiences. When you’re dealing with a world that’s “as miserable as the one we’re in,” he says, “having the ability to laugh is a powerful and healing thing.”
It’s also a truthful thing. And satire exposes truth. Raiola’s show deals with censorship, obscenity and the FCC but in a funny way. (He refers to this organization as the Federal Censorship Commission.)
Given the power of the Internet and cable, he says, “the FCC’s grip has diminished. It used to control the airwaves. But no one gets their TV from the airwaves. The FCC doesn’t control the Internet. It still has rules, but does anyone care what the FCC regards as obscene or appropriate?”
The Supreme Court cares. In the Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation case of 1978, the Supreme Court famously ruled 5-4 that the airing of George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” during an afternoon broadcast was indecent, essentially because of the time it was aired. That ruling has been challenged but unchanged.
“It’s rich that in this day and age,” says Raiola, “you look at all the things the Supreme Court has given First Amendment protections to, such as the animal crush videos or the hate speech at the Westboro Baptist Church. Or the fact that it’s legal to lie about your military record. The most violent, repugnant video games that brutalize women are legal. Corporations enjoy free speech rights, too.
“For some reason, this George Carlin bit, in which he’s thoughtfully and brilliantly and comically reflecting on words and how we use them, that that somehow is ill-regarded as indecent is utterly absurd.”
The real kicker, Raiola says, is that if you monitor how the culture has evolved, you can hear those seven words (of Carlin’s) on television if you have a premium cable service. “So now, you can get free speech if you pay for it.”
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central is censored every night. (The New York Times once called Stewart the most trusted man in America.) The network cuts Stewart’s audio when he says something that Comedy Central doesn’t approve. The network is not bound by the FCC because it’s cable, which means it’s not seen via the airwaves. It censors material anyway. “It’s unforgivable,” says Raiola. “You can actually see Stewart say (expletive), but you can’t hear it.”
It may be unforgivable, but it’s also comic sustenance. The things that anger Raiola end up in his act. “Comedians have always pushed the limits of the First Amendment,” he says, “and they exercise it in a way that keeps it vibrant.”
According to attorney Amy L. O’Dell, the chair of the legal studies program at Wilmington University, censorship and freedom of religion are both political and social hot buttons. “And one or both of them is never far from the front page, perhaps because these two issues involve rights that are so ingrained in our national conscience,” she says.
In a survey conducted by the First Amendment Center, which serves as a forum for the study of free expression issues, “47 percent of respondents indicated that free speech was the most important right, ” says O’Dell. “In second place, 10 percent of respondents chose freedom of religion as the most important right. The ongoing battle likely stems from the fact that freedom doesn’t just mean freedom to, it also means freedom from.
“There are some constitutional scholars who would argue that the right of free speech should never be abridged, and would go so far as to protect the proverbial one who shouts ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. But the more widely held position is that our freedom of speech (and all other freedoms) requires finding a balance between those who wish to exercise the freedom (freedom to) and those who don’t want their own rights impinged by another’s exercise (freedom from).”
The struggle for acceptance has something to do with fear. One would be hard-pressed to say definitively what prevents us from accepting diversity in a diverse world, but to Raiola, fear is the breeding ground of censorship.
In “The Scapegoat Complex,” a book he admires, author Sylvia Brinton Perera suggests that scapegoating is a way of denying one’s own dark side by projecting it on others. “We find that what is objectionable in ourselves is often unconscious,” says Raiola. “We don’t relate deeply to the part of ourselves that we don’t like. We see undesirable traits in a person, group or country and refuse to see those traits in ourselves. That’s part of the reason we have such difficulty accepting diverse cultures, because it’s in our natures to see ourselves as better or superior to others. It would be easier if we could see ourselves in the people we denigrate, despise and see as our enemies.”
But if we did that, Raiola wouldn’t have a career. Such ignorance inspires his material. The good news is that the most suppressed and inane among us will probably always be suppressed and inane. That can be pretty funny. Wu