Oh, yeah? Zip this!

A Mad magazine editor brings his one-man show about free speech to Eugene

The Register-Guard, by Bob Keefer
April 1, 2009

The great thing about the story you’re about to read, Joe Raiola points out in our telephone interview, is this: Because it’s appearing in a mainstream newspaper, much of what he has to say can’t actually be printed.

Well, sure it can. Let’s try a quote: “We all know the words ‘——’ and ‘——,’ ” Raiola said, savoring the moment. “I can say them. And you can’t write them.”

You can practically see Raiola’s “nyah, nyah, nyah” expression coming over the phone from his office in New York.

The bowdlerized quote is appropriate. This story is about the fact that Raiola, longtime senior editor of the once controversial Mad magazine, is coming to Eugene to talk about “The Joy of Censorship.”

The presentation, which he has been giving nationally for several years, touches on banned books; movie ratings; Internet filters; breasts and the Federal Communications Commission; flag-burning; and the Patriot Act.

He also talks about the tribulations of Mad magazine, which ran afoul of national suspicions of the comic book industry in the 1950s.

Founded by Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines in 1952, Mad has been a remarkably stable publishing venture in the United States. It began in comic book format in the days when comic books were seriously considered by some members of Congress to be leading the youth of the nation into juvenile delinquency.

Mad became a monthly magazine in 1954 and is still published as a quarterly. It’s probably difficult for people who don’t qualify for senior discounts to grasp how subversive Mad was considered in those days.

My own culturally easy­going father (who, when I was in grade school, wrote a letter to our nervous local librarian giving me permission to check out any book I wanted) once snatched a copy of Mad out of my startled hands and told me never again to bring it into the house. In its day, Mad was brilliantly influential.

“I did not read the magazine,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote. “I plundered it for clues to the universe.”

“After Mad,” rocker Patti Smith said, “drugs were nothing.”

“Mad is the one place in America where, if you mature, you get fired,” Raiola likes to say. “Yes, Mad has been absorbed into the culture. But there was a time when Mad was something your parents and teachers didn’t want you to read. There was nothing else in the culture like it. Nothing. It’s been said we were a victim of our own success Nothing that has a long life stays cutting edge forever.” He pauses. “Except for Neil Young.”

Rim shot.

Just in case you can’t tell from the Neil Young quip, Raiola’s other career is in comedy. He joined the Theatre Within Workshop in New York in 1979, becoming associate director in 1990 and artistic director in 2005.

Raiola has done a series of one-man shows, including 2002’s “Almost Obscene,” which he publicized with a picture of himself flipping off the viewer — with the wrong finger.

His background in stand-up comedy is actually significant to his work with the magazine. Mad has deep roots in a nightclub comedy culture of the 1950s: those dark, brilliant and foulmouthed comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, who leavened the dull Eisenhower years with sharp, intellectual and deliberately offensive wit.

Raiola is worried that current comedians have become too complacent and too complicit with the power elite that it should be mocking.

“When I started working with Mad, movie studios wouldn’t cooperate with us on spoofs of their movies,” he said. “Now they call us. Now you have Sarah Palin and John McCain and Barack Obama appearing on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and no one blinks. As much as I love and respect it, ‘Saturday Night Live’ should not be making friends with those people. It’s the job of the satirist to expose and ridicule those people, not to be their friends. We’ve all gotten too cozy and mainstream.”

Even worse, Raiola says, comedy venues themselves have begun to limit the language used by performers. “A comedy club (the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles in 2006) banned the word ‘nigger,’ ” he said. “The idea that you’re going to ban any word at a comedy club is so antithetical to everything that comedy is, it’s beyond absurd.”

The good news, Raiola says, is that free information always wins.

“Censorship doesn’t work,” he said. “We all know this. The proof that censorship doesn’t work is in the Bible. The whole forbidden fruit thing: The surest way to make something popular is to ban it. Even God is a failure as a censor.”

“Censorship doesn’t work. … The proof … is in the Bible. The whole forbidden fruit thing.”

— Joe Raiola, creator of the one-man show
“The Joy of Censorship

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