Session: The Joy of Censorship by Joe Raiola

PLA Blog, Public Library Association, by Jessamyn West
March 24th, 2006

I came into the room that was already mostly packed to capacity. The sound system was playing familiar rock and roll music. A short man in the front of the room picked up the microphone and said

“You’re listening to songs banned by ClearChannel after the 9/11 attacks.”

And I thought “Oh, it’s going to be one of those presentations.” Joe Raiola is the senior editor of MAD Magazine and he has clearly made speeches like this many times. He was an engaging and very funny presenter.

[please note that many of the stories and jokes contained in this presentation were not necessarily edited for content/language. My personal feeling is that asterisking out parts of words would have been pretty antithetical to what Mr. Raiola’s entire talk was about.]

Mr. Raiola started with what he called “some personal announcements”

- “my program this afternoon is completely unrated.”
– “I have not submitted any of my material for approval, commetn and review to any agency “family friendly” organization. This includes the FBI, the CIA, the DHS, FEMA, the FCC, MPAA, PMRC… etc etc and especially those Focus on the Family morons who think Sponge Bob is gay. I don’t know about you but I don’t care who Sponge Bob sleeps with, he is an animated sponge.”
– “This is not a vulgar program but it does reflect on an often vulgar world, an absurd world.”

Says he is completely uncensored today, he has censored himself in the past because he was afriad, afraid of getting more work, afraid of pissing people off. There are some healthy fears, and clearly there were some issues that anyone would need to think about when making decisions about whether to censor themselves.

In third grade, he had a “bitch on wheels” teacher who made him write a word that began with H ten times, he chose HELL. He gets ratted out by a fellow student. The teacher comes over to see what he’s writing but he added an O to the end of all his words, to make it say HELLO HELLO HELLO. Says he learned a valuable first amendment lesson: “It’s good to express yourself, but there is a price you pay.” [aka “cover your ass”]

Outlined some ongoing threats:

Barbara Nitke appeal not heard by Supreme Court [more info]
FCC fine against CBS for teen “sex party” scene in a show [more info]
Winner of ALAs intellectual freedom award can’t accept the award because the USA PATRIOT Act prevents her from revealing her identity [and yes the new USAPA still allows for the seizure of library records]
Cindy Sheehan’s t-shirt in the State of the Union address
Mohammed cartoon character outrage “I’ve been reading and editing cartoons for the last 20 years, I didn’t know cartoons where so important”

Talked about the Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich which he thought would be a great idea for a MAD article “other examples of religious food for sale on eBay” [Ganesh in baba ganoush, for example] including Mohammed in a pancake. Then he got a call from Pakistan, a year later (recently) unhappy about the images of Mohammed. Person wants them to call back. “We don’t try to offend anybody’s religious beliefs, at least the top five religions out there” They worked it out with the “offended person” and a week later they were called by a Pakistani newspaper asking about the situation. Says “it’s a little different now that the fear level is so high… but how do you, in this world, how do you handle this stuff?”

He says censorship doesn’t work in any form. The proof that censorship doesn’t work, he says, is in the Bible. God is the universe’s first censor, keeping them away from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. “When you’re told you can’t have something isn’t that what you really want…. The human desire for freedom of choice, even when it comes to fruit, is more powerful than God. He fails as a censor. But there are people all over America, who think they are going to succeed where God failed”

His favorite banned book title of all time “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Family Health” banned because it has explicit line drawings of sexual intercourse positions. Banned in Beaverton Oregon (big laughs), reserved for staff use only (more laughs).

“Moby Dick was banned in one library because it was offensive to community standards”
“What is it a community of whales?”

“We’re still afraid of words in the 21st Century?!”

George Carlin taught him that there is no such thing as a bad word, but there are bad intentions, and adds “…there are bad ideas though.”

“We almost liberated the word fuck” FCC story about Bono using it when he won his award, the FCC decrees that the word fuck is no longer obscene when used as an adjective. “How’s that for nuance?” Five months later they change their minds and decide the word is always obscene, even if it’s adjectival.

In the meantime, the Janet Jackson/Superbowl debacle happened. “This proves that the government can respond quickly and effectively to a crisis, as long as that crisis is Janet Jackson’s titty. But if it were Hurricane Janet…” (big laughs)

MAD was founded back in the fifties when people believed that comic books were ruining America, especially Bill Gaines (MADs founder) and his EC Comics. “Gaines was an atheist, but he was a weird kind of atheist . He believed that he himself was God…. He didn’t take orders from anyone, and the US Senate did not know this.”

Bill Gaines appeared before them in 1953/1954 and fought the comic book code, an industry code, and Bill Gaines wanted to be completely done with it. The comic book code peple identified four words (terror, horror, weird and crime) and they agreed that those four words would be “obscene”, effectively putting him out of business. He shut down, except for one comic, and that comic book was MAD, and then they turned it into a magazine, and circumvented the comic book code.

MAD has never been sued successfully.

The presentation wrapped up with him doing a bit of a slide show of some MAD “tasteless” covers.

One with a hand giving the finger
One with Alfred E Neuman xeroxing his butt
one with Alfred E Neuman peeing the date in the snow

and showed a few covers from other countries

Alfred E Neuman possibly fellating the pope.
Alfred E Neuman with a nearly naked Brittney Spears.

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