For 33 years Joe Raiola took satirical aim at every imaginable sacred cow as the Senior Editor of MAD magazine. While he likes to note that he “specialized in making funny noises in the hallway,” he also saw the magazine as an important bastion of free speech ever since it was criticized as dangerously subversive during the 1950s-era McCarthy hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Now retired, Raiola remains active by touring his solo comedy show “The Joy of Censorship” nationwide, including a one-night-only performance next Thursday, May 30, at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. Speaking from his home in New York City, he promises a show that will mix powerful points with hilarious stories and visual samples of some of the most controversial cartoons in the history of “MAD.”
“It’s an evening of comedy, a comic performance with elements of standup, storytelling, and theater, and some of it in the guise of a lecture on free speech and comedy,” Raiola explains. “It’s a cool theme to me and I bring a little bit of “MAD” to it and illustrate some pieces that were censored or banned for one reason or another, actually shown on screen.”
Raiola came up with the idea for “Joy” when he was asked by a librarian to present a talk on “MAD” to an audience of children, since the magazine was the most stolen magazine in the New York Public Library. Raiola was also an actively professional standup comic at the time, so his 40-minute presentation went over so well that he decided to create a show for adult audiences that could dig deeper.
“Libraries are interested in censorship, and I wasn’t aware at the time that ‘MAD’ was almost shut down in the 1950s under McCarthy and it was swept up in all that,” says Raiola, who was invited to bring the show to Sierra Madre by Playhouse staff member Todd McGraw, who helps him with an annual tribute to John Lennon that raises money for the cancer charity Gilda’s Club in New York City. “I put together a show about censorship, comedy and ‘MAD,’ and I never stopped doing it.
“It turned out to be a subject more important to me than I realized,” he continues. “‘MAD’ was the only EC comic that survived, and it revolutionized satire in this country. It’s cool it was born out of fear, repression and censorship, because you can tell the free speech of any society by how healthy its standing against censorship is. We now have a president questioning the legality of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ so it’s time to keep the spotlight on these issues.”
While Raiola has presented ‘Joy’ at countless professional conferences, public libraries, colleges and regional theaters in 44 states, he has never brought it to Southern California before. He notes some surprising things about the places he has performed at.
“I like doing red states like Mississippi, Utah, Arkansas and Kentucky, where I’m not as likely to have an audience that agrees with some of the things I’m saying,” says Raiola. “I have to piss off liberals too and I have. I’ve run into some places where it didn’t go over so well. West Virginia said ‘That kind of comedy doesn’t go over here,’ but no one’s killed me yet.
“I don’t use all the foul words myself, but if I’m quoting Samantha Bee on Ivanka Trump, I say the whole word, not ‘the c-word.’ I can use the words in context in a way that most comedians can’t. That makes it interesting. Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor are my four Mount Rushmore of standups. What do they have in common? No one could tell them what to say and they never apologized. They were fearless, and exposed racism, misogyny, using these words in service to making a real point. “
Joe Raiola performs “The Joy of Censorship” at 8 p.m. next Thurs., May 30, at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Tickets are $25. Call (626) 355-4319 or visit sierramadreplayhouse.org.