By JENNIFER K. BAUERWhen your job description is “One of the Usual Gang of Idiots” you’re part of a proud, immature clan that’s helped shape modern-day comedy — from “The Simpsons” and “South Park” to “The Daily Show” and The Onion.
Before them all was Mad magazine, established in 1952 to the alarm of parents, teachers, preachers and other authority figures — the comic skewered every aspect of American culture. Nothing was sacred and no one was exempt — movies, musicians, advertising, politicians, even the American dream itself were parodied, satirized and ridiculed.
Joe Raiola became a member of the Usual Gang of Idiots in 1985 and is now a senior editor at the magazine. He’ll visit the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley this week to deliver his talk “The Joy of Censorship.” Inland 360 spoke to the 58-year-old comedian in a phone interview from his home in New York.
“(Idaho) is the 44th state in which I’m doing the show. That’s really cool. I’m a lot more excited about going to Idaho than any one in Idaho probably is about me being there,” Raiola says.
360: What’s it like to work at Mad magazine? What’s the creative atmosphere that continues to inspire fresh humor and ideas for more than 60 years?
Raiola: “It beats having a real job. I like to say about Mad that it’s the one place in the country where if you mature you get fired. You’re expected to retain a certain adolescent view of the world. If you reach the stage in your life where you no longer find fart jokes funny you can no longer work at Mad.”
360: For the first 20 years of its existence nothing compared to Mad magazine when it came to widely available subversive humor. Today that kind of humor is widespread on the Internet, T-shirts and toys. Has this changed the way Mad does things?
Raiola: “Mad has become the victim of its own success because Mad has been so influential. Mad started in 1952 as a comic book and there was nothing like it then. The Mad I grew up reading … was pretty much alone in the field. There was no humor that really was the kind Mad was doing. Now there’s a generation of comedy writers that have grown up reading Mad. … In terms of the media world … there’s a billion places for comedy. A lot of comedians, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, even Howard Stern and Jerry Seinfeld, say they knew they were successful when they appeared on the cover of Mad. I don’t think it has changed what we do very much. When you look at Mad in terms of its voice, it’s the same sarcastic, adolescent, sharp, smart voice that it’s always been.”
360: How is it that our free speech and First Amendment rights are being threatened in an atmosphere so rife with parody and satire?
Raiola: “First, comedians have always been on the forefront of exercising the First Amendment and standing up for the First Amendment. Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, they were all big influences on me. Right up to the “South Park” guys — comedians have always been on the forefront of this, always. It’s interesting to me that we live in a world where Jon Stewart is censored on a cable comedy channel every night. (If he utters an expletive) we see him say it but they don’t let us hear him say it. The idea that that is still happening on an 11 o’clock show on a comedy channel largely goes unnoticed. I think Comedy Central should be embarrassed. It’s weird.”
When I started (giving this talk) I started with the idea that the First Amendment was under siege. Especially after 9/11 voices were being censored. Now it’s being interpreted in bizarre ways by the Supreme Court. It’s very strange. We live in an age now where corporations have free speech rights. The courts say we’re not allowed to put any limits on spending. Billionaires are allowed to pour as much money into political speech as they want because if we limit it that is in some way a violation of their First Amendment rights. It’s a very novel, strict amendment approach. … On the face of it you could say they are all pro-First Amendment. The thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that the First Amendment is not absolute, of course, it’s restrictive, There are laws against libel. You’re not allowed to yell fire in a crowded theater. You can’t burn a cross on your front lawn because of the nation’s history. There are limits. This Supreme Court doesn’t want to restrict rights at all except for comedians. (You still can’t broadcast) Carlin’s (“Seven Dirty Words” act). It’s legal to restrict it in that way but not in any other way. It’s really bizarre.”
360: Do you think as a culture we are questioning authority enough?
Raiola: “You never question authority enough. That’s a healthy thing to do. It’s interesting to note who the authority is now. You can tell who the authority is by who has the biggest building. It’s always been that way. In American towns it used to be the church people. Over time it changed and the church building was replaced by the government building, the Capitol towered over the town. What towers over everything now? The corporate tower towers over everything. Corporations fund the arts, television, charity work, music stores. They run the government to a large degree. The big authority now are the corporations. I work for one so I’ve got to be careful. Are we questioning them enough? They’re never questioned enough, really. Mad has always done that in a very big way. Mad’s message for readers is always to question authority — parents, teachers, anyone who tells you they know what they’re doing, That power over you should be questioned and ridiculed. Those are our favorite to ridicule, those who claim to be running the show or know better than us.”
360: You’re speaking at the Idaho Library Association Annual Conference this week in Lewiston, how do libraries figure into our free speech rights and this battle?
Raiola: “Librarians are very cool people and they’re in a position they did not sign up for. People turn to libraries as if it’s their job to solve all these hot-button social issues. (For instance) building a book collection — what books are to be in the collection and where to shelve them, where should Mad magazine be shelved, in the kid’s section, the young adult section, the adult section? Librarians are under siege from parents and so-called family-friendly groups because of books that are called pornographic, and the Patriot Act, and issues of space use and who can use a library’s space. What happens is that these social issues play out at libraries across the country … that is not an easy thing as any librarian who has been on the front lines will tell you.
It’s not the librarian’s job to put together a book collection that’s going to make (people) feel comfortable. … If they’ve done their job well they’ve created a collection that makes people uncomfortable. If it’s a collection that someone will find objectionable, that means the collection is good. The First Amendment, it’s a muscle and you have to exercise your First Amendment muscle. Each generation has to reaffirm the First Amendment and, in a way, redefine it or it calcifies. It can become weak.”
IF YOU GO
Who: Mad magazine Senior Editor Joe Raiola
What: “The Joy of Censorship”
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3
Where: Walla Walla Community College, Clarkston
Cost: Admission is free but there is a suggested donation of $10
Raiola’s talk in Clarkston is sponsored by Asotin County Library, Humanities Washington, Friends of Asotin County Library, ACLU of Washington, and the students of Walla Walla Community College.