Accidental free-speech crusader
by Seth Rogovoy

(STOCKBRIDGE, Mass., May 26, 2004) – It’s almost a cliché that the First Amendment needs to be reaffirmed by each generation or else it withers away. Never has this been more true, says political humorist Joe Raiola, than in post-9/11 America.

“The First Amendment is always under attack, but 9/11 changed the nature of the attacks on free speech and free expression,” said Raiola -- who brings his one-man show, “The Joy of Censorship,” to the Berkshire Theatre Festival on Sunday, May 30, at 3 – in a recent phone interview from Manhattan.

“The First Amendment has to be important to people, or else it’s a right that tends to be eaten away.”

Raiola considers himself something of an accidental crusader for free speech. For most of his career he has been an actor and humorist, writing and performing social satire and autobiographical comedy, mostly in a series of one-man shows that began with “Call Me Lunatic” in 1980. Other shows of his included “Lost in the New Age” and “Confessions of an Ex-Standup.”

He turned his comic pen to a series of magazine spoofs with a group of National Lampoon alumni that included Cosmoparody and Like a Rolling Stone. Then in 1985, Raiola became one of the “Usual Gang of Idiots” on the masthead of Mad Magazine, the venerable bible of antiestablishment satire. He still holds the title of senior editor at Mad, and is also the associate director at the Theatre Within Performance Workshop, where he leads groups in creativity and authentic improvisation.

He is also a popular speaker, making the rounds of college campuses and library conferences with his talk, “Joy of Censorship,” in which he addresses the intersection of the First Amendment and Mad Magazine.

“The show deals with a very serious issue, but from the point of view of a Mad Magazine senior editor,” said Raiola, 46. “The show is an hour of comedy. But it revolves around all these peculiar First Amendment cases and issues, film censorship, book censorship, the roots of censorship, and how it manifests itself on the left and the right.”

Raiola will return to BTF this summer to inaugurate the new Late Nights at the Unicorn series with his newest one-man show, “Almost Obscene,” which will run July 29 through August 14.

Ironically enough, Raiola says that “Almost Obscene” was an outgrowth of “Joy of Censorship,” prompted in part when he found he was censoring what he had to say because of the form of the talk and the nature of the audiences to which he was delivering it.

“I wasn’t cutting loose and saying everything I wanted to say, partly because I felt constrained by playing colleges and doing conferences,” said Raiola, whose primary residence is in Stone Ridge, N.Y. “Colleges are actually very uptight places.”

So for “Almost Obscene,” Raiola set about to write a more consciously theatrical show that would deal with the moral and theological issues underlying free expression. In the context of a one-man show played before theater audiences, he would be freer to push the envelope than he was in his public lectures.

“I think that censorship for lots of people starts inside,” he said. “We censor ourselves. It’s not so easy just overcoming that. Saying whatever you feel about God or Jesus or the war. Is it OK to say that, is it safe?”

“As a performer I always aspire to being completely uncensored on stage,” said Raiola, who described “Almost Obscene” as an “edgier” and “more controversial” show than “Joy of Censorship.”

“’Joy of Censorship’ revolves solely around the First Amendment and related issues, whereas ‘Almost Obscene’ is an evening of theater, more in your face, with a lot of religious themes that I don’t get into in ‘Joy.’”

These religious themes include Raiola’s theory that the founding myth of censorship is the Garden of Eden story in the Bible.

“God is the first censor,” he said. “He bans the apple, and it doesn’t quite work out. The moment something is censored, it has this magnetic appeal. It’s impossible to resist. We are too curious.

“On that level, if you understand that as a metaphysical truth, if you really want to keep people from getting something, don’t censor it. Censorship can’t work and doesn’t, even when practiced by God. What makes us think we’ll succeed where God failed? People don’t get it. They continually try to restrict what others are allowed to say or see. And there’s more than a little of that going on now.”

Raiola feels that humorists in particular have an obligation to speak out because they of all people enjoy something of an immunity against censorship. “Humorists are given a lot of freedom, more than most people, thanks to Lenny Bruce, who took the hit for us all,” he said.

“A comedian in a club can say just about anything. You can be brutally honest. On that level, perhaps in terms of the world of stand-ups, it’s a golden age for free speech now, because there are people out there doing really important social commentary that’s both funny and smart.”

Raiola will lead a panel discussion on censorship immediately following Sunday’s show. Panel members will include theater director Eric Hill, William Ballen, superintendent of the Mt. Greylock School Union, and Dr. Alan Chartock, executive director of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and professor of Political Communication at the University at Albany.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 27, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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