I just came back from a library conference where one of the speakers was Joe Raiola, Senior Editor of MAD Magazine. His presentation was titled, "The Joy of Censorship: A Provocative Program on the First Amendment and the History of Mad Magazine." He spoke to a roomful of librarians who were almost all quite receptive to his views (yeah, there's always a few fuddy-duddies, even among us).
Joe began with a long and hilarious disclaimer in which he said his program material is "...not PG, PG-13, R, X or NC-17. It's completely unrated. I have not submitted any of my material for approval to any agency or 'family friendly' organization. This includes the FCC, the FBI, the CIA, DHS, FEMA...the NCAA, the NAACP, or NAMBLA." He rolled off about 50 or 60 organization acronyms in what was clearly a well-practiced and familiar shtick.
Raiola says the biggest problem is that he still censors himself. This started when he was in second grade, and was asked by his "fat, buck-toothed bitch-on-wheels" teacher to write a word starting with "H" ten times. He wrote "H-E-L-L." He noticed that his fellow students had noted his prank, and word was spreading quickly to the front of the class in whispers about what he was writing. He saw that it had reached the teacher, who began to walk towards his desk. He quickly adds an "O" to the end of each "HELL" and says innocently, "Hello, hello, hello!"
Raiola says that the lesson he learned is that you need to be willing to pay the price to express yourself uncensored. There will always be consequences, and you have to be prepared to take them.
He blasted censorship on religious grounds, pointing out that in the Bible, God was the first failed censor when he banned the eating of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. "If God Himself couldn't make it work, why do some people think they're going to succeed?"
He also ridiculed religious pareidolia, the perception of a religiously significant pattern, such as a face, where none is intended, exemplified by the "Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich" which he used as a MAD magazine feature picturing other "religious food," such as baba ganoush Ganesh and Mohammed in a pancake.
Raiola bemoans the fact that supposedly adult, civilized people are so afraid of words in the 21st Century. He quoted George Carlin's oft-repeated "Seven Dirty Words" routine, which of course everyone in the audience had just about memorized themselves. Raiola echoed Carlin's contention that there are no such thing as bad words, just bad intentions.
Raiola related the story of U2 singer Bono's saying "This is really, really fucking brilliant!" when accepting the Golden Globe Award in 2003. At first, the FCC ruled that Bono's adjectival use of the word "fuck" was "neither obscene nor indecent." However, in early 2004, the FCC reversed its decision, stating that "the F-word is one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language," premised on the conclusion that the word "fuck" has always referred to sexual activity, a claim that the FCC neither explained nor supported with evidence.
Raiola says that the Janet Jackson Superbowl "wardrobe malfunction" was likely responsible for the reversal, "which proves," Raiola says, "that the government can respond quickly and effectively to a crisis, as long as that crisis is Janet Jackson’s titty. Now, if if it were Hurricane Janet..."
Raiola went on to give a capsule history of MAD magazine, founded by notorious EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines. Raiola worked for Gaines for many years, and had many stories about his personal idiosyncracies. He described Gaines's scorn for the Wertham-inspired Senate hearings, and his decision to change MAD from a comic into a magazine, which put it beyond the reach of the Comics Code Authority.
Raiola mentioned that in spite of its biting and extremely pointed satire, MAD has never been successfully sued since it began publishing.
Raiola concluded with a ten minute slide show of some famous, and not-so-famous MAD covers through the decades, including the famous "flipping the bird" cover (which, Raiola says, was stripped and returned to distributors with very few copies actually making it to the newsstands); the cover in which Alfred E. Neuman is sitting on a xerox machine with his pants down, but the copies coming out are of his face; the Rockwell-esque cover of Alfred pissing his name in the snow; the fake presidential portrait of Bill Clinton with a "junior Billy" waving hello from his fly; and the Bush as Forrest Gump movie poster cover.
I'm glad I got the chance to hear this guy speak. He's a good performer, and a real champion of free speech.