'Almost Obscene' Explores Censorship from Biblical Times to the Present

I suppose when you're attending a one-man show written and performed by a Senior Editor of MAD Magazine, its only natural to expect something a bit (and I mean this in the most respectable sense of the word) sophomoric. After all, we're talking about MAD Magazine; for over fifty years the monthly manifesto teaching 14-year-old boys how to rebel through broad lampooning and rude none-too-subtle parody.

But Joe Raiola's day job apparently has little to do with the style of humor he displays in Almost Obscene, his monologue exploring contemporary censorship which just finished a weekend engagement at The Bowery Poetry Club.

"It's 2004 and we're still afraid of the word.", declares Raiola in an attempt to reason how those with the power determine what is suitable for polite society. "We're told as children that God is everywhere. Everywhere. Does that mean God is in your teeth? God is up your ass?" Somewhere in the difference between "teeth" and "ass" is the difference between acceptable humor and crass jokes deemed worthy of censorship.

When Almost Obscene played in last year's New York City Fringe Festival, the show's logo -- Raiola making a fist and sticking his ring finger up in the air -- was rejected by a newspaper because it too closely suggested a gesture as if he were sticking his middle finger in the air. But if he were sticking his index finger in the air they'd consider it perfectly acceptable. Where does this determination come from?

"God was the first censor.", he reasons, reminding us how censorship is primarily a denial of knowledge. Modern-day censors, both left and right, are criticized for their actions. Raiola explains how a film containing seven seconds of consensual sex gets smacked with an NC-17 rating, which restricts it from being seen in many communities and from being stocked by major video stores, however a violent, blood-splattered movie gets an R rating, making it available for family viewing, leaving us to consider why depicting the action that gives life and mutual pleasure is less acceptable than depicting the killing of a fellow human.

As directed by Barbara Pitcher, Joe Raiola's stage persona is that of a bewildered everyman trying to make sense of his surroundings. He often alludes to natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon and El Capitan as the perfect escapes from the nonsensical world mankind has created. Although Almost Obscene explores material well-covered in the past by the likes of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, Raiola does so with a gentle, Thurber-esque quality; very friendly and non-confrontational, as though he were conversing with his audience, rather than performing for them.

As there appears to be no immediate end to censorship on the horizon, Raiola will continue to perform Almost Obscene (his next engagement will be this summer at The Berkshire Theatre Festival), no doubt updating the piece as our newsmakers keep providing him with material.

For information on Joe Raiola and upcoming performances of Almost Obscene, visit JoeRaiola.com

For Michael Dale's "mad adventures of a straight boy living in a gay world" visit dry2olives.com


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