“Our God is a totally neurotic, evil, codependent, sick, fucked-up god,” says Joe Raiola in clipped cadences. Then he gets mad: “That motherfucker? He’s gonna judge me?”
The New York native premieres his one-man show, Almost Obscene, at this year’s Fringe Festival (P.S. 122, opens August 9). The poster for the performance shows a balding, bearded Raiola flipping his ring finger at the camera, and although he’s exasperatedly pointed out that he’s not using the finger, at least one newspaper has refused his ad for being “too suggestive.” Censorship of any kind galls Raiola, which provides the driving force of this show. “God’s the first censor,” he says. “Adam and Eve have this great deal—they’re naked, they have no shame . . . it’s paradise.” With one catch: God forbids them to eat from the tree of knowledge. But “it’s our destiny to eat forbidden fruit—it’s about the human soul, it’s about the human spirit,” which, Raiola chortles, makes God “a miserable failure as a censor.” Plus, he muses, isn’t it a sin that so many human censors think they can succeed in an area where God has utterly failed?
Almost Obscene is the fruit of Raiola’s 20-plus years in radio, TV, stand-up comedy, and theater. Currently a senior editor at MAD magazine, Raiola says he’s lucky his anger is often funny, but that he got tired of stand-up gigs where he took the stage for eight minutes and “had to be funny in the first 20 seconds.” So his solo theater work has become less joke-driven and more personal, more about his outrage at an absurd culture where cable news airs horrific war footage while simultaneously flashing baseball scores across the bottom of the screen, and where Christian fundamentalists decry Harry Potter as a devil worshiper.
Raiola’s goal is to be outrageous, outraged, funny, and also physical, since his only prop is his body. Everything he does is aimed at the ultimate challenge: no self-censorship. Recently on C-SPAN he did a tamer version of his show, in the guise of a public lecture. But the East Village? “There are no constraints being put on me here.” The hour-plus performance has a beginning and an end, but for the rest, Raiola says, “I’m in for a surprise myself—I feel like I’m shooting my energy into a prism and I don’t know where it’s gonna come out.”
God only knows.