So What Do You Do, Joe Raiola, MAD Senior Editor and John Lennon Tribute Executive Producer?

By Richard Horgan / November 13, 2013

In addition to having the good fortune of goofing off for a living in an office on Broadway across from David Letterman, MAD Magazine senior editor Joe Raiola is also responsible for one of only two officially sanctioned annual John Lennon tributes.

The 33rd edition of this great event is set for Friday, Dec. 6 at New York's Symphony Space, with a lineup that this year includes Steve Earle, Joan Osborne and Marc Cohn. Raiola launched the event in 1981 with Alec Rubin, the late founder of Theatre Within. All proceeds go to a rotating, designated charity (this year, Lennon and Yoko Ono's Spirit Foundation).

The 58-year-old Raiola has also been a part for many years of WDST 100.1 FM's Sunday morning two-hour program The Woodstock Roundtable and performs, when he can, his First Amendment one-man shows (Almost Obscene, The Joy of Censorship). He scales back that part of his busy schedule during the months leading up to the Lennon Tribute but is making time this Saturday, Nov. 16 for a rare free library performance in Long Beach, N.Y., one of the communities devastated by Superstorm Sandy.

Name: Joe Raiola
Position: Senior editor, MAD Magazine; executive producer, John Lennon Tribute
Resume: The best way to summarize Raiola's professional trajectory is "a charmed life." He has been for 28 years one of a small group of full-timers responsible for MAD Magazine, and for 33 years, the producer of an annual John Lennon tribute held on or around the date of the beloved Beatle's death. Raiola is also a theater and comedy performer who has now visited 44 states with his one-man First Amendment shows.
Birthdate: October 12
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: B.A., Adelphi University
Marital status: Married
Mentor: Alec Rubin, founder of Theatre Within
Best career advice received: "Better to die on your feet than live on your knees. Wait, maybe not."
Guilty pleasure: Sex
Last book read: Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him
Twitter handle: Non-tweeting and loving it!

What was the Beatles' connection to MAD magazine?

The most famous Beatles-MAD connection is in the movie A Hard Day's Night. There's a somewhat famous scene early in the film when the Beatles are on a train. They walk into one of the cars and the actor who plays their manager is reading a MAD paperback. The Beatles were also on the cover of issue #121, featuring the band and Mia Farrow visiting the Maharishi. [MAD's mascot] Alfred appears on the cover as the Maharishi.

Did you ever see the Beatles or Lennon live?

Not as a group, but I've seen all of the Beatles in concert individually. I saw Lennon in 1972 at Madison Square Garden when he did a One to One benefit. I can't help but think, when I see Paul McCartney doing all these concerts lately, what John Lennon might also be doing if he were still alive. McCartney opened his recent tour with "Eight Days a Week," which is a song John sang. I'm trying to imagine John Lennon on tour, opening his concert with "Eight Days a Week." Would John do that? I don't know.

How did Yoko Ono become involved with the John Lennon Tribute?

It happened by accident. It was a small neighborhood event that had been happening for years since 1981, but Yoko didn't become involved until 2004. Keep in mind this was a small workshop show that moved around the city a little bit. Over the years it evolved into a charity event, benefiting an education program for homeless kids living in community housing in Harlem.

In 2004, a little blurb appeared in the Daily News about the 24th annual John Lennon tribute. Willa Shalit, Gene Shalit's daughter, was working with Yoko on a book called Memories of John Lennon featuring celebrity contributors like Elton John and Eric Clapton. Willa was the editor and she tracked me down. She left a voicemail, which basically said, "I work with Yoko; will you call me back?" And I have to tell you -- I was scared! I was like, "Oh no, am I in trouble?" We were using some Lennon artwork to promote the show.

When I spoke to Willa, she asked, "What are you doing?" I explained, and Willa said, "That is amazing; that is so beautiful." The next day, I got an email from Yoko inviting me to write an essay for the book. The book is alphabetical by author last name, so my essay appears between Billy Preston and Bonnie Raitt. That put the tribute on Yoko's radar and because we'd been doing it for 24 years, she intuitively understood that this was the real deal -- that this wasn't something exploitative.

The next year, we did the 25th anniversary at Lincoln Center. We started to get some working musicians involved and recast the show in a more professional way. Since then it's been unbelievable. It's one of two tributes in the world that Yoko supports, along with a Dream [Power] Concert in Japan that has been going on for 12 years. This year Steve Earle is among the artists and one thing that struck me as funny -- I'd forgotten this -- he wrote a piece in that [Memories] book!

What charities has the Tribute most recently supported?

In 2007 and 2008, we worked with Why Hunger. We really helped them a lot because out of that came this relationship with Yoko and Imagine There's No Hunger Global, which has raised millions of dollars to feed hungry people around the world. In 2010, we raised money to build schools in [developing nations]. Last year it was for Hurricane Sandy relief. And this year, we asked Yoko and she invited us to make it for the Spirit Foundation.

Spirit Foundation was started in 1970 by John and Yoko. Before it was started, John was writing checks to charity organizations and what he was finding was that they weren't cashing the checks. They were framing them because they wanted a John Lennon autograph!

So as a way to give money without having to sign his name to checks, he and Yoko started the Spirit Foundation. It's what they call a non-operating foundation. They don't solicit funds; they don't have employees. But it's a great thing because it connects our event with John in a way that we have never [done] before.

Now, back to MAD magazine...What's the atmosphere like at the office?

Well, the thing you have to keep in mind about MAD is: If you mature, you get fired. It's a place where you stay perpetually young or silly or both. I don't have a real job -- I'm senior editor at MAD. The MAD creative staff is small. There are five editors, and the art department is three people.

I'm a huge fan of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Stephen recently wrote an introduction to one of our books, and Tim Carvell [head writer] of The Daily Show writes for MAD. He's got a [column] called Planet Tad, which is sensational. We all are comedy fans. We try to make ourselves laugh and if we're making each other laugh, we figure someone else will laugh too.

What advice do you have for readers interested in pitching MAD?

MAD has always been freelance written. We're always looking for new talent and new writers. Pitching stuff to us now is pretty easy; you can do it via our website. And we're actually foolish enough to review everything that comes in.

Writers don't need to include illustrations. When I sold to MAD for the first time in 1984, I didn't have any skills as an artist at all. I suggested a couple of art notes and had some ideas as to how I thought something could be done, but that was about it.

Do you ever hear from any of the people you lampoon?

Probably the most famous example of a show or person that loved being spoofed was L.A. Law. When MAD spoofed L.A. Law, with the entire cast on the cover, Stephen Bochco and the cast loved it so much that they actually recreated the illustration in a photo and sent us the photo of them posed, as they were drawn on the cover.

It used to be people didn't want to be spoofed. Now people want to be spoofed, even politicians. Sarah Palin wants to go on Saturday Night Live, so she could show everyone she has a sense of humor. Al Gore was on SNL. When I first started working at MAD, movies didn't want to cooperate with us. That's all changed. Today, they want to be on the cover.

How long have you been doing the radio show The Woodstock Roundtable?

Thirteen years with Doug Gunther. I'm really fortunate, because I have a career as a comedian, a speaker -- I've performed in 44 states with this First Amendment/censorship show. It also ties in to MAD, which came of age during a tremendous era of censorship in the 1950s.

Last week on the radio show, for example, we did segments on dreams, bats and a half hour of political stuff. It's a free-wheeling talk show, where literally anything goes within FCC rules. Authors, nutrition, sports, politics, humor, live music... We kind of do it all.

Also, as someone who thinks that George Carlin is the Babe Ruth of comedy, it's great fun to be able to work with George's son Patrick. He's a frequent guest on the show.