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The Monitor's View

Just kidding

Today's American politics needs the mix of humor and civility heard on NPR's soon-to-end "Car Talk." Mass culture that includes self-deprecatory jokes and a friendly tone can influence the nation's political discourse.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / June 11, 2012

Ray Magliozzi, left, and his brother Tom, hosts of National Public Radio's "Car Talk" show, will stop making new episodes of their comic auto advice show in September, 25 years after "Car Talk" began. The brothers say "it's time to stop and smell the cappuccino."

Charles Krupa/AP Photo/ file

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The comedian mechanics who host NPR’s “Car Talk” are calling it quits after 25 years on the radio. Tom and Ray Magliozzi – aka Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers – have been a rare example of the kind of self-deprecating humor and on-air civility that can uplift public discourse in America.

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Their success in mixing laughter and respect found a match in the friendly and witty sparring each week between David Brooks and Mark Shields on the PBS “NewsHour” show. In February, the two columnists were given the Prize for Civility in Public Life by Allegheny College. When the award was announced, Mr. Brooks quipped: “I want to apologize for punching Mark.”

American media culture could use a few more models of humor and civility at a time when its politics is all sharp tongues and elbows. Self-deprecating jokes – not the cynical, flamethrower type seen on Comedy Central – can serve as a universal solvent to the harshness of Washington’s acute polarization.

Making jokes about one’s self can open doors, says Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming. It reflects a self-confidence and allows for forgiveness.

It can also allow political opponents to work, as Mr. Simpson and former Democratic White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles were able to do in devising a compromise deficit-reduction plan in 2010.

President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill used humor as a softening agent. They would fight over issues during the day but often get together in the evening and tell each other Irish jokes. Their humor made sure they could disagree without being disagreeable. They also got a lot done.

A Reagan speechwriter, Peter Robinson, later wrote: “Reagan taught me to appreciate the uses of humor.... But he also taught me to appreciate the meaning of humor. The world contains more good than bad, more courage than cowardice, and more reasons for smiles than for tears. Laughter is a profession of faith.”

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