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.
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.
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.
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.”
Good humor is also a form of affection, a graceful admission that the somethings need not divide us.
Abraham Lincoln often used self-deprecatory remarks to get the country through hard times. An opponent once told Lincoln that he was being two-faced, to which he responded: “If I had two faces do you think I’d be wearing this thing?”
A journalist of the time, Henry Villard, remarked, “It would be hard to find one who tells better jokes, enjoys them better and laughs oftener than Abraham Lincoln.”
These days, if politicians in Washington are funny at all, it can be heard at the annual political roasts hosted by journalists, the Gridiron Dinner and the White House Correspondents Dinner. But those affairs are mostly private.
If popular culture is jovial and friendly, politicians will reflect that. The 1960s comedy show “Laugh-In” was able to get the serious Richard Nixon to appear on the show and self-mockingly ask “Sock it to me?” Today’s cable TV talk shows wouldn’t allow for that kind of light moment.
The coming of radio, movies, and TV in the 20th century brought a number of examples of entertainment that were both funny and respectful. “Car Talk” follows in the path of, say, the Smothers brothers or comedians George and Gracie Burns. In the 1950s sitcom “The Honeymooners,” Jackie Gleason would get angry at Audrey Meadows only to end up saying, “Honey, you’re the greatest!”
Democracies need humor. Even ancient Athens had a comedians’ club called the Group of Sixty that met in a temple to tell jokes. If Washington is ever to lighten up, then mass media must lead the way.
It’s a good thing that reruns of “Car Talk” will be on NPR for years to come.