This blogger first heard Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers after NPR came to the Texas Panhandle in 2001. (The reasons for that late arrival of NPR is a long and bitter story for another time.) The first Saturday morning that this blogger tuned in, he heard "Car Talk" and missed very few segments even after leaving the Texas Panhandle for the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Tom and Ray Magliozzi received a George Foster Peabody Award in 1992 for "Car Talk." If this is (fair & balanced) laughing toward excellence, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
"Car Talk" America
By Jay Caspian Kang One Of The Great Laughs On National Public Radio Has Been Stilled
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For twenty-five years, Tom Magliozzi, who with his younger brother, Ray, hosted the National Public Radio show “Car Talk,” laughed at every insult, every bit of ludicrous advice, every punny credit read on air by Ray (among the great ones: “Our assistant disciplinarian is Joaquin D’Planque”). Magliozzi died yesterday, at the age of seventy-seven, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Only the best can get away with laughing at their own jokes, and Tom Magliozzi earned that right through his care, his wit, and his lovable crankiness. In the history of American comedians who crack up at their own jokes, which includes David Letterman, Joan Rivers, and Richard Pryor, nobody did it quite as loudly, or as sincerely, as Tom Magliozzi.
“Car Talk” first aired on WBUR in Boston in 1977. The station’s program director had come up with the idea of a call-in show for people to ask mechanics questions about their cars. He asked Tom and Ray if they might be interested. According to the brothers, their response was as follows:
After a few milliseconds of thinking about it, Tom realized he had nothing more meaningful to do with his life, and said, “sure.” (Ray claims he had a hair dressers appointment that day. This is unlikely but plausible, since Ray had hair in those days.
Any fan of the show knows to read that passage in Ray’s practical-sounding, higher-pitched voice and that the proper punctuation is Tom’s uncontrollable laughter.
It’s hard to find that same warmth on “funny” public radio these days, which so often feels like being only one drink in at a Harvard Lampoon happy-hour reunion. Too much has been made of the Magliozzi brothers’ M.I.T. education and how they weren’t really car mechanics but, rather, educated men who had taught college courses and would, on occasion, talk about the grades they had received in advanced algebra and applied physics. I suppose the NPR crowd who listened every week, especially those who had been among the people in Harvard Square who knew Dewey, Cheetham, and Howe as “Huey, Duey [sic] and Louie,” sometimes needed a comforting reference point, something to signal that “Car Talk” was something more than a “Saturday Night Live” skit about Boston accents. To be fair, both Tom and Ray played up the educated part of their backgrounds perfectly: they didn’t discuss it with false humility like Brenda Patimkin in “Goodbye, Columbus,” who tells Neil Klugman that she “goes to school in Boston,” but rather with amused contempt. With their endless jokes about hippie towns (Vermont always got it the worst) and their dismissiveness of anyone who might dare call in with a question about a Saab, Tom and Ray chastised the typical NPR listener with just the right amount of bite and sarcasm.
For its lifelong listeners, then, “Car Talk” was much more than a translation of the world of automobile mechanics by people who “went to school in Boston,” for people who “went to school in Boston.” I spent much of my childhood in Cambridge; my earliest memories are of the pigeons in front of Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, the punks in the Pit, and the tree in front of our apartment on Garden Street that snapped in half during Hurricane Gloria. For my immigrant parents, who at the time did not speak great English, “Car Talk” softened the edge of Boston and helped familiarize my father, who, like Tom, drove a beat-up Dodge Dart, with both Boston accents and American humor. Twenty-five years later, he, like me, still remembers Cambridge mostly through “Car Talk,” so much so that I wonder if the reasons why I recall Harvard Square more than the other places we lived there is because every week Tom’s laughter would redirect me to those memories.
“Car Talk” always felt timeless, as did its hosts. The show’s template—calls from owners of cars ranging from a Chevy Malibu to a Chevy Chevette, a weekly puzzler, and letters from listeners—was so static that the only way one can really tell a 2010 recording from a 1989 recording is the years of the caller’s cars. After “Car Talk” went off the air, in 2012, NPR kept putting out “classic” episodes on its podcast page, which I’d listen to on long drives in Los Angeles. I always felt a bit of a sting whenever a car owner said, “I have a 1991 Saturn,” because it shattered the illusion that Tom and Ray were still sitting in a studio in Harvard Square with their producer, Doug (“the subway fugitive, not a slave to fashion, bongo boy”) Berman.
As Tom might say, he is now in the good hands of “Car Talk”’s staff morticians, Barry L. Plotz and Sven Didigo, as well as the show’s Boston funeral director, Hadley Newham. Ω
[Seoul-born Jay Caspian Kang is a news editor for newyorker.com. Before coming to The New Yorker, he was a founding editor at Grantland and contributed to the New York Times Magazine, Wired, and several other publications. His feature on Don King, published on Grantland, was anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting 2014 (2014). He is the author of the novel The Dead Do Not Improve (2012). Kang received a BA from Bowdoin College and an MFA from Columbia University.]
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