The Last Laugh

How Car Talk Made Public Radio Feel Like Home

Comedy Features

There are, as everyone knows, two kinds of people in the world: those who grew up constantly exposed to their parents’ secondhand NPR, and those who had friends in middle school. Those in the former category probably had problems developing their budding social skills because it would take them years to realize that no one really wanted to hear about Nina Totenberg’s take on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or the finer points of the Bush Doctrine, or at best about the latest news from Lake Wobegon. Turning into the kind of person who brought these topics up in seventh grade gym—usually while passing time before inevitably getting hit in the face with a volleyball serve—meant accepting early on that the world was full of no-nonsense adults who spent most of their time discussing science, politics, tragedies of all stripes, and other topics you just barely understood. And if you had a chance to break away from this belief, it came when your local NPR station broadcast Car Talk, whose stars, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, knew better than anyone how to remind listeners that the biggest problems in life could never be that bad.

When Tom Magliozzi died earlier this week at 77, listeners reacted as they rarely do to a retired radio host’s passing. They were saddened, and some even a little shocked: The brothers hadn’t produced a new episode of Car Talk since 2012, but the show had still pulled in high ratings in syndication on NPR, and it was easy to forget that the two weren’t still in their booth in Cambridge, asking callers to replicate their car’s strange noises or rattling off terrible puns—“A neutron goes into a bar and asks the bartender, ‘How much for a beer?’ The bartender replies, ‘For you, no charge’”—or just laughing.

On the day of Tom Magliozzi’s passing, a video collecting just the laughing from an episode of Car Talk began making the rounds online. No other tribute seemed quite as fitting. Both brothers were MIT graduates who made use of their educations by not just knowing what the right advice was, but by figuring out what a caller was really asking, which meant that they found themselves dispensing philosophical advice as much as transmission help. Car problems arrived wrapped around marital disputes, anxiety about college grades, romantic prospects, and sociological quandaries, and Tom and Ray Magliozzi never hesitated to find out what was really troubling a listener who claimed to be worried about a blinking dash light. But these skills still paled, most listeners would surely agree, in comparison to their laughing. They were champion laughers—loud, unselfconscious, and completely infectious—and though it would be hard to say which brother was the better mechanic or the better driver, a visit to the archive can tell you that Tom’s laugh had just a slight edge over Ray’s.

These days, NPR stations are fairly jammed with shows that do their best to cuddle up to the listener and offer them the same kind of comfort and distraction that Car Talk did. But, as Jay Caspian Kang wrote in his appreciation of Tom Magliozzi’s life and work;, “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.”

Car Talk was also something listeners could all too easily take for granted. In its 25-year broadcast history (35 if you counted back the show’s initial run on Boston’s WBUR), Car Talk was always the same. There was always the same mix of listener problems, ranging from the simple to the philosophical, the jokes and puzzlers, the ritual of the sign-off (“Don’t drive like my brother!” “Don’t drive like my brother!”), and, of course, the laughter. When you listen to the episodes of classic Car Talk now on the show’s website in podcast form, the years quickly become indistinguishable from each other. Or, as Caspian Kang wrote, “the only way you can tell a 2010 recording from a 1989 recording is the years of the caller’s cars.” Like the Ramones, the Magliozzi brothers were consistent enough for the public to take their continued existence as a given and did something that seemed simple until you realized just how hard it was to replicate.

Today, people who grew up with Car Talk may live in a world very different from seventh grade gym. Being an NPR listener is not just a badge of cultural awareness, but a go-to conversation topic at parties. “Did you hear that episode of RadioLab where…” is the new “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” And seeing someone listening to a podcast of This American Life is a bit like spotting a colored handkerchief in someone’s back pocket once was for the leather bar crowd, “Don’t you just love Ira Glass?” being the nebbish mating call of the podcast age.

There was never anything hip about Tom and Ray Magliozzi, who made their debut on NPR when it was still deeply uncool, and who were slowly grandfathered in even as the neighborhood began to change drastically around them. Car Talk wasn’t cool: only warm, generous, loud, and impossible to imagine not having around, like the lone Boston-Italian family on a block filling up with serious young professionals who keep compost heaps in their backyards. They felt like family, even if you’d never met them, and they ended each show making listeners and callers alike feel somehow better about the world, even if they still didn’t know what was wrong with their carburetors. And, as part of an institution that prided itself on producing the kind of programming that made people challenge their ideas and change their minds, Tom and Ray Magliozzi lived up to this mission weekly, and without ever seeming to try very hard. In one memorable show, a long-frustrated woman called in determined to beat her old VW to smithereens rather than selling it. Five minutes later, she agreed to give away for free to a needy stranger instead. “We wish you the very best,” Tom said, seeming, as he always did, to mean it. As it turns out, you can only listen to so much laughter—and a little gentle chiding—before you begin laughing yourself.

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