Since we’re on public radio, we might as well have fun

The Magliozzis of Car Talk are contemporary high priests — OK, low priests — with valuable knowledge about how to coexist with cars

By Stephanie McCrummen

In a time when American audiences give themselves to performers who act like “real people,” the irony of Tom and Ray Magliozzi is that they are who they seem to be.

The listeners get it. Ratings for the brothers’ radio show, the automotive-philosophical-political call-in colloquium, dubiously titled Car Talk, are among the highest of any NPR program — 1.9 million people a week, listening to 362 stations, which ranks the program after Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Fresh Air.

The Magliozzis’ genuine mechanical expertise notwithstanding, listeners most often say that the appeal of Car Talk is Tom and Ray themselves. “I think what we’re doing is sort of giving Tom and Ray a forum, a reason to be on the air,” says Executive Producer Doug Berman. “The show is obviously about them, what they’re thinking and their approach to life, which is really delightful.”

For Tom and Ray, both Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates, advice about cars naturally leads to expositions on existential, anthropological, historical, agricultural, marital and other topics. One caller, Rose from Dallas, for example, wants to know what car to purchase after she loses her 1994 Lexus LS-400 in a divorce. She was thinking about a Hyundai.

“Do you think you can patch things up with your husband?” asks Tom. “Drive that Hyundai around for a couple of weeks — your husband will look a lot better,” adds Ray.

Listeners often cite Tom and Ray’s candor as a reason they tune in. Paul from Bartow, Pa., calls because the electric brakes on his cattle trailer are malfunctioning. After a few minutes of speculation about how electric brakes work, Ray gives in: “It’s pretty clear that we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about,” he admits.

“I want to say though, Paul, that it’s been awfully nice talking to you,” adds Tom.

“And you sound like a wonderful, caring individual — why can’t these cows walk to their destination? I mean, what’s wrong with them?”

“Paul, we don’t have any idea,” says Tom apologetically.

Yet Ray offers an intelligent diagnosis of the problem, adding “if that doesn’t work, take the cows for a walk.”

For many listeners, such advice, oddly enough, provides balance in an unbalanced world. “The guys don’t take themselves so seriously,” explains Jennifer Loeb, assistant producer and engineer for the show. When everyday events take on undue importance, she says, “you sit back and listen to the show and you remember that it’s not that important. … No one proves how unimportant things are better than Tom and Ray.” She adds — “Why I enjoy it will probably take years of therapy to understand.”

At WNYC, New York, where Car Talk ranks among the top three weekend shows, Program Director Scott Borden observes that it’s “probably a very bad match to our audience,” considering New Yorkers’ low rate and even disdain for car ownership. “I moved to New York so I wouldn’t have to drive,” he says, “and I still listen to the show.” Successful radio personalities “make you feel like they are talking to you and you alone,” he says. “Even when [Tom and Ray] are talking to someone, you feel included in the converstion.”

A world away, Program Manager William Fulton of Public Radio in Mississippi concurs in a drawl as pronounced as the Magliozzis’ Boston accent: “It’s a very personal show in a warm and friendly, conversational way — they’re funny, but at the same time it’s all built on solid expertise.”

“Humor is very risky,” says Sheila Rue, p.d. at WUNC, Chapel Hill, “but Tom and Ray pull it off because they are so sincere.”

That’s the view of the fans, but others are equally affronted by the program. Some complain that the brothers laugh at their own jokes, says Fulton. Others, if they don’t listen long enough, may get the impression that the brothers are “a couple of jerks,” says Lamar Barrus, program director at KRIC in Rexburg, Idaho. But Barrus figures that “a larger group loves the show than hates it.”

Ken Rogers, associate producer for the show, says that people who listen long enough “become converts” and understand that Tom and Ray are “enjoying a sort of sophomoric humor with people, but never at their expense.”

The Magliozzi attitude is their great appeal, Berman believes. “To me they’re heros,” he says, “I think people like to spend an hour a week with them because they are just inspiring people.”

Inspiring and privy to an invaluable knowledge of the ways of automobiles: “Car repair is sort of like medicine,” Berman adds. “It’s something everyone has to deal with and nobody has any real knowledge of, and nobody knows who to trust or who to ask. And these guys are trustworthy—people feel a connection to them.”

“We might as well have fun”

Car Talk evolved out of what was supposed to be a call-in show with a panel of mechanics. The WBUR volunteer/producer of that show called Tom and Ray to sit on the panel and Tom agreed, thinking that it would generate business for his and Ray’s fledgling garage. As it turned out, Tom was the only one of six mechanics who showed up.

“It was a wild success,” says Ray, “two or three people called in.”

The producer, who soon left the show, asked Tom and Ray to do it every week. “And we figured ‘What the hell!’,” says Ray. That was 1977.

“The biggest influence was that they didn’t pay us,” he says. “And we figured …” Tom finishes the thought: “We took a very cavalier, who-gives-a-shit attitude about it all.”

“We figured if we weren’t going to make any money we might as well have fun,” continues Ray. “When we first started, we really didn’t have any fun—we were way too serious about it.”

“I actually thought that only BU [Boston University] got this station,” says Tom.

“That’s what I thought, too,” says Ray. “I figured it was just a local thing, I figured it might carry a little bit beyond the campus but I assumed it was a little Mickey Mouse operation … what the hell did I know? And I didn’t know anything about National Public Radio. Who the hell ever heard of National Public Radio?”

“This was 1943, you remember” says Tom.

“This was 1977,” says Ray. “If I had known that this was a 50,000-watt station I never would have set foot in the door. So we bumbled along, and people started calling in from far away … and then it got really scary—for about a minute.”

“Then we fell back on our who-gives-a- shit-attitude again,” says Tom.

“But we didn’t have fun right away because we assumed that people really wanted serious information about cars,” says Ray.

“They did,” says Tom. “Those were the days of do-it-yourself-ers … when people were out there on the driveway and had some serious questions.”

“And we answered every one of them wrong!” says Ray.

In 1986, WBUR General Manager Jane Christo asked her news director, a former staffer for All Things Considered and Morning Edition at NPR, to move to Car Talk as producer.

Berman shined the spotlight on the brothers and their humor. The calls got shorter and the answers less technical. “I was trying to show off what I thought was a very funny approach to everything and make it more of a program for people who live in a world with cars,” he says.

Tom and Ray’s system had been to randomly answer calls that came in on five blinking lines in the studio during the show.

Berman turned the callers into regular production elements of the show, prescreening and prepping them beforehand and keeping them ready like guests waiting behind a curtain.

The callers originally had phoned Car Talk during or after the Saturday broadcasts and gotten these instructions from an answering machine: “Hi. You’ve reached the Telecommunications Tower here at Car Talk Plaza. This is us, Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers. But don’t get nervous, you’re not on the air yet. … You have to leave some information for us and then our crack staff will call back as soon as some people here can get you on our next program … ”

Rogers screened and selected callers with guidance from Berman. “We try to find a good mix of questions,” says Berman, “technical, philosophical, marital … we want to put people on the air who we think listeners would care about on some intrinsic level. In a sense, you project the kind of audience you want to attract by the type of people you put on the show.”

By the time of the Friday-night taping at WBUR, Rogers had auditioned 15 or so callers, though Tom and Ray, at their insistence, didn’t know anything about them or their tribulations with cars.

During the taping, Rogers dials out to the callers: “Hi, this is Ken from Car Talk,” he says. “The guys are talking to another caller right now, so just hang on, and they will get to you in about an hour. Have fun.”

Rogers’ auditions don’t always result in successful segments, of course. “A good personality can often be a mask for mental imbalance or conditions that are probably treatable,” says Rogers. One woman from St. Louis had told him she was “considering buying a GM, a mid-line-priced car that the guys probably didn’t like,” he recalls. “She had a very effusive, warm personality and liked to talk and was familiar with the show.” But when she got on the air, she “proceeded to regale the guys with how she had won some local beauty contest for the nicest legs in St. Louis and did it in a bikini made entirely of fruit. Ten minutes into the call Tommy got up and walked out of the room.”

Like probably 20 to 30 percent of the calls, that one was left out of the show.

Rogers maintains that Tom and Ray are too nice to be rude to anyone. “Probably once every three months,” he says, “we get someone who just will not stop talking—people who are just really into the show and feel like they know the guys.” In cases like that, crew members have been known to leave the brothers in the studio, turning out the lights outside as if they’ve given up and gone home.

When things are going right for the brothers, however, the Magliozzi banter generates a momentum that spills over the airwaves. Explains Christo, “You kind of know what they might say, and you know they might laugh, and you’re waiting for them to laugh so that you can.”

Though novice listeners may be unable to distinguish between Tom and Ray on-air, they actually are two different men. Ray, the shorter one with a moustache, is the voice of reason, Berman explains, while Tom, the bearded one, is inclined to pursue philosophical tangents and let out with his higher infectious cackle.

In addition to the call-in element of the show, other regular features include the Puzzler, a weekly riddle of sometimes mythic, mathematical and/or historic proportions, selected from listener letters. Berman usually scripts the part of the show when Tom and Ray reveal the answer to the previous week’s Puzzler, as well as the intro to the show and some material to fall back on.

Tom and Ray get the “script” of the show just before taping. They occasionally throw it out altogether, but usually use it roughly as is, or as improvisational material. “It gives us something to work from between the calls,” says Berman, “It’s more like a crutch so that [Tom and Ray] don’t have to think too much about what needs to get done—they can just leave their minds free to play around with what stuff we throw at them in terms of callers … to just do whatever they find interesting and entertaining at the same time.”

A lot of the show, he says, “just happens, and you’re sort of figuring it out as you go along.”

During the actual taping of the show, Tom and Ray sit in the “fishbowl” studio, while Loeb engineers, Berman directs, Rogers places the calls, and Bugsy, the technical advisor, sleeps, roused only by an occasional question from the fishbowl such as, “Do they still make the Toyota MR2?”

Berman sits on a counter in the studio and scrawls instructions like “PUZZ. ANS. NEXT!” and “ANSWER THE QUESTION!” which he waves at Tom and Ray, often to no avail. Sometimes he uses the microphone to feed cues to move the show along if Tom is raving too long on a point like “there is a little used car salesman in everyone.”

Occasionally, Berman, or one of the other people in the studio will offer lines to Tom or Ray during the show. Joe from New York calls in about a leaky radiator. When Ray suggests that he add an egg to test for the leak, Rogers throws in: “pepper it.”

“Pepper it,” Berman says into the microphone.

Not consulted on diddlysquat

Though the call-back production process has been replicated by other producers, the chemistry between Tom and Ray has been impossible to reproduce elsewhere. The George Wendt Show (Current, July 4, 1994), which debuted on CBS last fall, was loosely based on Car Talk. Berman explains that the TV people asked Tom and Ray to act as creative consultants on the series, and promised them a cut of the profits from the show after it was a huge success and in syndication. “We thought, ‘Great—we’ll have all the 800-lines we could ever want’,” says Berman.

“It sucked!” says Ray. “The show sucked, George Wendt sucked, and the sad thing is that maybe some people thought that that was us, but that wasn’t us.”

“We want to make it perfectly clear that we had nothing to do with that show,” says Tom, “even though we were listed as creative consultants. They never consulted us on diddlysquat. They once asked us how we liked it, and we said it sucked and they never called us back again.”

“We said it sucked and would you like for us to tell you how to fix it?” adds Ray, “and they said, ‘No, we’re professionals, and we’re perfectly capable of ruining the show all by ourselves.’ ”

Not enough viewers disagreed with Ray’s view of the Wendt show; it’s now in limbo—missing from CBS’s fall lineup.

Tom and Ray have been offered a number of TV shows, according to Berman, and have turned them all down. A number of producers have called Berman for advice, searching for the key to a successful radio show. Though form and content “are inextricably tied together,” Berman says, “what it really takes to do another show like this is talent in the league of Tom and Ray.”

Berman says that Car Talk is somewhat modeled on the old Groucho Marx show, You Bet Your Life. “Groucho took a form, a quiz show, and made it fun,” Berman explains, “we took a form, the call-in show, and added humor—so I see that sort of lineage.”

“Have fun and enjoy the contestants!” says Berman to Tom and Ray as the show begins.

In recent years, Tom and Ray have become more comfortable behind the mike. “We listened to our first national show a year ago,” says Berman “and we were all shocked at how stiff and formal and cautious the guys sounded. They’ve loosened up and are taking more risks on the air.”

The show has also constructed an elaborate Car Talk mythology, with a host of fictional staff members credited at the end of each week’s show, and references to the figurative Car Talk Plaza and the metaphorical Puzzler Tower.

The real Car Talk offices are in a shabby white-brick building in Cambridge. Gold letters spelling out “Dewey, Cheetham and Howe” can be seen on the building’s dingy third-floor windows, and the interior of the three-room suite has the look of a college dorm room. Basketball hoops are rigged over a garbage can. A bookcase is strewn with papers, car books and a couple of hubcaps with checkered flags sticking out. Hawaiian leis hang here and there. Evidence of a dog — toys, hair, a chewed up rag — covers the floor. Over one of the doors are photos of figure skater Sonja Henie and her tutu, a frequent reference on the show.

While Tom and Ray work at their real jobs — Tom teaches marketing and business management at Suffolk University, and Ray runs the Good News Garage in Cambridge — Berman and Loeb sculpt the mass of taped material into a show, taking out material that didn’t work or would invite a libel suit. Michelle Papachristou, the intern, drinks cappucino as she shuffles through the mail. Rogers sits at a computer in the main room, talking to callers and the many outposts of Car Talk culture in the public radio system. “Stations call and ask what the chances are that Tom and Ray will come to their station, I describe numbers very close to zero, and we work on their proposal to Tom and Ray.”

The chaotic appearance of the room and casual manner of Car Talk‘s regular employees are actually part of the reason the show works. Explains Loeb, “We all have that flaw in our character that we like this sort of stuff. Yet, it’s really Tom and Ray—if we all went on vacation, the show would go on.”

At around 4:30 on Friday afternoon, the script and the week’s collection of listener letters are loaded in a black box (“the flight recorder,” Rogers calls it) and transported from Dewey, Cheetham and Howe to WBUR, where the staff meets for a ritual prep-session. Walking into the studios, Berman and Rogers scan the parking lot for Ray, who likes to nap in his car before the show, explains Berman.

The prep session begins. Berman props his feet up on the long table just outside the studios and begins reading the sports page. Rogers scans the listeners’ mail. Michelle goes out for junk food. Ray arrives with his brother’s coveted, sleek, slate blue, 1955 Parker pen, orchestrating a scheme to frustrate all of Tom’s attempts to retrieve the pen.

Later, Bugsy, the technical consultant, arrives. He is a substanial man, with dark hair and a beard, who is greeted by an endearing chorus of “Bugsy!!” He grunts back. Michelle arrives with the junk food, and spreads it over the table. Tom and Ray look through the mail. Ray recalls how a primitive, peaceful feeling came over him while dining with his family over the weekend. Tom says it’s because the kids were eating and not driving him nuts. Basically, this could be the show.

But at a few minutes past seven, after someone asks, “so, are we going to do a show this week?” Everyone lumbers into the studio to roll the tape.

Tom and Ray are “still disbelieving that anyone wants to listen to them, which is sort of charming,” says Berman.

“People listen to this show?” asks Tom, incredulously.

At present, there are no plans to retire Car Talk. “If they were comedians whose jokes were written for them, they might have a certain life,” explains Christo. “If you analyze the jokes, the jokes themselves aren’t even that funny—it’s just them.”

LATER ARTICLES

Public radio dreams up new Saturday companions for Car Talk, 1996.

All heck broke loose when Wisconsin Public Radio replaced a local guy’s car show with the one from Cambridge, MA.

Tom & Ray run for president (jointly), 2000.

The bros may become toons, 2004.

Car Talk seldom goes on the road to tape in front of live audiences (laughs from the audience are superfluous), but producer Doug Berman’s Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me escaped from the studio.

LINKS

Car Talk‘s website, including bios, the long list of credits and its Shameless Commerce Division.

Wikipedia entry.

The guys were inducted in the Radio Hall of Fame, 1998.

Arguing with the Magliozzis’ campaign against drivers using cell phones, a Slate writer points to cost-benefit analysis, 2002.

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