This article originally appeared in the Globe on Jan. 12, 2005.
Now in its 18th year of syndication, “Car Talk,” the weekly National Public Radio show starring Cambridge homeboys Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a.k.a. Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, has never been more popular -- or better positioned to win new fans, with an animated TV show in the works and more merchandise for sale than you can shake a stick shift at. What makes “Car Talk” run? Let’s peer under the hood of a show that deftly cross-wires auto tips with improv comedy:
Contrary to what many listeners assume, the show is not broadcast live. It’s taped at WBUR studios in Boston 10 days in advance. However, the calls are live -- sort of. Callers who have left funny or interesting messages during the previous week’s show get a return phone call from a “Car Talk” producer. About a dozen callers are invited to phone in the following Wednesday while Ray and Tom are in the studio. The hosts do not rehearse their responses, however, and have only a vague notion of what topics they’ll be asked to address. Calls are screened for topicality and variety so that, for instance, the hosts do not field four questions in a row about brake linings.
“What gets listeners most upset is wondering if the guys get the answers in advance,” says “Car Talk” executive producer Doug Berman during a recent Tuesday morning production meeting. “And what the guys say to that is, ‘If we did, would we be as wrong as often as we are?’ “
From the control room, via computer and headset, Berman regularly feeds Tom and Ray information about car makes, models, safety records, and other useful stuff that may not be at the hosts’ fingertips while they chat with callers or rag on each other. He’s also quick to throw in a diagnosis (”Yeah, that sounds like a relay noise”) when the spirit moves him. If that smacks of cheating -- not unlike, say, TV quiz-show producers piping answers to Charles Van Doren in the isolation booth -- “Car Talk” staffers have two responses.
First, they couldn’t care less what you think about how the show is run. And second, unlike the Magliozzis, who still operate a garage in Cambridge where actual auto repairs take place (many of them highly successful, they might add), Berman has never worked on a car in his life. So really, they ask, how much help can he be?
“I wouldn’t know a fuel pump if one hit me in the face,” Berman cheerfully confesses. After producing 50 shows a year for 17 years, however, he can talk more car smack than a NASCAR pit boss. Listening to 10,000 calls has turned Berman into an idiot-savant Mr. Goodwrench.
”Dougie remembers answers we gave five years ago and gives them back to us,” says Ray. “What he forgets, unfortunately, is how many of those answers were wrong the first time.”
Anyone sense a theme developing here?
Politically correct as NPR may pride itself on being, “Car Talk, which attracts a robust 4.3 million listeners a week on 596 stations, manages to mock more affinity groups than Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern combined. The official list of People We’ve Offended, compiled by staff producer Doug Mayer, is 80 entries long and includes: lawyers, rednecks, dyslexics, Camaro drivers, Presbyterians, vegetarians, cellphone users, guys who drive chick cars, history teachers, wackos in Alaska, cat lovers, grandmothers, and the mentally ill.
Targets of the show’s humor sometimes fire back. After Tom made a crack on-air about a tailgate problem the Dodge Caravan was having, suggesting in his usual irreverent manner that Chrysler Corp. had “paid off” investigators to forestall a recall, a highly unamused Chrysler representative demanded a public correction and got one -- sort of.
Tom did correct the record during a subsequent show, saying something to the effect that no money had actually changed hands and that Caravan passengers were only being ejected through the back doors of moving vehicles, not the sunroofs and side doors as he might have mistakenly said. However, he was guffawing so loudly that listeners may have confused his mea culpa for a Ford Windstar commercial.
Ray, again: “What we do may be in bad taste, but it’s rarely mean. We’re not shock jocks. We’re usually laughing at ourselves. And most listeners know we have good hearts.”
A footnote: Their late mother, Elizabeth Magliozzi, who costars on the new “Car Talk” CD titled “Maternal Combustion: Calls About Moms and Cars,” was repeatedly accused of having a drinking problem and prison record. On national radio. By her own sons. Did she demand an apology? No. Only that they stop smoking cigars. Which they have -- sort of.
There really is a company called Dewey, Cheetham Howe. (You can look it up). It has offices in Harvard Square and was founded in 1992, when Berman and the Magliozzis decided to set up operations independent from WBUR, Boston University, NPR, or any other entity that might potentially cramp their freewheeling style. In October, Berman, the CEO of DC&H, signed a new five-year contract with NPR and WBUR, ensuring that “Car Talk” will motor along on public radio until late 2009, at least.
Ah, you ask, but what about commercial radio? Or satellite radio? After all, any new medium that’s adding both Stern and Bob Edwards to its lineup must look awfully attractive to such Radio Hall of Famers as the Magliozzi brothers, who also boast a Peabody Award among other trophies of their trade. Moreover, as anyone who spends time around Tom and Ray knows, the boys swear like auto mechanics when they’re off the air. Satellite radio could be a perfect fit for them. On satellite, they could do “Click and Clack: Unplugged and Uncensored.”
Tom: “Actually, that’s not a bad idea. We could say ‘pop the clutch’ with a whole different inflection.”
Ray: “The callers would be more interesting, too. It would be, like, ‘My transmission just [soiled] the bed.’ “
(Insert cackling sound effects here.)
Meanwhile, an animated PBS series is in development, based on the Magliozzi brothers and their “Car Talk” personas. (Think “South Park” set in an auto shop.) Tom and Ray will voice the main characters. The two of them plus Berman and other staffers have been hired as script writers and creative consultants on the show, which could air as early as next year. They also write a newspaper column for King Features Syndicate that appears in 320 newspapers nationwide and are a year overdue on their latest book, a guidebook for rookie drivers titled “What Every New Driver Should Know,” destined to join such titles as “In Our Humble Opinion” and “A Haircut in Horse Town . . . .”
All these commercial enterprises -- plus their Department of Shameless Commerce, offering hats, neckties, CDs, coffee mugs, etc. for sale on the www.cartalk.com website -- have made the Magliozzis quite comfortable, if not filthy rich.
”For NPR, it’s a good life,” Berman says a tad defensively, in answer to a question about the “empire” that has grown up around the show. “But Ray still works in a garage,” he adds.
At this point, Tom and Ray put aside the bagels they’ve been eating during the meeting and reflect on the show’s formative years, when they worked for nothing, or at least claim they did. They first went on the air at WBUR in 1977. And they remember eventually demanding a whopping $100 per show apiece from WBUR’s then-general manager Jane Christo, whom they credit for much of “Car Talk” ‘s success, including its national launch in 1987. (Ray: “Jane kept sending our tapes to Washington.” Tom: “Yeah, Unfortunately, they were to the State Department -- to have us deported.”)
They reminisce about hiring an agent after the show really took off in the late ‘80s (appearances on “20/20,” “The Tonight Show,” “60 Minutes”) but how that relationship fizzled when they kept turning down 99 percent of the offers rolling their way. (Ray: “We warned them!”) And they describe how every auto-repair chain from East Cambridge to West Covina, Calif., has coveted them as their spokesmen, but they’ve vowed never to sell out to the Midases and AutoZones of the world because, well, life is too short and who can spend all that cash, anyway?
Berman: “We’ve maintained the attitude that if it’s not fun, we won’t do it. So we’ve done very little.”
Ray: “One of the big chains approached us, but we didn’t want to stand in front of their store and tell people to get their cars fixed there. We couldn’t. Because they [expletive] everybody.”
Berman: “Even though they offered them [a lot] of money.”
Tom: “Offered who?”
Ray: “You didn’t get that memo?”
Tom, puzzled: “No.”
Berman: “These guys are not greedy. And the best negotiations happen when you truly don’t give a . . . “
Tom: “Wait, back up. Offered who?”
Both brothers attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tom, 67, graduated in 1958 with a degree in chemical engineering and economics and worked as a US Army cook, housepainter, educational trainer, and college professor before he became a radio star. Ray, 55, graduated in 1972 with a major in mechanical engineering and math, then taught school before opening what is now called the Good News Garage, on Hamilton Street in Cambridge, back in 1974. He still works at the garage a couple of days a week. “That’s all they can stand of me over there,” he says. As for the customers, they want their cars fixed, not to be entertained, according to Ray: “They’re like, ‘Look, honey, it’s Ray from “Car Talk.” And he still doesn’t know how to fix my [expletive] car!’ “
In 1999, the Magliozzis jointly delivered the commencement speech at MIT. Ray’s advice to graduates, of course, was, “Don’t drive like my brother.”
But you already knew that, didn’t you?
Tom drives a 1952 MG-TD, which is garaged for the winter. Otherwise, he gets around in whatever test vehicle various car manufacturers -- hoping for a “Car Talk” plug -- deliver to WBUR for his appraisal. Ray was driving a 1987 Dodge Colt Vista until a couple of years ago. Now he drives a 1997 Honda Odyssey.
The “Car Talk” staff members retreat to South Beach in Miami each winter to recharge their batteries with tropical drinks and fancy meals. Ray missed last year’s trip because of heart problems that landed him in the hospital. He’s fine now, he says, taking medication, watching his diet, and going to the gym.
Asked whether they think like mechanics or entertainers after so many years of mixing shtick with stick shifts, Tom and Ray bridle at the E-word.
Ray, seriously: “I don’t think either one of us is necessarily out to entertain. We’re out to have fun, but mostly we’re just being ourselves.”
Tom, putting a finger to his lips: “Don’t tell anyone. But this show is more fun than anything I do all week.”
If you listen to “Car Talk,” you knew that, too.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.