Culture

Why You Should Still Listen to Car Talk

(Pixabay)
The long-running NPR program isn’t just about how to fix cars — it’s about the humor of the human condition.

I know nothing about cars.

Scratch that. I know how to steer and where the brake pedal is, and I can usually remember how the windshield wipers work. Since moving to New York City, where I either walk or use public transportation, the most mechanically challenging procedure I’ve completed thus far is cleaning out my shower drain (with a fork and a wooden skewer).

Understanding mechanical processes may not be my forte, but I have a deep appreciation for them. And what better way to enhance my knowledge then by listening to Tom and Ray (also known as “Click and Clack”) on Saturday morning? These famous hosts of NPR’s Car Talk would be the first to tell you how useless their information was. But they’d be wrong.

Whoever thought it was a good idea to put two mechanics in front of a mic on national public radio, let them take calls from people around the world, and have them give car advice to those people deserves the title of genius. And judging from its long life on the air, the public seemed to think so, too. This show wasn’t just another political-interview show or a “how should I treat my father-in-law’s ex-wife’s sister during our annual clambake in southern Idaho?” advice show. It was a full-on, live-comedy routine between two of the quirkiest men I’ve ever encountered. They interrupted each other constantly and gave advice “unencumbered by the thought process,” as they’d often say — and the fact that they were brothers made it all the better.

In 1977, Tom Magliozzi was invited to be part of a car-mechanics panel on WBUR-FM in Boston. What happened next probably made for a hectic few hours for the show producer, but it certainly led to decades of enjoyment for millions of listeners. Tom was the only panelist to show up for the event. The show went so well that the station asked him back, and so he came, this time bringing his younger brother Ray. They began hosting a weekly show, which NPR decided in 1986 to run nationally.

Most everyone who called in had legitimate car problems, but did listeners actually tune in to hear answers to those? Well, maybe a few did, but what drew most listeners on Saturday morning were Tom and Ray’s wisecracks, random bursts of cackling laughter, and odd exclamations of “Sonja Henie’s tutu!” when they were shocked or stumped for an answer. I have vague but wonderful memories of Saturday-morning drives with my parents listening to Car Talk. We’d get in the car and they’d immediately turn the dial to our local NPR station, 91.3 FM. I was too young to understand a single thing the hosts were talking about, but the humor, wit, and energy of Tom and Ray captured my attention anyway. I loved watching my parents chuckle over Tom and Ray antics as the brothers ragged on the guests, each other, and Tom’s Dodge Dart.

Their hilarity pervaded the entire program. They had all sorts of running gags, and even though you knew they were coming, you never tired of them. It was the same each week, but with a funny twist: telling listeners to write their puzzler answers on the back of a “crisp $26 dollar bill”; the never-ending flak a caller would receive if he revealed he was an art-history major; references to “the third half of today’s show.”

Tom and Ray might have been a bit ridiculous, but they weren’t dumb. Both brothers were Massachusetts Institute of Technology grads — they were asked to give the commencement speech for the class of 1999 (a video of it can be found on YouTube) — and Tom had a doctorate in business administration. And joke as they might about their distaste for anything resembling work, they did seriously try to come up with answers for each caller. This was quite a feat, as the questions were incredibly wide-ranging; everything from horrible engine noises to marital disputes was fair game. Tom and Ray took it all in stride, and even if they couldn’t come up with the exact answer, they’d always try to give the caller some resource that might help.

After about the eighth caller and the end of the “third half,” the show would begin to wrap up. But these two couldn’t end with a simple “Have a great Saturday” or “Drive safe.” My parents must have either regularly turned the show off before the end, or I wasn’t paying attention (the more likely possibility), because it wasn’t until this year that I actually heard the show’s full outro. The puns in the Schutte household are the stuff of legends, but they can’t compete with the pure pun gold that Tom and Ray read out at the end of each episode. After listing the people legitimately associated with the show, they would launch into “acknowledgements” of “staff members” such as statistician Marge Inovera, Russian chauffeur Pikup Andropov, customer-care representative Heywood Jabuzzoff, and their Greek tailor Euripides Eumenades. But my personal favorite will forever be “the head of our working-mothers support group, Erasmus B. Dragon.” Just say them all aloud a few times. You’ll figure it out.

After more than three decades of puns, merriment, and (mostly) helpful advice, the brothers retired in 2012. The show, so deeply woven into the fabric of our country’s broadcast lore, was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2014. But what truly solidified their place on “The List of Cultural References Every American Should Know” was the brothers’ 2006 cameo in Pixar’s Cars, which immortalized them as the voices of Lightning McQueen’s racing sponsors. In the movie they were, of course, depicted as a 1963 Dodge Dart (Tom) and a 1967 Dodge A100 (Ray).

NPR no longer airs reruns of Car Talk but instead has made it available as a podcast. It was thanks to the podcast that I rediscovered this small but meaningful piece of my childhood. I have now “wasted” many “perfectly good” hours learning about head gaskets, discovering how to remove mold from air filters, pondering the mysteries of driving a stick shift, and always failing, like Tom, to remember last week’s puzzler. I don’t listen to the show to get my weekly fill of nostalgia, though — far from it. Because even though Tom and Ray answered questions about cars that most people in 2019 are no longer driving, their advice remains applicable. I think it still will be applicable when cars are driving themselves or flying. Yes, they were answering mechanical questions, but they were also answering life questions. The humor of the human condition makes itself known in these episodes and gives listeners something to laugh about. They give us a chance to say, “What, you too?” and be reminded that we all need a bit of silliness in our lives, as well as a little help finding joy in the mundane.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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