Infectious Laughter:
Remembering Car Talk’s Tom Magliozzi


December 2014

“I’m going to make you kiss me,” Frankie, my second-grade classmate, told me one day on the playground, “whether you like it or not!”


“No way!,” I said, “Only dictators can make people kiss them.”


This gave Frankie pause.  But only briefly.  “I’ll drive my Dad’s tractor after school,” he said, “bet you can’t do that.” “I can drive my Dad’s car,” was my defiant comeback.


My Dad nipped my driving in the bud when he saw me get into the driver’s seat of our family car.  Fortunately, as I’m legally blind, that put an end to my driving career.  “You can’t see well enough to drive,” my Dad said, “and you’re only seven.”  Surveying the scene, my four-year-old brother wondered if he could drive since he could see. “No one under ten is driving this car!,” my Dad said, trying not to laugh.


I’ve been thinking of this childhood memory since learning that Tom Magliozzi, who with his brother Ray gave advice on cars; laughed uproariously; and joked about everything from the spelling of names to what makes for a happy marriage on the NPR show “Car Talk,” died last month at age 77 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. 



Like so many people, my total ignorance of driving, cars and auto mechanics has never kept me from loving “Car Talk” or Tom and Ray, a.k.a. “Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers.”  Tom and Ray stopped doing new broadcasts of “Car Talk” in 2012.    Since then, NPR has aired repeats of the program.  At this writing, the network plans to  air the show with the new name “The Best of Car Talk.”


Radio was the perfect medium for Tom and Ray.  At its best, in shows like “Car Talk,” radio creates a vivid reality – a combo of pictures and sound – in the listener’s ear and mind’s eye.  When I listened to Tom and Ray talk, sputter and laugh about everything on this God’s earth, I felt as if I were buddies with the Car guys.  Hearing Tom’s inimitable laughter and the brothers’ indelible Boston accent, I could taste the Sam Adams beer that I sipped with them.  Even though, like most of their fans, I’d never set eyes on them. That’s why I’m breaking one of the rules of journalism and calling Tom - Tom – not Magliozzi.  Who calls their mind’s eye’s drinking pal by their last name? I’m not mourning a proficient, professional, well-respected radio host who I’ve no connection with.  I’m missing Tom whose snorts and laughter will ring in my ears forever.


My friend Hans Holznagel was on “Car Talk” in 1995.  He and his wife Kathy disagreed on whether (to save energy and omit less pollution) you should turn your car engine off when stopped at a traffic light (and restart your engine when the light changed).  Being on the show was fun, Hans told me over the phone recently.  “They always joked about people’s names,” he said, “so I knew they’d joke about my name. It was something like ‘Who’s this? Hans???’ But it was playful.  Not mean in any way.”


After going back and forth, Tom and Ray said you should leave the engine on if you were at a stop light for a short while – less than two minutes.  “They said in the long run, you wouldn’t save on energy, unless you were at a stop light for a longer time,” Hans said, “they had a gift for bringing in science and advice without belaboring that.”


“Yet it wasn’t straight comedy,” he added, “People could get philosophical reflections and answers for their questions about cars.”


Tom didn’t have any talent as a broadcaster, said “Car Talk” producer Doug Berman on the radio show “Here&Now.” “....which is what made him a great broadcaster...Nobody told them {Tom and Ray} they had to sound like...a professional broadcaster,” he said, “no one told them they had to have any decorum or not laugh at any of their own jokes or not lose control....They were completely themselves in an uninhibited way.”


One of my favorite “Car Talk” moments was when Tom reflected on marriage.  “I have my own law of marriage. It is more important to be happy than to be right,” he said, “You may know that you’re right.  I’m always right. But being the clever fellow that I am, I never try to prove to her (his wife} that I’m right.  She thinks that I’m a dummy.  That I’m always wrong. But she loves me.”


We should all be so dumb.


Your laugh to God’s ear.  R.I.P., Tom.

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Kathi Wolfe's most recent book of poetry is The Green Light (Finishing Line Press).
She also writes a monthly column for Scene4
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©2014 Kathi Wolfe
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December 2014


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