Most comedians try not to laugh at their own jokes. Then there's Tom and Ray Magliozzi.
The Car Talk guys, otherwise known as Click and Clack, host a public radio call-in show about cars. But despite its title, their program is only nominally about cars. Car Talk is more about opening your mouth, tilting your head back, and letting out long, loud, heartfelt gales of laughter.
The show is driven by the banter between Tom and Ray. The brothers laugh at their own jokes, poke fun at their callers, and insult one another. Somehow during all the merriment, they manage to answer questions about balky gear shifts and worn-out spark plugs, noisy mufflers and ragged suspensions. But when listeners tune in to Car Talk each week, it's not to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of the Honda Accord. They're turning on the show to hear Tom and Ray dispense advice about such matters as taking a road trip with two teenagers in a subcompact car. (Hint: Don't do it.) Close to 3 million people return each week because it's pure enjoyment to listen to a couple of guys who have made it their business to have fun.
Despite Car Talk's popularity, Ray (left) still works in his garage, which allows him to keep his skills sharp. Above, he demonstrates the latest techniques on brother Tom.
The brothers have not done too shabbily. From humble beginnings 22 years ago as a Boston call-in show hosted by a couple of grease monkeys from the neighborhood, Car Talk has become National Public Radio's third-most-listened-to show, after NPR's Morning Edition with Bob Edwards and NPR's All Things Considered. Close to 150,000 copies of Car Talk, the book, are in print. Tom and Ray's website (www.cartalk.cars.com) draws 35,000 visitors a day and sells thousands of T-shirts and tapes of the show a year. A CBS sitcom even tried to capitalize on the Car Talk guys. (It tanked.)
The Magliozzi brothers, however, have spurned the greater fame and fortune that could easily have come their way. They don't like giving interviews, hate TV, and aren't tempted by the six-figure offers to move to commercial broadcasting. Each year, they turn down dozens of invitations to give speeches for which they've been offered as much as $50,000 a pop. They say "no" because those things sound a little too much like work. After all, fun is their primary interest. And that is the secret of their success.
It's a Thursday morning just after 10 a.m., and Ray Magliozzi, 50, is standing in front of a work bench in a dimly lit garage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hammer in hand, tapping on a cast-iron cylinder head. The street outside is dead quiet. Ray sent the cylinder head out to be resurfaced but the work was sloppy, so now he's trying to fix it by hand. Hammering at car parts doesn't look like that much fun, but Ray has loved working on cars since he was a kid, and aside from a few years teaching school, it's all he's ever done. "I love the days [in the garage] when the phone's ringing off the hook, and there are a million cars in there, and the day goes by like that," he says.
Today is not such a day. There are six cars in the shop, providing barely enough work to keep Ray and his four mechanics busy. After a little more banging, he decides it's time for a Sanka, and heads to the garage next door, which plays host to the local coffee truck at this hour. The smell of kielbasa on the grill drifts from the truck to the street, where banged-up cars awaiting salvation are parked. Back in his own garage, Ray leans against the wall and sips his Sanka.
"People come from all over the country to see this," he says, chuckling as he gestures to the completely ordinary garage behind him that fans have traveled from as far away as Montgomery, Alabama, and Washington state to see. "They're disappointed."
It's not easy to tell that this is the garage where the Car Talk guys practice auto repair (actually only one Car Talk guy these days -- Tom gave up working in the garage years ago). The brothers never mention the name on the air in order to discourage sightseers (who come anyway, mostly in the summer); they asked Brill's Content not to reveal the name. The only hints of the brothers' media celebrity are some Car Talk souvenirs pinned to the wall with thumbtacks, like a formerly white Car Talk T-shirt covered with grime. Underneath it, scrawled on the wall in marker, is "$20" and an arrow pointing to the shirt. They don't sell too many of those.
The brothers, who grew up in East Cambridge, opened their first garage together in 1973 -- Tom, 62, says he went along with the scheme because Ray was "unemployable and his wife was with child." Ray says he did it "to rescue Tommy from a life of vagrancy." (Both Tom and Ray are married; Tom has three kids, Ray has two.) Back then, the enterprise was a hippie-ish concept called Hacker's Haven. Half the garage was devoted to do-it-yourselfers who paid $2 an hour to fix their own cars with the garage's tools. Not surprisingly, the Magliozzis ended up doing most of the repairs. Tom and Ray also taught auto repair at a local adult education center, which led to their shot at radio stardom.
One of their students worked at WBUR 90.9 FM, Boston's NPR news affiliate, and asked the guys, along with several other mechanics, to participate in a call-in show. Only Tom showed up ("I was always the sucker," he says). The next week he dragged Ray along, and Car Talk was born.
The show spent ten years on local radio, on which it was broadcast live, before NPR picked it up in 1987. Despite the brothers' heavy Boston accents, which are extremely un-NPR, they caught on. Car Talk now airs on 495 public radio stations. Though the show sounds live, it is actually taped every Wednesday and airs at different times around the country.
Ray thinks he and his brother started cracking jokes on the air the first time they were stumped by a caller's question. They discovered Car Talk would be a lot more fun if they were a lot less serious. "And the more we did the laughing part of it, the more we liked it," says Ray. The more the guys laughed, the bigger the audience got.
But the brothers aren't trying to make the audience laugh, they're trying to make each other laugh, "and it happens to be funny to the rest of us too," says Doug Berman, Tom and Ray's producer for the last 12 years. It's all off-the-cuff, unscripted. "I have never -- and I'm sure Tom would agree -- I have never made any effort to think of something funny to say in advance of the show," says Ray. Maybe that's why the wisecracks consist mainly of adolescent jokes made at their own expense. (Tom: "If we weren't mechanics, you know what we'd be?" Ray: "Inmates?") But the hokey gags prove delightful because they're delivered solely for the purpose of making the brothers themselves crack up. "They're like the kids in the back of the class that used to joke and make you laugh," Berman says, "and you didn't want to laugh because you'd get in trouble."
In person, Tom and Ray are exactly the same as those kooks they play on the radio. Ray is the jovial, easygoing one. He actually tries to help solve callers' problems, and he keeps the show moving by asking callers to get to the point ("So what's up, Dave?") and signaling when it is time for them to hang up ("See ya, Jim."). Tom plays the Don Rickles role, willing to insult callers and carmakers alike for their stupidity. (Stupid is a favorite word for Tom; moronic is another.) When Sasha from Quincy, Massachusetts, began describing a problem with his girlfriend's 1983 Dodge Aries during one show, Tom interrupted to scold, "Notice it's always somebody else's car whenever it's a Dodge Aries. It's always 1my girlfriend,' 1my brother-in-law.'"
The secret of their success: The fun that Ray (left) and Tom Magliozzi have in the studio has made Car Talk NPR's third most listened to show.
Callers chosen to be on Car Talk -- they're pre-screened by the producers, who don't tell Tom and Ray what the calls will be about -- pose questions about vehicular problems that range from the slightly ridiculous to the totally outrageous. That lets the brothers riff. When Ann from Georgia called to ask about a funny sound her car was making when she turned on the engine, she let slip that she started hearing the noise after she drove her husband home from Florida, where he'd had his vasectomy reversed. (Tom: "Tell him to take two aspirin and call us back in the morning.")
Matt from Minnesota tried to invoke supernatural causes to explain how the Sprite his son spilled on the car door had burned a hole in the leather. "It was like this X-Files thing," Matt said. Tom and Ray attempted a scientific explanation -- after all, they both have bachelor's degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- and phoned a Harvard University chemist to see if Sprite could ignite a leather interior. (No way, the chemist said.)
In between the laughs, Tom and Ray give listeners valuable insights into one of life's biggest mysteries: what goes on under the hood of that machine they climb into every morning. The show makes learning the difference between a coil and a catalytic converter appealing, and that's no small accomplishment. The guys make plenty of jokes, but they also quiz callers about their car's grunts and klunks the way a doctor probes for symptoms. And they always offer specific advice about what needs to be checked, often outlining two or three steps a listener should follow.
Plus, they're fearlessly honest. They're willing to bad-mouth car companies. They even rat out their fellow mechanics. Callers often use the show as a check on their mechanic -- they take their car to a garage, then call Tom and Ray to tell them the diagnosis and the price. Tim Matthews, a Carrboro, North Carolina, mechanic who listens to the show, says he's heard callers relating advice from their mechanics that was "a lot of malarkey." Tom and Ray, says Matthews, usually steer callers in the right direction: "They're very knowledgeable."
In their own eclectic way, Tom and Ray have become leading consumer advocates within the car industry. They've established the Mechan-X-Files, a feature on their website through which listeners submit names of mechanics they've found to be reliable. The database now lists 15,000 names. Visitors to the site can also check the results of the Car Talk survey, which has compiled, among other consumer information, the ten car models with the highest repair costs and the ten with the lowest. "There is some seriousness of purpose there that the guys themselves will downplay because that's their schtick," says William Swislow, executive producer of cars.com, home to Car Talk's web presence.
In the early days, Tom and Ray did the show for free to drum up business for the garage. But after four years, they decided they needed to get paid, so they approached the producer with their salary demand: $25 a week.
They're doing a little better than that now. Tom and Ray, who each make in the low six figures for the show, are close to signing a contract to stay with NPR for another five years. Seven publishers vied for their newest book, In Our Humble Opinion: Click and Clack Rant and Rave. The winner, Perigee (a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.) paid in excess of $100,000 for the honor. Their syndicated column, which they started writing in 1989, appears in more than 300 newspapers.
But Tom and Ray have stubbornly rebuffed the riches dangled by commercial media, enticements that in the past have lured Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert and Bob Vila away from their public broadcasting homes. David Kantor, president of Chancellor Media, Inc.'s AMFM Radio Networks, says Tom and Ray could be making $1 million a year in commercial radio. "If they were only in it for the money, they would have been gone from NPR's airwaves long ago," says Murray Horwitz, NPR's vice-president for cultural programming.
Most radio hosts would salivate at the chance to move to the small screen, but the Magliozzi brothers sneer at TV. "Television has become so produced that it's all complete bullshit," says Tom. Ray, as usual, is a bit more diplomatic: "TV ain't for us." They've resisted several offers to do television, succumbing only once, when they considered hosting a show about science. Being MIT geeks, they thought the show would be (you guessed it) fun. But the brothers eventually decided the project would be too much work. Here's where their life philosophy departs from the prevailing nineties work ethic. "I don't want to get involved in stuff that's going to take away from my free time," says Ray. "I enjoy goofing off too much." Tom agrees, with one caveat: "If you know somebody with a million dollars, we'll do anything."
But that is no more than bluster on Tom's part. The brothers turned down repeated offers to do a weekly television series that could have netted them a figure "in the millions," says Eric Ellenbogen, former president and CEO of Marvel Enterprises, who courted them for years on behalf of Broadway Video Entertainment, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels's production company. "They could have been astonishingly successful as television personalities," Ellenbogen says. The proposed show, with a format similar to that of the radio program, would have guaranteed them a low six-figure fee plus a generous share of the profits, says Ellenbogen, who tried to accommodate their tepid interest by offering to film just one day a month, in Boston. The guys weren't willing to take the plunge and surrender their relative anonymity.
They did say "yes" once to a sitcom producer who paid them for the rights to do a show based on their life. Of course, that deal required no work from Tom and Ray -- they just collected the money. The George Wendt Show, which debuted on CBS in 1995 and starred the actor who played Norm on Cheers, lasted just six episodes. "They sent us all the different scripts when they were putting the show together, and we thought, 1This isn't very funny,'" recalls Tom. "And for once in our lives we were right."
Tom and Ray are regularly asked to endorse products and give speeches. Berman, the show's producer, fields more than a dozen inquiries a month from major car companies, manufacturers, universities, and, once, even a drug company. The brothers have already been asked to speak at an engineering conference in Boston next June. The opening bid for their services? $20,000. Berman turned it down.
One particularly persistent suitor called Berman to invite Tom and Ray to introduce a new product at a convention in New Orleans. The brothers were to be flown in first class, do some spiel at 3 p.m., and be home by evening. The tab for this one-day session? $10,000 for each of the brothers.
Their answer: Nah, we don't really feel like lugging ourselves all the way down there.
"I think it was Tom, or maybe both of them said, 1You know, I don't want to spend a day that way,'" Berman says. "So I called her back and said, 1Thanks very much, but they don't want to do it.' She said, 1All right, how about $15,000 apiece?' I said, 1No, I'm not negotiating. I'm not trying to negotiate with you. They really don't want to do it.' She said, 1Okay, how about twenty?' I have learned a lot about negotiating from all these things. Every time I say no, people come back with more."
The final offer: $25,000 apiece for one day's work. Tom's reply was vintage Car Talk. Says Berman: "Tommy says, 1Tell her it would take thirty grand each, but if she paid us thirty grand, then we couldn't work with her, because then she'd be too stupid, and we can't work with anybody that stupid."
Needless to say, Tom and Ray didn't do that appearance. The only public appearances they've consented to are for a handful of charities and the half dozen that are required in their NPR contract.
"Most people always want more," Berman observes. "And their conclusion is: We're happy. We have good lives. We like what we do, we like where we live, we like that we can go to Chinese restaurants and not be recognized1. They don't want to get sucked into being media stars. That's just not them."
Only guys who don't give a hoot about money could constantly portray themselves as money-grubbers -- asking listeners to mail in their solutions to Ray's weekly puzzler "on the back of a $20 bill" or selling tapes and coffee mugs through Car Talk's "Shameless Commerce Division." And then there's the name of the company that the brothers founded to produce Car Talk: Dewey, Cheetham & Howe. (That's actually how callers are greeted when they phone the office.)
Like much else on the show, it's all a gag. "I guess money has never been important enough to us," says Ray. "We just didn't care about that, but I guess that's okay. I'm content to drive an old car. There are more important things."
And so Ray travels the streets of Cambridge in the '87 Colt Vista that he got for a mere $100 because the engine was fried (one of his mechanics rebuilt it). "It is extremely liberating having a shitbox," he says. He leaves it unlocked with the key in the glove compartment, and doesn't worry if it gets a dent. "Some gal crashed into me in Harvard Square a few months ago, and I kind of stuck my head out the window -- she was driving some junkbox -- and I said, 1You all right?' and she said, 1Yea.' I said, 1Good. See you later.'"
With the recent demise of Tom's beloved 1963 Dodge Dart -- his teenage son had a nasty collision with a plow truck -- Tom is now behind the wheel of a 1952 MG TD. He handed over the princely sum of $9,000 for it -- $6,500 more than he's paid for any car in the last 30 years. When you take the MG for a drive, says Ray, you want "the tow truck following close behind so that you can get home safely. It's one step away from having the floorboards drop out and requiring that you propel it with your feet." The car leaves gas and oil in its wake, has no heater or defroster, and stalls about 20 times a day. Plus, there's no radio. Sounds like the perfect set of wheels for a guy like Tom Magliozzi.
Photo Credits: 1.Richard Howard 2. Richard Howard