Katy Burns: And we all laughed with him

Last modified: 11/9/2014 3:59:37 AM
Ray Magliozzi, one of the two Tappet Brothers who were the originators and unlikely stars of Car Talk, one of NPR’s longest running and most popular shows, candidly admitted several times that he had no idea which of the brothers was Click and which was Clack.

And then he and his brother, Tom Magliozzi, would roar with laughter. Tom – or Tommy, as Ray and their friends called him – was the older, taller and, he maintained, handsomer brother. Tom died Monday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Millions of listeners around the nation and even odd corners of the greater world, mourn. We feel like we’ve lost a friend, a friend who made us laugh. And did he ever!

Car Talk began 37 years ago on WBUR in Boston. Ten years later, in 1987, it was picked up by NPR, where it became a fixture, reaching more than 4 million listeners at one point. Ostensibly, questions related to vehicle care and maintenance were answered by a couple of mechanics. Why do I hear a loud thumping coming from the rear when I speed up to 50 mph, or why does my windshield wiper come on when I turn on the headlights?

But the car questions took some amazing turns. How do I keep my goats from standing on my guests’ cars? I accidentally dropped several hundred marbles into my car’s ventilation system, and they keep rolling around, driving me nuts. Is there a way to get them out? Is there a way I can safely carry mattresses on my car’s roof?

An astounding number of callers had troubles with live critters – snakes, spiders, and the like – taking up residence, and even more problems with dead ones somehow finding their way to inaccessible parts of the cars before expiring.

The guys dealt with a myriad of relationship problems, refereeing disputes between any number of husbands and wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, children, siblings and – of course – neighbors. Their own mother, Elizabeth, and sister, Lucille, were often brought in to add their own wisdom.

Travel often entered the picture. What is the best car to take to Zambia for 13 months? Will my elderly VW bus get from Arizona to Guatemala? I’m thinking of taking a trip from New York to Florida with my girlfriend and my mother, who don’t like each other, and my 80-pound dog. What kind of vehicle should I rent?

The questions were varied, and the answers were solid, once the guys had wandered down all sorts of intriguing – and often hilarious – alleyways on the way to the answers. The guys were smart. In fact, they were MIT grads who’d decided to shuck their white-collar lives and open a garage in their hometown of Cambridge, Mass.

In 1999, the brothers were invited back to MIT to deliver the commencement speech.

“If you feel the need to create, to discover and to do something that will bring you fulfillment and happiness, do it now while you’re young. You will never have more energy, enthusiasm – and hair and brain cells – than you do today,” Ray told the young grads as their startled parents got heartburn.

Tommy burst into rollicking laughter. And in seconds the audience joined him.

The truth is, very few people really listened for car advice – or listen, since Car Talk is still on the air, even though the Magliozzi brothers stopped recording new shows two years ago. They listened because the brothers, natives of Cambridge who rarely strayed for long from their hometown, were just plain funny – two guys you would love to sit on the stoop with to exchange Deep Thoughts about almost any topic under the sun.

Tom and Ray, with their happily untamed Boston accents and total lack of decorum – they not only told jokes, often bad jokes, but they laughed at themselves on the air! – shattered the button-down and prim National Public Radio template. And, some say, paved the way for other more carefree shows like Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, The Moth and It’s Only a Game.

Their humor wasn’t for everyone, for sure. A lot of people, understandably, just didn’t like the to-their-minds excessive laughter, including satirist and Simpsons voice actor Harry Shearer, who also had a long-running NPR show, albeit one significantly less popular then Car Talk. As he explained in an appearance on Wait, Wait, he didn’t like Car Talk because the Magliozzi brothers “do a thing where they laugh at themselves all the time, and I don’t.” Indeed he didn’t. He also made a point of correcting Wait, Wait host Peter Sagal’s grammar, which tells you something about Harry Shearer.

But laughing just came naturally to the car guys, said their longtime producer and friend, Doug Berman, who is also, interestingly, the producer of Wait, Wait.

Tom, he said, was the “creative one,” the guy who pushed boundaries, who constantly questioned and came up with fantastical theories, some even right. Ray was “the voice of reason,” although one given to his own flights of diagnostic fancy – and fits of laughter as well.

“What you heard on the show was absolutely them,” he told Terry Gross of Fresh Air. “They were funny every day, every hour. . . . You’d hear Tom laughing before you saw him, and you’d start smiling. I think people listen to the show because they enjoy having a visit with the guys.”

We – and millions of others – did. And to this day we can’t get through a show, even if it’s one with episodes we well remember, without laughing aloud with the Magliozzis. And we generally feel pretty good afterwards. Their laughter is contagious, infectious.

It’s not for nothing that laughter has become one of the hot new topics in health care. Laughing is good for you, not only mentally but physically – exercising lungs and muscles and heaven knows what all, soothing frazzled minds and lowering blood pressure.

Top medical operations tout their “humor therapy” as physical exercise programs. Laughter clubs are springing up everywhere to encourage people to laugh loudly, to take advantage of the beneficial effects of laughing.

And laughter is hot in cyberspace with Laughter Yoga, which, its website tells us, is a Global Movement for Health/Happiness/World Peace. It sponsors Laughter Yoga University. Yes, you, too, can learn to be a Laughter Yoga teacher! Or instead you can listen to Car Talk, which so far is still running on NHPR.

Berman said Tommy “had a laugh so great, so infectious, that it just made everyone around him feel better. Put him in front of a microphone and millions of people felt better.” Can’t get a much more enjoyable cure for what ails you than that.

Unless, of course, what ails you is a serious illness like Alzheimer’s, which – even as we become increasingly hysterical about Ebola – is probably the biggest serious threat to the American medical system that exists today. And one we’re doing far too little research on and are ill prepared to deal with, which is another column for another day.

But Berman had final words about Tom Magliozzi’s last years.

“He had such an incredible mind, mischievous, deductive, curious and hilarious. It was really difficult to see him taken by that disease. . . . To have such a mind go is, well, an obscenity. A double obscenity.”

It is. But the nice thing about this 21st century is that Tom Magliozzi and his brother Ray and the hilarity they bring us with Car Talk can go on as long as we want.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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