I don’t just work in public radio, I listen to it. Maybe that makes me an ultra-nerd, but there is one show with a good-hearted comic spirit that has made it a welcome exception to other NPR fare that can be way too serious. That show is Car Talk.
The tappet brothers. Ray on the left and Tom on the right.
If you follow public radio you know by now that that Car Talk is running on fumes. By fumes I mean reruns. This began two years ago. But the reruns, like the hundreds of new shows they did, are so brilliantly produced and edited that I am only now beginning to notice that the mechanical mishaps described by callers are sounding pretty familiar.
Of course, the show didn’t just have great production values. It had Tom and Ray Magliozzi. It was like I’d turn on the radio every Saturday morning and be able to spend an hour with my two favorite Boston uncles.
Somehow Tom and Ray managed to always be funny, never be mean and to always leave you with some sound advice, like a good uncle should. You might wish they didn’t laugh so much, for instance. But if you did, it brought on an affectionate roll of the eyes, never an irritated scowl that made you turn off the radio.
In fact, it’s that thing about giving good advice that was the show’s saving grace.
I say this because I can’t think of one entertainment show on TV or radio that I haven’t gotten tired of. Sometimes it takes a while. I probably listened to a Prairie Home Companion Show for 20 years before I finally decided I’d heard enough news from Lake Wobegon. But Car Talk has never lost its freshness or appeal.
How did they do it? Lemme answer that by posing another question. If you stripped Car Talk of every laugh and every joke; if Tom and Ray stopped fooling around and did the show dead serious, what would you be left with? You’d be left with a show where you still learned a hell of a lot about cars.
Car Talk mined the depths of an incredibly rich topic, that miracle of modern engineering called the automobile. And Tom and Ray seemed like they knew it all. I don’t think I ever came away from a show without knowing something new about cars. Maybe I learned what was causing that rattling sound that typically comes from the driver’s side front wheel. Or maybe I found out how a car’s computer software could be reprogrammed to change the fuel injection and boost performance.
The show had myriad opportunities to delve into the affections we have for our cars, and the fights we get into with some no-good relative who sold us his beater. But it was the hard info about cars that kept me around. The charms of the tappet brothers were great but eventually I’d get tired, even of them.
In a strange way, Car Talk was the quintessential public radio show. It ultimately succeeded because people always learned something when they heard it. Public radio fans (and employees) like the medium because it makes you feel like you’re still going to college. Tom and Ray taught us classes about mechanics, engineering and computer science, just by talking about cars. And they did it in a way that made you laugh.
As time goes on, the reruns will start sounding more like reruns. Car Talk will have to come to an end, assuming the tappet brothers have no plans to come out of retirement. We get tired of hearing the same stories over and over, even when we’re hearing them from our favorite uncles.
Update, November 3, 2014: Rest in Peace, Tom Magliozzi.