What It Takes

What It Takes

Click and Clack, the Crossover Brothers

By Callie Oettinger | Published: November 7, 2014

Happy Holiday from Tom and Ray Magliozzi (aka Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers) of NPR's Car Talk at their "law offices (aka production facility)" in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. (Tom Magliozzi, L, Ray Magliozzi, R.) Caption and image credit: Car Talk

I knew little about cars—yet I tuned into NPR’s “Car Talk” and then stuck around for years, clinging to “Click and Clack’s” words.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi (a.k.a. Click and Clack the Tappet brothers) were a mainstay in my life, introduced by my father, who was a fan of their humor, accents, alma mater, and car knowledge.

I tuned in the first time to listen to what Dad was raving about. I stayed for every reason other than for the talk of cars.

Theirs was the ultimate crossover show—a program that attracted the mechanically inclined, as well as the mechanically illiterate. The show had “car” in the title, yet the audience colored far outside that one-category border.

We’ve talked about the crossover audience on this blog in the past, those individuals who don’t seem like your prime audience, but are indeed just that. How to attract them?

Laughter is one option.

Doug Berman, Car Talk’s producer, recalled Tom’s laughter, up there with great comics who laugh at their own jokes:

It was almost a force, almost separate from him . . . It was always lurking, trying to come out. And he would see something funny coming a few sentences away, and he would start to laugh while he was talking, and he’d kind of be laughing and it would almost overtake him like a wave.

Then there’s passion—which isn’t an option, but a requirement.

As told in a recent “All Things Considered” segment:

After getting out of college, Tom Magliozzi went to work as an engineer. One day he had a kind of epiphany, he told graduates when he and Ray gave the 1999 commencement address at their alma mater.

He was on his way to work when he had a near-fatal accident with a tractor-trailer. He pulled off the road and decided to do something different with his life.

From Tom’s Car Talk bio (link through and read the entire thing):

Shaking in my little MGA after that experience, I asked myself a simple question. “If I had bought the farm out there on Route 128 today, wouldn’t I be bent at all the LIFE that I had missed?” I drove to work, walked into my boss’s office, and quit. My boss was convinced that I had taken a job with a competitor. He just couldn’t understand the actual truth. Life was the issue.

And then a few other things happened and . . . baddabing, baddaboom . . . Tom and his brother opened a DIY auto shop decades before the current Maker Movement was in full swing. More from Tom’s bio:

. . . then along comes my deadbeat brother. He had been teaching science someplace up in Vermont. And when the Vermonters ran him over the border, he came to Cambridge looking for a job. I made the mistake of telling him about one of the two or three great ideas I’ve had in my life: a do-it-yourself auto repair shop. I had actually thought this up while at the Foxboro Company, contemplating long-term trends. I put together the trend of higher and higher auto repair costs with the fad of everyone (hippies, mostly) “getting into it,” you know? And . . . baddabing, baddaboom . . . out comes DIY Auto Repair. “GREAT,” says my brudder. “Let’s do it.”

“What are you, nuts?” I say to him. “It’s the W word. I don’t go to W anymore. I drink coffee and paint the apartments of beautiful women. Flake off.” But since he was totally unemployable and his wife was with child, he talked me into it. And so was born Hacker’s Haven (that name was another of my truly great ideas. In those pre-PC [I mean personal computer, not politically correct] days, a hacker was someone who didn’t know what the hell he was doing but gave it a try anyway). A haven for hackers. How sweet it is.

And then they were asked to do a panel at NPR’s Boston affiliate, WBUR, and Tom was the only one who showed up and . . . baddabing, baddaboom . . . Tom and Ray started doing Car Talk.

They combined all the unfakables—humor, passion and knowledge—and left in their wake an audience residing far outside the title of the show. They didn’t set out for a crossover audience—yet that’s exactly what they attracted.

While I was sad to hear of Tom’s passing earlier this week, I’m heartened to have been touched by his humor, his passion and his knowledge—even if the latter never sunk into my thick head (perhaps a case for the medical arm of Dewey, Cheetham and Howe).

Posted in What It Takes

19 Responses to “Click and Clack, the Crossover Brothers”

  1. Mary Doyle
    November 7, 2014 at 2:47 am

    What a treat to find this post on a night when I can’t sleep! I loved “Click and Clack” and was drawn back to their show week after week even though I know next to nothing (still!) about cars. You nailed it Callie – they combined all of the “unfakables” and ended up with crossover appeal in spades, and they deserved it! This is a great reminder for all of us to keep it real.

    I believe the NPR affiliate stations are running a memorial for Tom during the show’s time-slot this weekend.

    • Callie Oettinger
      November 7, 2014 at 6:29 am

      Thanks, Mary. They both did “keep it real.” If you haven’t read their bios on the “Car Talk” site, do check them out. I cracked up reading Tom’s again yesterday.

      • Mary Doyle
        November 7, 2014 at 7:08 am

        I definitely will – thanks!

  2. November 7, 2014 at 5:23 am

    “Click and Clack” rank up there with some of my all time favorites, although I did not listen nearly as often as I should. When driving at the “right” time, I tuned them in and laughed, and laughed, and was amazed, and laughed some more.

    I am mechanically inclined and am an engineer… and I found their diagnostic approach (both mechanical and anthropological) to be impeccable. I often forgot to laugh as I listened to them work through the problem. I was reminded of my father’s statement “first check fire and fuel” before looking elsewhere.

    What great work they did and a huge legacy left behind for public radio.

    • Callie Oettinger
      November 7, 2014 at 6:40 am

      Thanks for your comment, Dave. They reminded me of my father, too. Many of my childhood memories are of him underneath our VW van. We were like the family in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” (except without the dead body in the back and with a few less dysfunctions…) and spent so much time pushing that thing down a road to start it and gunning yellow lights to avoid stopping – and then there were drive-by’s that involved us jumping out of the car while it was moving, so Dad could drop us off without stopping and risking another breakdown…

      “Click and Clack” made me think of those car memories and got me laughing every time – but had my respect, too. I couldn’t do what they did, but having seen Dad fixing the VW so many times, I had a personal appreciation for their skills – and learned from them that when you break down in the middle of one-road traffic jam around the mountain, in 100+ weather, with three screaming kids in the car, and a line of angry, honking drivers behind you, sometimes laughing is the best thing you can do (and perhaps call the Tappet Brothers).

      • November 7, 2014 at 2:03 pm

        Callie, here’s to the running jump start followed by the leap of faith! Thanks for your tribute to the to the Car Talk dudes, and a laugh at the good old days when cars were cars.

        I’ve tried to remember the first time I heard Car Talk. I think it was in a date’s car, and he enlightened me. Any memory of Car Talk induces happiness.

        Passion, commitment, numbers game, love—the Tappit Brothers are it. May Tom’s laugh continue to reverberate through the spheres.

  3. November 7, 2014 at 6:12 am

    I’m one of the uninitiated when it comes to their show but will definitely check it out now. When there’s a personal element, especially humor tied into a piece of work, there will always be crossover potential.

    • Mary Doyle
      November 7, 2014 at 6:26 am

      You’re in for a real treat – I think you can listen to archived shows online too. It’s impossible not to laugh with these guys when they get going.

    • Callie Oettinger
      November 7, 2014 at 6:30 am

      Check it out here: http://www.cartalk.com/ Their “credits” and “puzzlers” fell into the “classic” category.

  4. November 7, 2014 at 6:33 am

    Tom and Ray could turn diagnosing a fussy carburettor into a story. That’s why I listened, to hear how the mystery of each call would unravel, how we’d go down the path, past the red herrings, and on to the Cause of the Trouble (if it was Archplot) or be sent off to experiment further (if it was Miniplot. h/t Shawn “Story Grid” Coyne, folks.)

    As you say, you cannot fake what these guys had. They didn’t study the market to see what to say on the air, or how to behave. Counterculture becomes a culture; there’s a story as well.

    • Callie Oettinger
      November 7, 2014 at 7:06 am

      You’re right, Joel. I hadn’t thought about that. There always was a story and they always seemed happy to be along for the ride. They were certainly driving forces, but the shows weren’t scripted. They went where the callers questions took them. Rare – and refreshing.

    • November 7, 2014 at 2:09 pm

      My conclusion after years of exploration and traingin is that life purpose amounts to simply being who you are, nothing more or less. Writing, praying, eating, laughing. Click and Clack exemplified the wonder of humans being themselves!

  5. November 7, 2014 at 7:34 am

    Callie, wonderful post. Thanks for catching the authentic essence of Click and Clack. I never knew the background of how the whole thing started. Reads like a page from Steve’s “War of Art” book.
    Thanks for writing this.

  6. November 7, 2014 at 8:25 am

    One of the reasons I loved the show was how much Tom and Ray relished the opportunity to tell a woman how big of an idiot her husband was. Countless times, wives called in and said the car was doing such-and-such, and her husband did this or that to fix it (or more likely cause it), and the brothers would pull no punches while helping the caller solve the problem. They were never cruel, but I’m sure many egos were dashed because Tom and Ray were relentless in treating cars and callers well.

  7. November 7, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Callie:

    I LOVED Click and Clack, much like you not really interested in cars…when the company said go buy a car and tell us what you need to cover it, I was clueless. Friend said my friend bought a Honda Civid and loves it, so I picked up a Honda Civic. Cars didn’t matter to me. Co would have paid for just about any car…yes they were a hoot. I looked forward to Sat mornings on NPR…when you have ‘it’; you have it. It’s a gift.

  8. November 7, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Only this past Christmas Darrell and Katie and I were driving through the mountains of Colorado listening to a rerun of Car Talk, Callie. And I thought, “This is happiness.”

  9. Brent Carr
    November 8, 2014 at 5:29 am

    Callie,

    Hadn’t yet heard the news. We’re down one less entertaining and passionate soul, that’s for sure.

    I missed the posts about ‘crossover’. What an interesting concept and a great example of extraordinary crossover.

    I’m thinking up more examples, but first I’ll read back through past posts before commenting. Always fun to learn a brand new branding dynamic! Thanks!

    RIP Tom

    Brent Carr

  10. Kathy
    November 9, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Thanks Steven for this brilliant post – you really summed up Tom and Ray’s amazing talent to entertain, and educate, all of us and add so much joy to my Saturday mornings. I feel very weepy about losing Tom, it’s like he’s part of my circle of friends and extended family after all of these years. But you’re observation about how he and Ray’s ability to be themselves and allow their natural strengths to guide their path is a great reminder of how to live a successful and creative life, and it takes a bit of the sting out of losing such a wonderful guy. Many thanks.

  11. November 10, 2014 at 4:09 am

    On one of their shows, not sure which brother, one of them said this after a caller said “Interested in cars” – “no we’re not, we’re interested in people. Cars just happen to be a vehicle (!) for us to talk to people”.