The man who made it OK to laugh on public radio

Photo: Associated Press

Tom Magliozzi died today, NPR reports. He was one half of Click and Clack, though it was never quite clear which was which on the long-time NPR program “Car Talk.”

He was 77.

It was easy to tell when Tom was speaking. He was the one with the laugh.

“His laugh is the working definition of infectious laughter,” says Doug Berman, the longtime producer of “Car Talk.”

And that laugh — an actual personality— is what either delighted public radio listeners or hardened them against the show. Public radio was a lot of things back in the day, but it wasn’t much for personality.

You just didn’t laugh on public radio. Even within the public radio industry, a contingent thought the show threatened the dignity of the institution.

To others, however, the show liberated public radio from itself, clearing the way for subsequent shows such as “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.”

Here’s his obituary, written by his brother:

Tom Magliozzi who, along with his brother Ray, hosted NPR’s hit comedy show Car Talk for the last 37 years, died Monday morning, November 3, 2014, from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. “Turns out he wasn’t kidding,” said Ray. “He really couldn’t remember last week’s puzzler.”

Tom Magliozzi was born June 28, 1937, in an East Cambridge, Massachusetts neighborhood filled with other Italian immigrant families. It was there that he and his younger brother Ray picked up the uniquely Boston-Italian style of expressing affection through friendly insults and teasing. That style was at the heart of their banter with each other, and their listeners, on the radio show that made them beloved guests in millions of homes every Saturday morning.

Tom was the first in his family to attend college, enrolling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. He applied that degree to research and consulting jobs until, in his late 20s, he was making his tedious 45-minute commute in traffic one morning, had a near miss with another car, and had a revelation that he was wasting his life. Upon arriving at work, he walked into his boss’ office and quit on the spot. He hated putting on a suit and working in the 9-to-5 world.

“He actually hated working in any world,” says his brother Ray. “Later on, when we were doing Car Talk, he would come in late and leave early. We used to warn him that if he left work any earlier, he’d pass himself coming in.”

As Tom once described his own attitude to his listeners, “Don’t be afraid of work. Make work afraid of you. I did such a fabulous job of making work afraid of me that it has avoided me my whole life so far.”

After a period spent happily as a Harvard Square bum, a house painter, an inventor, a successful Ph.D. student, and an auto mechanic, Car Talk became his focus, and Tom spent the rest of his working life doing what he was born to do. “Making friends, philosophizing, thinking out loud, solving people’s problems, and laughing his butt off,” says Ray.

The radio show began as a fluke. Someone from Boston’s local public radio station, WBUR, booked an on-air panel of six car mechanics from the area. Tom was the only one who showed up. “I was a panel of one,” he later said. He was impressive enough to be asked back the following week, when he brought along his fellow mechanic and kid brother, Ray, and Car Talk was born.

Over the 10 years the brothers did the show locally, on a volunteer basis, they slowly injected more and more humor and off-topic diversions into their discussions of carburetors and wheel bearings—following their natural curiosity and pushing the limits for what was then a typically decorous public radio station. “Since we weren’t making any money, we figured we might as well have fun,” said Tom.

The brothers’ unique combination of hilarious, self-deprecating banter and trustworthy advice was picked up by NPR in 1987, and Car Talk soon became the network’s most popular entertainment program ever, reaching audiences of more than four-million people a week. The program has continued to be a top-rated show on NPR stations in syndication, even after the guys stopped recording new shows in 2012.

Along with the solid car advice he dispensed on the radio show with his brother, Tom often took on the additional roles of philosopher king, life advisor, moral scold, and family counselor.

“He’d always ask guys who were in a dispute with their wives or girlfriends one question: ‘Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?’” said Ray. “In his own personal life, Tom always chose ‘right,’ hence he leaves behind two wives, and a passel of children and grandchildren.” He is survived by his first wife Julia; second wife, Joanne; his children, Lydia Icke, Alex and Anna Magliozzi; five grandchildren; and his close companion of recent years, Sylvia Soderberg.

“He and his brother changed public broadcasting forever,” said Doug Berman, the brothers’ longtime producer. “Before Car Talk, NPR was formal, polite, cautious….even stiff. By being entirely themselves, without pretense, Tom and Ray single-handedly changed that, and showed that real people are far more interesting than canned radio announcers. And every interesting show that has come after them owes them a debt of gratitude.

“I think the body of work he leaves will definitely be held up with great American humorists like the Marx Brothers and Mark Twain,” said Berman. “He was a genius. And he happened to use that genius to make other people feel good and laugh. I suspect, generations from now, people will be listening to Car Talk and feeling good and laughing.

The family asks that in lieu flowers, or rotten fruit, fans of Tom make a donation in his memory to either their local NPR station or the Alzheimer’s Association.

In a 1999 commencement speech with his brother, he advised MIT grads to spend less time thinking.


Here’s the story. I mean what is the importance of this. we have always thought that we were the highest life form on the planet. Turns out, we are the lowest life form on the planet. And I am going to give to you now a theorem which will knock your socks off. Some theories you know are just complete bull****.

For example, the big bang theory. The entire universe is compacted into a dot. It explodes. Why? Well, they don’t know why. So they call it a singularity. That’s like the bimbo saying, well, it just did. It explodes. And out of it come all the stars that you can see in the sky, all the planets, Madonna, corn beef sandwiches. Now if you didn’t hear that and say, oh, come on!

But I am going to give you the theorem and you’re going to say, why didn’t I think of that? What does all of this tell us that we are not the highest life form? This is the theory of reverse reincarnation. I mean some people believe in reincarnation. And what they believe is that when we die, we come back as better and better people.

What the theory of reverse reincarnation says, if we are good people, we will come back as a golden retriever. Then a cow. Then a worm. Then grass. Now if the reincarnation was working in the other direction, coming back as better and better people, where are they? Duh! So, it becomes clear that the theory of reverse reincarnation may be the scientific finding of not the decade, not the century, but of all time.

Now, my brother and I, L. Ron Magliozzi, are going to help you to achieve nirvana. We’re going to help you to become not smarter. Smarter is no good. That’s the wrong direction.

You have spent the last four, five, or six years of your life working on the wrong direction. You are sliding down, as Tom Lehrer says, sliding down the razor blade of life. You are sliding down the happiness curve. You must stop this from happening and you must go in the other direction and we are here to help you.

And, as you know, there is a process for reaching nirvana and we are going to give it to you now. It is this: You must repeat the mantra. And the mantra, which happens to be emblazoned on our flag, which stands here — none of your morons will be able to read it because it’s in Latin.

RAY: It says: Non impediti ratione cogitatonis.

TOM: Which, of course, means: Unencumbered by the thought process. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] Now, I am going to give a very brief history of how this mantra has helped me.

RAY: I can’t wait.

TOM: If you repeat this mantra, what happens is everything slows down. Life slows down. Being unencumbered by the thought process allows you to identify and hear and see defining moments in your life, things that will change your life. Unencumbered by the thought process. You say it over and over again. And as everything slows down and begins to stop — we call these, by the way, moments of inertia.

He made the graduates chant the mantra over and over. “Unencumbered by the thought process.”

Tom and his brother, Ray, haven’t done the “Car Talk” show for two years. The episodes still running are from the archives because public radio couldn’t come up with anything suitable to replace it.

That alone is testament to what the Magliozzi brothers gave to the public radio culture: The permission to laugh and not be constantly weighed down by thinking such deep thoughts all the time.

From the archive: Can public radio still take risks?