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Who won't miss 'Car Talk' laughter?

By David Bianculli
updated 9:19 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tom Magliozzi, one half of jovial, iconic "Car Talk" radio duo, has died
  • David Bianculli says like many, he feels a genuine loss at the news
  • Brothers dispensed sound advice on cars and life with infectious laughter, he says
  • Bianculli: Their show was pioneering, ahead of the loose, funny shows that would follow

Editor's note: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. He also is TV critic and guest host for NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

(CNN) -- It says a lot about how jovial a person was, and how fondly that person is liable to be remembered, when your first thought upon hearing of that person's death is a clear memory of a loud, long, infectious laugh. Tom Magliozzi, who died Monday at age 77, was exactly that sort of guy.

If you ever listened to Tom and younger brother Ray, 65, bantering on NPR's long-running "Car Talk" radio show, you know the laugh. And if you don't, why in the world not?

David Bianculli
David Bianculli

These two siblings -- equal parts auto mechanics, students of the human condition and sit-down comics -- first appeared on public radio locally, with a program from Boston's WBUR in 1977. They and their show went national on NPR in 1987, the same year Philadelphia's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross, the program to which I contribute as TV critic and occasional substitute host, also went national on NPR.

Yet I never met Tom or Ray, and never even phoned their call-in show to be advised, harangued and entertained. It was enough just to listen each week -- so much so that, though I didn't know Tom personally, I feel like I did, and I feel a genuine loss at the news of his death from complications from Alzheimer's. And I'm guessing, if you're taking the time to read this, you feel exactly the same.

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The two men stopped generating new "Car Talk" episodes in 2012. By then though, they'd generated such a backlog that the best archived shows could be repeated without any drop in momentum -- just without the ability for listeners to call in. And not even that seemed to matter, because the callers on those old shows, and the way Tom and Ray -- aka Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers -- interacted with them was more than entertaining enough to make up for it.

Apparently, that will continue to be true. Ray has been quoted as saying he would like the shows to continue as a tribute to his brother. Selfishly, I'd like them to continue, too, because the running of my weekend errands always went a little smoother when "Car Talk" was on my car radio. Smoother, but not faster, because I'd often stay in the car listening, long after arriving at my destination, just to hear how Tom and Ray dealt with their callers, and especially with each other.

Their automotive advice usually was sound, even if it sounded off the cuff and occasionally even flippant. But the two of them -- especially Tom, who was quick with a joke and quicker with a probing but good-natured personal question -- were equally adept at sharing advice outside the car frames. Any time a caller began a plea for help with "My husband says ...," or "My girlfriend hates it when I ...," you knew you were in for an overtime session, sitting there listening to the two brothers dispense advice and laughter in fairly equal measure.

It's clear, from a listener's perspective, that they loved people, loved each other and loved being on the radio. Listen to them for hours, or for years -- or for decades, as I have -- and I challenge you to find one moment where either of them sounds remotely stiff or nervous. Even when reading those tongue-twisting, tongue-in-cheek closing credits or working their way through the ultra-complicated puzzles of the week (I've yet to solve even one), they're loose, laughing, and having fun.

That's not common on public radio. And it's a real gift. Listening to them was like eavesdropping on a raucous family conversation, because that's exactly what was happening.

The laughs the "Car Talk" siblings brought to public radio could be assessed historically, if you wanted to go that way and place Click and Clack in a media context. Like Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" on American Public Radio, "Car Talk" took itself frivolously -- and pioneered such later public radio comedy confections as NPR's "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!," distributed out of Chicago.

It's neither coincidence nor a surprise that both shows are produced by the same man, Doug Berman, who clearly sees the value of a good laugh.

On radio, of course, you don't need to "see" a good laugh. Just hear it.

And Tom's laugh was one of the warmest, loudest, most delightful laughs of all.

I sure will miss it.

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