Banjos, banter, bad puns and a cackling, irresistible laugh that cuts through it all — that’s the sound of Boston.
No? You were thinking more classical symphonies, the tinkling of teacups, seagulls and Duck Boats, or maybe the occasional crack of a baseball bat?
Well, maybe we’re just tuned to different frequencies.
The one with the laughter, for the past 37 years, has belonged to a certain public radio station that is home to the most unlikely success story in public radio history: Car Talk.
A call-in show about cars? On NPR? Very funny.
Well, actually, as millions of us know, it is.
And not only that — it is funny in a way that made the rest of the country understand, perhaps for the first time, that Bostonians could be funny. Not just archly witty, like the snooty Brahmin who shared a tent with Hawkeye on TV’s “M*A*S*H,” or out-of-left-field, smart-kid, deadpan weird like Steven Wright, but funny — goofy, guileless, laugh-till-it-hurts, out-and-out, down-and-dirty funny.
So today, when I heard the news that Tom Magliozzi had died, I did something that Car Talk had never made me do before. I cried.
Tom, as my fellow aficionados know, is the elder of the Tappet Brothers, the personas created by him and his kid brother Ray for their radio hour. They’re also known as Click and Clack, though I’ve never been able to ascertain which one is Click. But what I do know is that that laugh — that high, rolling, giddily out-of-control exhalation of pure joy at the sheer craziness of life — belonged to Tom. And, through him, it belonged to all of us.
For one hour a week, at least, we could forget the sorrows of the world and just listen as people called in to ask about whether they needed new brakes, or what to look for in a mechanic, or how to get snakes out of their car (no, really) — and listen to the answers, whether or not we cared about brakes or mechanics or snakes, because we knew it would be fun.
We also knew, as I came to understand more fully when I started working at WBUR and got to know them a bit, that what we were hearing was the true, genuine, unadulterated Tom and Ray. They were never anything but completely themselves. Cambridge born and bred, they never lost the distinctive accent of their Fair City — and never stopped kidding about it, either.
Before “Cheers,” before Matt and Ben, before “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” and all the other Southie noirs that have peddled their own lucrative brand of Beantown mystique, Tom and Ray let the world hear what Boston really sounds like. Smart without pretension, funny without cruelty, warm without schmaltz, they’re the best ambassadors this sometimes maddeningly parochial city could ask for.
They’re also, as I knew from listening and came to know even more from seeing them together, just about the most loving brothers imaginable. And so more than anything today I’m thinking of Ray, the little brother who never stopped ribbing the big brother he adored, and hoping he will always hear what’s still echoing in my ear.