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A zany cartoon debut for an animated pair

New turn for 'Click & Clack' and PBS

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / June 8, 2008

Most TV series are propelled into the world by creative vision, ambition, all-out effort, and dreams of market domination. With "Click & Clack's As the Wrench Turns," the upcoming PBS cartoon featuring "Car Talk" stars Tom and Ray Magliozzi, it took something else - a whole lot of cajoling.

Cajoling the proudly indolent Magliozzis into believing that a series about themselves would require minimal work on their part. Cajoling PBS into buying the concept of an animated show for grown-ups. And now comes the real trick: cajoling PBS viewers into sampling a show built not on some high-minded notion of quality, but on Click and Clack's popular NPR shtick of self-mockery and perpetual sarcasm.

"As the Wrench Turns" is a tongue-in-cheek take on what Click and Clack's off-air lives might be like, featuring those familiar radio voices in exaggerated car toon bodies. It centers on a fictionalized version of the brothers' car repair shop in Cambridge, where some characters glug motor oil in coffee cups and a local politician is named Marty Bezzle. (The campaign button reads "M. Bezzle.")

PBS is treading cautiously into this new world. The show premieres July 9 as a limited experiment: five Wednesdays worth of back-to-back half-hour episodes, followed by "we'll see." Which, on some level, suits the "Car Talk" guys just fine.

"How much stupid stuff can we possibly - oh, in that case, the show might be able to go on forever," Ray Magliozzi said in a recent conference call with his brother, who pointed out that all they had to do for the show was sit in a studio and read a script.

"It's dumb work; we didn't have to think much," Tom Magliozzi said. "We usually don't."

On one hand, it should be no surprise that PBS, which has suffered from flagging ratings and waning corporate sponsorships in recent years, would turn for help to one of public radio's most successful franchises. The talk show about cars - featuring two mechanics with MIT degrees, loud guffaws, and thick Boston accents - is NPR's most popular entertainment program, drawing 4.5 million listeners each week on more than 600 stations. "Car Talk" spinoffs include a twice-weekly syndicated newspaper column, a franchise of books and CD compilations, and products that range from T-shirts to coffee mugs. (The Magliozzis own the show and the business behind it and declined to release revenue figures or reveal their stake in "Wrench.")

"I like the idea of doing something unexpected and surprising that may cause viewers to stop the remote in its tracks," said John Wilson, PBS's senior vice president for programming. "I like the idea of doing something that's animated. I like the idea of doing humor. I like the idea that it's not completely terra incognita."

On the other hand, PBS has reason to tread with caution, given how much "Wrench" departs from the network's identity, said Laurie Ouellette, a communications professor at the University of Minnesota and author of "Viewers Like You: How Public Television Failed the People."

"PBS has an aura of middlebrow educational sensibility. That's been one of the reasons why it's occupied such a small place in television culture," Ouellette said. "As the Wrench Turns," by contrast, "isn't being promoted as educational or superior in any way," she said. "I think that's a really positive development for PBS."

Comedy itself is hardly new to public television: PBS introduced "Monty Python's Flying Circus" to America and has often filled its lineup with British comedies. But "As the Wrench Turns" owes much more to "Family Guy" than "Fawlty Towers." The show's quirky characters cook up schemes to avoid honest work at the garage; they range from Fidel, a mechanic partial to Armani suits, to a Harvard-professor-turned-repairman named Crusty. In the cartoon, Click and Clack have a radio show, too. In one of many public-radio jokes, their producer is an earnest type named Beth Totenbag.

The plots often touch on topical subjects, from globalization (they decide to outsource the radio show, and ratings soar) to the environment (they invent a car that runs on pasta). In one episode, the guys face cancellation after they actually lose money in a PBS fund drive. They decide to make up for the loss by running jointly for president so they can apply for federal matching funds.

"All we wanted to do is be funny," said Howard Grossman, an independent producer who dreamed up the show and spearheaded its creation. Grossman, a longtime "Car Talk" fan, has produced a couple of serious dramas for PBS, including an "American Playhouse" episode from 1984. He first had the idea for a cartoon take on "Car Talk" in late 2000, found the show's e-mail address from its website, and sent a pitch cold. In February 2001, "Car Talk" executive producer Doug Berman gave him a call.

The Magliozzis had been offered TV opportunities for years and usually had little interest, Berman said. "They didn't want to be TV stars. They didn't want to be recognized when they went to their Chinese restaurant."

But the concept of an animated series had appeal, said Berman, who is now also head writer for "Wrench." "They're larger than life on radio, and to just put them on TV as themselves sort of makes them only life-sized. Whereas if you animate them, you can keep them larger than life."

Eventually, Grossman visited the "Car Talk" offices in Harvard Square and started to tinker with concepts. His first proposal was to present the radio call-in show as is, but with animated characters - a sort of PBS version of Comedy Central's "Crank Yankers" puppet show. PBS didn't like it. Grossman went back to the drawing board. For years he toyed with ideas, wooed investors, and provided "Car Talk" with frequent updates.

"You'd be sitting in a stall in a public restroom and he'd knock on the stall next to you," Berman said.

It took about four years, Grossman said, to sell a final concept to PBS. The Magliozzis, notoriously reluctant to do anything promotional, agreed to attend the "green light" meeting via conference call.

PBS's Wilson said the show is a calculated risk. (PBS declined to release information on funding for "Wrench," but said its financial stake in the shows it airs varies widely, averaging 20 percent.) Fitting the show into a lineup dominated by serious mainstays like "Masterpiece," "Frontline," and "American Experience" was a challenge, Wilson said. And he didn't have a compatible half-hour show to pair it with, which is why he's running episodes back to back.

As for the future of the series, Wilson is circumspect. "This could be one of those things where we slap our foreheads and say, 'It seemed like a good idea at the time," he said. "Or it could be the start of something big."

The Magliozzis do a yeoman's job of seeming not to care. Asked whether they were excited about a June 19 screening of the show at MIT - a fund-raiser for public radio station WBUR - Ray offered a clearly sarcastic "yes."

And presented with the notion that the duo could help change PBS's image, he was skeptical at best.

"I think they need to run and hide," he said. "Because if they're putting their eggs in our basket, they're in deep doo-doo."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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