By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Season 1, Episode 2: “One-Punch Banta”
Original Airdate: Sept. 19, 1978
Summary: Tony gets the opportunity to become a sparring partner for a middleweight boxing champion, but he may be getting more than he bargained for.
Les: Well, we’re past the pilot episode of Taxi, so now it’s time for us to get into the growing pains stage of any sitcom, where it takes a few episodes to figure out what kind of show it wants to be and figures out what succeeds and fails. While the pilot focused more on Alex and the loneliness that comes from being a lifer at the cab company, “One-Punch Banta” is an episode that emphasizes one of the other cabbies (in this case Tony) wanting to make something of their lives. For Tony, it’s making his professional boxing ambitions come to life, by way of a sparring match with Carlos Palomino (appearing as himself!) that gradually turns out not to be what he expected.
What struck me the most about this episode was something that Cory mentioned about the pilot, the sense of camaraderie these cabbies have for each other and their genuine desire to see each other succeed. Alex, Bobby, and Elaine all show up for Tony’s sparring match, and chip in* to get him a fight robe in place of the usual towels he hangs over his neck. (“They once said, ‘In this corner, Holiday Inn.'”) Alex is willing to put his money where his mouth is to Louie, and when it all ends in tears they’re quick to get behind Tony the minute he says he’ll try again. In The Office, Michael Scott always used to say that the people you work with become your family, and while I think everyone here is too proud or too practical to think in those terms there’s still that core of understanding between them.
*The moment where Alex pulls out the card of everyone who didn’t contribute might be my favorite scene in the episode. No surprise, Louie’s on the top of that list.
I find it very encouraging, but also a little bittersweet, because they have to know if Tony gets his big break, it means he moves out of their world. Sure they might keep in touch and attend all his fights, but I also get the impression you’re either in or you’re out in the world of the Sunshine Cab Company.
Also in comparison to the pilot, I felt Danny DeVito had a much bigger role this time around. After feeling separated last time, cordoned off in his cage, here he’s now wading deeper into the world of the cabbies—if only to mock their hopes and take their money. However, in keeping with the good-natured, blue-collar ribbing the cabbies direct towards each other, there’s nothing about his behavior that comes across as malicious, more his general causticity as Alex so adroitly explains: “You’ll have to forgive Louie, he’s himself today.” I have to think the writers realized as they went along that DeVito is not only an actor who’s game for anything, but also one who’s got an inherent likability as a person, so they can get away with making him a total asshole (something that, looking to present-day TV, helps shade a lot of the heinous things Frank Reynolds does on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). And of course, if they feel they’ve gone too far, they can give him an uplifting Broadway number to the empty garage.
Favorite line of his this week? “The world’s going crazy, I think it’s the spray cans!”
Andy: You’re right Les—this is Tony’s episode, but it’s Louie’s show. The first sequence is a day in the life of Louie DePalma, which boils down to being awful to everyone in turn. It’s an amuse-bouche of comic nastiness.
Louie and Alex are established more firmly this week as the respective moral poles of the Sunshine Cab Company. As much as we learn about Tony’s backstory, his plot also serves as what you can tell is only the latest proxy fight between these two.
When Alex insists that all the other cabbies will surrender their best paying night of the week just to lend moral support to one of their own, there’s a flicker of genuine tension before we learn whether he or Louie is right. Either outcome could be played comically, so in choosing which one to side with, the show is making an early statement about its view of human nature. It reminded me to a startling degree of the final showdown between Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight: Will people choose altruistic sacrifice or cynical self-interest?
In a tertiary way, this was also a fascinating episode for the developing characterization of Elaine. Consider that she makes two or three quips about her bedroom prowess, none of which are treated as smarmy or demeaning. She’s establishing herself as a sexually liberated woman without an ounce of shame about it, and the show’s expecting us to share that attitude. How many sitcoms these days would have the confidence to do that, without veering into a retrograde “slut” caricature?
As for the showdown between Tony and The Champ, I thought Palomino, the real-life then-welterweight champion of the world, acquitted himself pretty nicely with the little bit of acting he had to do. And on the other side of the ring, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Danza handled the boxing rhythms comfortably: Before joining Taxi, he was a professional pugilist who was discovered at the gym.
Cory: “One-Punch Banta” succeeds and fails for the exact same reason: It is not a makeshift shell repeat of the pilot episode. Second episodes are really the most challenging to craft—I can’t think of any second episode that’s particularly “great”—and oftentimes, the blanket approach creatives take is to walk the steps of the first episode, only in a slightly different fashion. This episode ignores that technique and avoids falling into that repetitive funk I think all four of us are used to seeing.
Earl Pomerantz’s script is more scattered, probably a bit funnier, and takes the crew out of the garage earlier. Transferring the primary focus from Alex to Tony (and Louie, as you guys astutely mentioned) is the clearest example of how this episode differs, but again, it’s also tonally dissimilar. There isn’t as much as heart on display here, or at least it doesn’t manifest in warming, awkward speeches delivered by Alex. Tony and Louie are less soulful, but easier to create big comedic setpieces for, which results in a better episode on a comedy level. Danza plays the dense goofball with real charm, and DeVito is already locked into Louie’s nasty rage by the second episode.
With “One-Punch,” Taxi is already showing a bit of versatility. The show did more character-based comedy in the pilot and yet transferred to a broader, goofier atmosphere in episode two. That’s a good thing.
Nevertheless, I will say that this episode makes a few jumps that a more repetitive-leaning episode two would have covered up quite nicely. The chemistry and energy between the characters was well-established in the pilot, but it felt like we missed a few conversations between Elaine and the rest of the group. She wasn’t given much to do in the pilot as far as introductions go, and here, she’s already ingrained into the fabric of the crew. On one hand, I don’t really need to watch multiple episodes of Elaine in tension with the guys because of her being A) new and B) a woman. On the other hand, the shorthand the characters already have with one another developed off-screen, in slightly disappointing fashion. I’d still prefer this episode over one that recreates the pilot beat-for-beat, but it’s odd that Elaine, as the big “new person,” has had little to do.*
*I know Elaine’s spotlight is coming in episode five, but still.
Noel: Damn you, Daglas. I was resting on the “Danza was a boxer before he was an actor” to open my thoughts. Sigh.
You’ve all talked about how DeVito steals the episode out from under everyone (and he does, giving us an unguarded moment that demonstrates that Louie isn’t all bad (he just has to act that way to keep everyone in line), and you’ve danced around how Elaine is only being slightly sketched out, seemingly off-screen. But what about John?
I have no idea who this guy is. I understand everyone else better than John Burns, even Elaine. What is his role here? Is he a straight man? Is he window dressing? He shows up for everything in “Bobby’s Acting Career” as well, and while he’s around, he’s not around. It’s just bizarre to see a character floating around in a show that I feel is pretty assured, even in this, the second episode. (I’m fully away that John is written out at the end of this season, but right now I’m kind of surprised it took them that long.)
For me, the highlight of the episode was that gorgeous tracking shot that introduces us to the gym. It’s a smidge over 30 seconds long, from the boxer working the speed bag to finally cutting as Elaine begins to jump rope behind the fighter. I was kind of thrown by it in a very delightful way, and shows that you can do something “cinematic” even in a multi-cam set-up.
Season 1, Episode 4: “Bobby’s Acting Career”
Original Airdate: Sept. 19, 1978
Summary: After giving himself three years to break into the acting business, Bobby goes on a mad audition spree in the hours before his own personal deadline expires.
Les: Once again, it’s an episode fixated on one of the cabbies trying to make it big in the business—show business in this case for Bobby Wheeler. However, this is a story that’s more melancholy than “One-Punch Banta,” given that Bobby’s set a clock on this for himself. No one in that cab company seems to have set out to do this as anything more than a part-time job (even Alex, for all his talk about being “the only cab driver in this place,” feels like he got here through his own apathy more than anything else), and the fact that it might become full-time is disheartening. Speaking as someone who more than once has despaired of ever getting a writing career of the ground, the thought that you’re not going to meet your dreams and you’ll have to settle is terrifying.
As such, there’s a desperate mania to this episode as Bobby knocks on every door in town, though thankfully the character’s slightly dimwitted attitude keeps it from going dark. (“Any tips for the audition?” “Be yourself.” “I better go rehearse that.”) The early moments of the party I found particularly hysterical—highlights include Latka’s indecipherable toast, the farce of Bobby’s celebration when there wasn’t anything particular to celebrate, and Alex’s exasperated reaction: “Is this some new party game?” And even when the big moment didn’t come, it looked as if it was going to go dark again, until Bobby decides in the comfort of his friends there’s nothing wrong with adding three more years to his deadline.
How’d you guys react to Bobby’s more dramatic moments where he took Alex to task for not supporting him? Given this is a comedy, and given how emotional Bobby got in comparison to his usual demeanor, I guessed the twist in his routine about halfway through the diatribe, but that certainly didn’t take away from the emotion Jeff Conaway expressed or the cathartic sense of relief when he swung his arm around Alex. “You bastard,” Alex laughs, but you can tell he was legitimately upset by it.
The episode’s B-plot is a welcome breath of comedy to lighten up the action, and gives us both the first look into one of the cabs and another example of how this ragtag group unites around each other. Alex’s fundamental decency leads him to keep the dog Hamlet from its abusive owner, and once the owner shows up everyone in the garage unites around Alex’s desire to keep it—even Louie, once they offer him a dollar to get the sweat out of his eyes. I do hope this turns into a garage dog, because as Cougar Town continues to demonstrate, a giant cuddly horse-dog adds a lot to a show when it pops up.
Andy: The contrast with the previous episode is clear, and it’s even more clearly underlined by the difference in Alex’s respective reactions. With Tony, he’s vocal and unflinching in his support, even willing to lose a C-note to boost the guy’s confidence. Here, he adopts a sterner tough-love approach as a counterweight to Bobby’s mania and quasi-denial. Once again, we learn as much about Alex as we do about the episode’s central character. He’s a mentor to these loopy coworkers, and he’s a sharp enough one to know how different people require different methods.*
*One of my favorite expressions of how the others see Alex goes back to a joke in “One-Punch Banta”: Bobby lies repeatedly about his take to Tony, but when Alex asks, Bobby reflexively tells him the truth.
Watching these two episodes back to back gives you a sense of the sadness lurking just under the surface of Taxi, one that cuts against typical sitcom rhythms. These characters are all in a place they’d rather not be, this stepping stone to a better life that seems clear from the outside will never materialize. As they’re trying to get out, they’re finding solace in their shared disappointment—but that’s the sort of solace that can’t last forever. It reinforces you for a time, but it also chips away at you. In a lot of ways, Taxi is reminiscent of Community.
Cory: What’s great about the first handful of Taxi episodes is that each character gets their own little showcase, almost as if there are a half-dozen pilots trapped under the Taxi umbrella. This technique allows us to quickly learn who these people are, and perhaps more importantly, what it is that they want in life. I appreciate that the show is committed to actually showing us the characters chasing those dreams, instead of simply telling us every week that Tony is a boxer or that Bobby wants to be an actor. Those “dream” professions are easy targets for jokes, something Taxi certainly doesn’t shy away from, but giving the audience an opportunity to see the characters actually trying to make things happen is a nice touch. In these two episodes, we see that Tony isn’t good enough to box professionally and Bobby is still struggling with his acting, so we know they won’t be leaving the garage anytime soon. Yet we see enough of their talent to be convinced that eventually, they’ll leave. Upward and onward, and all that.
The comparison to Community is damn apt (and one I imagine that we will keep returning to based on our collective affinity for that show): The garage is not unlike Greendale in that it is intended to be a liminal stage for these folks (as Andy mentioned). There’s something else out there for them, whether it be boxing, acting, art or family, but right now, they need this place—and these people—to make it through. So, I guess that makes Alex our Winger, which after a few episodes isn’t too far off.
And again, “Bobby’s Acting Career” is an example of the show mixing up the tones, stakes, and depth from episode to episode, and with no real trouble at all. I can confidently say that this is my favorite episode of the first six or seven, mostly because it brings forth those dark corners in a fashion similar to the pilot, only slightly better. It’s hard not to remember Jeff Conaway for his epic stints on Celebrity Rehab, but he is really, really good as Bobby Wheeler. Bobby is a character who could come off just as dense and intellectually hopeless as Tony if it were not for the naive humanity that Conaway breathes into him.
On a technical note, I love the way Taxi and James Burrows create movement in fairly static settings. These characters move around more than even characters on contemporary multi-camera sitcoms. Obviously, a boxing match makes the movement easy to produce, but the celebratory party in Bobby’s apartment in this episode is full of energy as well.
Noel: I was onto Bobby’s speech pretty quickly, Les, but I wasn’t firmly convinced since the show was willing to work an emotionally big moment into the pilot. When he yanks the door open in a fit of mock-rage/disappointment, I thought I was wrong.
And while Cory mentions how good it is to see the dreams play out, I was happy to see that Bobby is actually a talented actor who just can’t catch a break. Given his dim-bulb attitude, I was worried that he’d be another Joey Tribbiani: A pretty face without a great deal of skill or intelligence. And it’s to the episode’s credit that it purposefully plays that up in the commercial audition (the previously mentioned “I better go rehearse that”), which only makes his emotional outburst at Alex seem like it could go sideways and serious.
Like Andy Kauffman probably was, I’m kind of already done with Latka and that schtick. I don’t tend to find foreigner characters particularly funny, and while the show sidesteps engaging in specific stereotypes, it still feels a bit…silly. I don’t feel like Latka belongs here yet.
Stay tuned as our Roundtable looks at a cross-section of Taxi over the next five weeks. We are tackling episodes two at a time. Here’s a schedule of the ones we’ll be watching (we’ve linked to the episodes available on CBS.com):