Roundtable Review: Taxi, “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” and “Nardo Loses Her Marbles”

Taxi-Reverend-Jim

By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick

Season 2, Episode 3: “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey”
Original airdate: Sept. 25, 1979

Summary: The cabbies meet Reverend Jim at a restaurant, and get him a job as a cab driver. Jim then spreads his special brand of reality around the garage.

Les: So, do you remember last week when I said that it seemed like in its second season Taxi was trending toward a broader style of comedy? Well, “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” didn’t do much to dissuade me of this theory with the return of Christopher Lloyd’s drug-addled ex-minister, Reverend Jim Ignatowski, “the living embodiment of the Sixties.” After he happens to walk into Mario’s one night, the rest of the cabbies take pity on his directionless life and decide to get him a job as a cab driver—one that they all unanimously agree is perfect for someone that has no experience or marketable skills.

I think this is the funniest of the episodes we’ve seen so far and certainly one of my favorites, but it’s also an episode that seems somewhat lacking in the pathos we’ve had in earlier weeks. Most all of Taxi we’ve seen so far has a definite undercurrent of melancholy, that these people are damaged sorts getting by the best they can, but in all instances there’s a sense that they know this. By contrast, Jim doesn’t seem particularly bothered by his state of affairs, and the cabbies don’t feel as committed or invested in his struggles as they’ve been before—Tony’s openly disparaging of his chances to pass the test. And of course, once again there’s a moment Louie steals the spotlight and turns the garage into his performance space, this time for a lovely tranquilizer-induced rendition of “Moonlight Bay” (in the great TV tradition of playing drunk, which still goes on today).

At the same time, while the comedy’s not as dark it might be the sharpest writing the show’s had yet. The writers could have gone for even broader, Cheech and Chong-style slapstick drug humor, but instead Jim’s lack of understanding is turned towards wordplay, using a cross-talk style I’d associate more with Mel Brooks, the Marx Brothers or old-school vaudeville:

Latka: You marry me!

Jim: Believe me, it would never work out.

Bobby: My friends and I were wondering if you wanted to join us.

Jim: What did you decide?

Bobby: (reading the driving test) Mental illness or narcotic addiction?

Jim: That’s a tough choice.

The crowning moment for me on this is when he finally starts taking the real test, and can’t answer the first question without help, so he has to ask the other cabbies what a yellow light means—and when they tell him, he misunderstands and asks it again. That’s an old comedy trope, repeating a joke ad infinitum, where the humor comes when you realize not only are they going to do it again, but they’re going to do it again after that, and then once more with feeling. And this one is repeated four times, just enough for it still to be funny and not wear out its welcome, which is a very hard thing to do.

But he passes the test, and comes into the garage—only for his first action to be driving the car through the garage door and then asking for his 90 cents. Jim doesn’t subvert expectations in the way we’ve seen others do, but he’s such a defined presence and Lloyd inhabits the character so well that it’s entirely clear why the Charles brothers decided he needed to be part of the show’s world full-time.

Finally, as a side note to our ongoing discussion of Latka’s relevance, my enjoyment of the character increases the more English he seems to know and the less pronounced his sideburns get (here picking up some jive talk after a stint in Harlem), as he’s played less of a joke and more a character whose misunderstandings of American culture lead to comedy. Based on his rendition of “Sex Machine” I would pay good money for the album Latka Graves Sings Funk Hits of the 70s.

Andy: “Vaudeville” is the same word I jotted in my own notes, Les, along with those three jokes. Honestly, it was hard for me not to just write down every third line. This is one of my all-time favorite sitcom episodes, and “What does a yellow light mean?” is one of my all-time favorite sitcom gags. Lloyd and Jeff Conaway commit to the schtick so thoroughly—each one’s frustration with the other swells rapidly, and Lloyd keeps playing it smaller and smaller while Conaway goes bigger and bigger. 

Lloyd (who won two Supporting Actor Emmys in the role) is fantastic as Rev. Jim. It’s a performance that elevates the material in the best of ways. Lines that might seem hacky on paper become gems when filtered through his laconic, guileless demeanor. True, he doesn’t fit in with the undercurrent of melancholy permeating much of the rest of the show, but that can be forgiven for a comic weapon this potent.

Cory: If the internet existed in 1979, television critics would have started their reviews of this episode with the patented “I wish this review could just be a list of all the funny lines from this episode.” “Space Odyssey” is, as you guys say, one hilarious episode of comedic television. Sometimes, it is great for a show or an episode to be embedded with themes or important long-term plotting; other times, like with this episode, it is just as great for a/n show/episode to do what it does best on a fundamental level. Taxi, at a fundamental level, is a tremendously funny show. This episode sees the show at its funniest. 

Let me be yet another to heap the praise onto Lloyd, a performer I’ve been a huge mark for since the first time I saw Back to the Future in the early 1990s.* Introducing new regulars is always tricky business, and typically, turning random one-off guest stars into regulars is even trickier. Yet here, Lloyd’s Reverend Jim fits perfectly into the main cast, really even better than he did back in “Paper Marriage.” Clearly, James L. Brooks and the Charles Brothers knew they had something with Lloyd and Jim.

*It’s crazy to think that Lloyd filmed BTTF just five years after this episode. I know Robert Zemeckis and company aged him up for the role of Doc Brown but wowza. 

It’s pretty funny to consider the trade-off made between seasons one and two with the show “losing” John and gaining Jim. The contrast between those two characters is dramatic. John blended in with the background scenery and added absolutely nothing to the proceedings. He was one of the more milquetoast characters that I can remember. Jim, on the other hand, is dynamic, peculiar, a little bit vulgar, and most importantly, funny. The first season episodes we watched were really great but with Reverend Jim now playing a larger role in the proceedings, Taxi is better, and somehow feels more like itself—even though I haven’t seen anything past today’s two episodes. 

Nevertheless, I will be curious to see how Jim’s more regular appearances impact the show moving forward. As Les and Andy both noted, the broader humor is certainly present yet again and Jim frankly brings a different energy to the show. I can’t imagine that the heart and depth we’ve keyed in on will dissipate completely, though we should (and surely will) keep track of what does or does not change with more Jim. 

Noel: I feel a little odd about this episode. I feel like the first act just drags on and on and on, and that the episode just doesn’t hit a stride until the expertly executed “On Moonlight Bay.” After that, I feel like the episode is firing on all cylinders (until the climax, and I groaned a bit at the stagedness of the car backing into the garage when it should’ve gone forward).

Like Cory, I’m interested in how Jim integrates into the rest of the cast. While I’ve knocked Latka for not feeling like part of the series, I feel even more like this about Jim. It’s not that Lloyd’s performance is bad (it is by no means that; it’s pitch perfect, in fact), but it does feel like he’s on a different series. It’s one thing for a character to be spacey, but another for that character to feel a little bit like a series-breaker, and that may contribute to why I think that first act drags on. Once they start helping Jim, he feels a little more welcomed, a little more settled.

Season 2, Episode 4: “Nardo Loses Her Marbles”
Original airdate: Oct. 2, 1979

Summary: Elaine has a chance to move up at the art gallery, so she burns the candle at both ends and begins to show signs of the stress.

Les: After the comedic stylings of Christopher Lloyd in the last episode, we move back to the slightly darker comedy I’ve grown to expect from Taxi, where Elaine’s efforts to manage single motherhood, cab driving and gallery management finally catch up with her. Unsurprisingly there’s a lot of similarities in this episode to the first Elaine-centric episode “Come As You Aren’t,” once again revisiting the disconnect between Elaine’s professional aspirations and what she has to do to pay the rent. There’s even another joke about the champagne she provides for the party, only this time it’s flat as opposed to in cans, and her method of creating bubbles reflects the show’s broadened comedic sensibilities.

I think that it’s a much better character episode for Elaine than “Come As You Aren’t” was, and a much better episode in general, thanks to a full season allowing the writers to play more appropriately to the strengths of the individual actors. Elaine’s still skirting around the fact that her friends are cab drivers by saying they’re “important buyers,” though this time they’re more accepting of that truth and interested in the perks of free meals and flirting with artists. I think there’s a better balance drawn between how desperate Elaine is to make everything work at once, while Bobby and Tony take a far more lackadasical approach to their career aspirations. (“That’s the time? That means I have to ready in less than five hours!” “If this was tomorrow, I’d have to be at the gym in 15 minutes.”)

Most of the credit goes to Marilu Henner obviously, who displays greater range as an actress than she did in the earlier episodes. Elaine’s previously been played as the voice of reason to the garage, and it’s interesting to see her caught off her guard to such a degree, first when the opening seems to fall apart at every turn, when she’s breaking down in the cab with Alex, and when she finally gets to talk to a psychiatrist (played by respected actor Tom Ewell). Her therapy session is another scene where Taxi takes its time to let events play out, and that lets it move seamlessly to her eventual breakdown. (And yes, I’m giving her points for wearing a white fedora to her therapy session.)

And where her range comes into play most obviously is the relationship between Alex and Elaine. In “Come As You Aren’t” I said that I was glad the show wasn’t trying to force a romantic tension between its ostensible male and female leads, and here they approach that territory very directly, Elaine essentially offering to consummate those random thoughts each of them has had before. Given the only member of the garage to express any feelings for her is Louie, and even those are just his typical lechery, this came out of nowhere for me. Obviously nothing happens—Alex is too centered of an individual to ever take advantage of a woman in the state she’s in—but there’s a lot of ways to interpret that last expression on Alex’s face. Confusion over some potential feelings? Irritation over missing an opportunity to do something “we’d remember fondly for the rest of their lives?” Taxi certainly doesn’t seem a romantic enough show to make it something serious, but if this was appearing on any traditional sitcom today my shipper red flags would be going up.

Really though, anything I’ve said so far is meaningless, since I know we’re all giving this episode an A because Andy Kaufman pulled a kitten out of his pocket.

Andy: This contrast with “Come As You Aren’t” is apparent immediately, both in terms of Elaine’s behavior and overall episode quality. Now she welcomes the moral support of her fellow cabbies, and in her place of business no less, where they’re arguably even more out of their element than in her apartment. She’s much more the confident, ambitious Elaine we’ve come to know, which gives her interplay with the others more verve while making the gradual reveal of her inner strain and doubt all the more powerful. 

Henner is really fantastic in the therapist scene, too. It’s a slow build to an honest moment, laced with a little tense humor, and the show doesn’t overplay it. And, like we saw in “Louie and the Nice Girl,” they don’t let the heavy moment linger. It’s followed with a joke to pierce the discomfort, but a joke which undercuts the heaviness rather than undermining it. 

The contrast with the “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” is equally clear. Elaine’s travails and her believably complex relationship with Alex couldn’t be more different from Jim’s scatterbrained antics and Louie’s drugged-out musical interlude. But both succeed as wellsprings of comedy and character. That versatility is key to Taxi’s stature as a hall of fame program.

Cory: I wonder if the out-of-nowhere romantic intermingling came out of the producers’ frustration with the network, or maybe even the audience? The fact that we have commented on the show’s restraint in dealing with the Elaine-Alex pairing suggests that we probably had certain expectations for how the relationship would—or at least could—develop. Surely, CBS brass and viewers were aware of those typical patterns as well and maybe there was some pressure from somewhere? This is obviously all conjecture but that part of the episode felt like a response, or at least a resigned, “Well, we have to at least go THERE for a second, don’t we?” 

Unsurprisingly though, “Nardo Loses Her Marbles” doesn’t spend too much time on rote will-they-or-won’t they nonsense. Alex acts just about how any mature, logical, and good-natured male would in that situation: He thinks about it for a second and then eventually does the right thing for his clearly struggling friend. And a much lesser show would have turned their little bet/agreement with the shrink into a convoluted attempt to bring them closer together. 

But everything you guys said is spot-on. This is an episode that works so well because we’ve spent some quality time with these characters now. We can appreciate Elaine’s struggles, especially the way that she supports and listens to the rest of the group. Marilu Henner is fantastic. 

One final, random note that applies to both episodes: I appreciate how open this show is about the characters drinking, doing drugs, or generally making bad decisions. It’s not as if no one smokes pot, takes pills, or drinks a whole lot on contemporary television, and it’s silly to assume that everyone was still living in a Leave it to Beaver world in 1979, but still, Taxi doesn’t shy away from the fact that these characters are adults, working low-end jobs and trying to find a cheap way to entertain themselves and/or feel good. This doesn’t have a massive impact on a weekly basis, but it’s a nice bit of texture. 

Noel: Unsurprisingly, I preferred this episode, overall, to “Reverend Jim.” But then I tend to prefer this sort of character drama and comedy. If you’ve all responded to the driving exam bit (which is great), I found more overall enjoyment in Elaine and Alex in his cab, attempting to work through their issues, their potential attraction (that was quite the dress), and, ultimately, behaving like the adults that they are.  It’s the willingness to do that that I respect and thrive on.

And the episode just builds on that into that, again, a tiny little one act play in the shrink’s office…I’m all over it. A good bit of me does wish we had built to this episode by, well, watching everything that had come before it. I feel like we’re getting the CliffsNotes version of these characters’ lives, and while there’s a bit of a genuine emotion in these scenes for me, I can’t help but wonder if there’d be more if I had engaged in the episodes that preceded it.

Also: I can’t believe none of you mentioned Robert Picardo in one of his first TV roles as the artist who wants to remove his work from the gallery. Shame on you all.

***

Stay tuned as our Roundtable looks at a cross-section of  Taxi over the next two weeks. We are tackling episodes two at a time. Here’s a schedule of the ones we’ll be watching:

July 19: “Take My Ex-Wife Please” (s04ep17) / “The Wedding of Latka and Simka” (s04ep21)

July 26: “The Road Not Taken, Parts 1 and 2″ (s04ep23, 24)

We’d also appreciate it if you’d help us select our next series for the TV roundtable discussion.

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8 Responses to “Roundtable Review: Taxi, “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” and “Nardo Loses Her Marbles””

  1. Bob

    I think this will go down in Television History (with “Chuckles the Clown from MTM and the Turkey Episode from WKRP) as one of the drop dead funniest sitcom episodes of all time.

    Reply
    • Les Chappell

      Without question – now that the roundtable’s been completed, this is probably my favorite one we watched. Great writing, great performances, just a knockout episode.

      Reply
      • Bob

        I know it’s taped, but I am still always amazed at the TIMING necessary to pull off great comedy.

        Reply
  2. Marty McKee

    Choosing the best TAXI episode is a tough call (I just saw “Latka’s Cookies” last week with its amazing Famous Amos stunt casting), but I wouldn’t argue with “Reverend Jim…” Something I’ve noticed as I continue rewatching TAXI (I last saw the show in the ’90s in TV Land reruns) that Lloyd quickly becomes the go-to guy for a quick laugh. Whenever a scene needs a quick joke, bam, the writers give Lloyd a one-liner that almost always kills. And, as you noted, Jim is almost always off on the periphery, sitting away from the core group near the vending machines or the back stairs.

    You think Lloyd as Doc Brown five years later is weird? Imagine going to see STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK *four* years later and seeing Lloyd as the main heavy–a Klingon! I think the performance works better know with 30 years of cushion, but his Klingon Reverend Jim felt odd in 1984.

    Reply
  3. Diane Jackson

    When my daughter was about two or three (she was born in 1982) she was looking over my shoulder as I read a magazine article and she saw a picture of Judd Hirsch; “Look, Mommy, funny Alex!”, she said. That shows how much our family was devoted to “Taxi”, both first run and in re-runs. I even went out and bought a Bob James album (on vinyl) so I could have my own copy of “Angela (the Theme from Taxi)”. We loved that show.

    And this episode began my decades long crush on Christopher Lloyd. The “What does a yellow light mean?” piece is still one of the funniest things I ever saw on network TV. (Go slower). Only Christopher Lloyd could have pulled that off.

    The recent attempts at blue collar comedy are so hopelessly contemptable in comparison, I can barely watch them. “Two Broke Girls” is awful. I can’t remember the name of the actresses, but the dark-haired one can’t deliver a line wihout smirking at her own joke and the blonde is just shrill and unbelievable. I stopped watching after three episodes.

    “Taxi”, on the other hand, managed to combine a tiny bit ( I wanted to use the word “soupcon” but you don’t provide italics nor the French punctuation I needed) of dispair and sadness along with the comedy. You have all mentioned “Cheers” as a comparison to “Taxi”, and although “Taxi” was a forerunner, “Cheers” never achieved the pathos that “Taxi” did. Don’t get me wrong, I loved “Cheers” and Sam and Norm and Carla ( you can keep Diane, even if that’s my name too), as much as anyone, but it never gave me the sense of silent desperation along with the comedy that I got with “Taxi”.

    “Taxi” doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

    Reply
    • Bob

      Absolutely agree. While repeating ad nauseum my opinion that comedy is certainly subjective, I think TAXI was easily top 10 all time among comedies. It leaves Seinfeld and Friends (among others) in the dust. Two other widely overlooked shows in the genre – WKRP in Cincinnati and The Odd Couple.

      Reply

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