By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Season 4, Episode 17: “Take My Ex-Wife Please”
Original airdate: Feb. 18, 1982
Summary: Alex’s ex-wife, dumped by her second husband, rebounds by dating the most unsuitable person imaginable: Louie.
Noel: So we’ve skipped ahead a whole season, and then some, to find ourselves in the show’s final season on ABC (Taxi would spend its fifth and final season on NBC). In that time Louie and Zena broke up (sad) and now Louie back’s to his horn dog ways and is chasing after Alex’s ex-wife, Phyllis (played by Louise Lasser of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman fame), who in turn is attempting to reconcile with Alex.
“Take My Ex-Wife Please” is, for me, an odd little duck of an episode. I like that it resists the urge to return to (or even stay at) the restaurant where Banta, Alex, and Jim meet Randi and Candi (I really cannot believe the actresses’ names were actually Randi and Candi), which would’ve been the easy way for some humor. Even turning it into a B-plot of some sort would’ve provided some quick laughs as Jim attempts to be debonair in front of the twins, exasperating Banta.
At the same time, I don’t find much humor in the premise of Louie attempting to seduce Phyllis. It’s played remarkably well by both Danny DeVito and Lasser, the latter of whom’s sly delivery of lines and careful misunderstanding of words is deftly underplayed for maximum laughs, but I miss the sense of melancholy (Phyllis’s desire to be back with Alex doesn’t connect with me) that’s marked Taxi in the previous episodes. Here, it feels just a bit like another sitcom, even if it is artfully done.
Cory: I have to admit, I was moderately skeptical about jumping forward from early season two to the tail-end of season four, but I think this transition ended up being fairly insightful. While we haven’t spent a great deal of time with Taxi over the last seven weeks, I feel like we have a nice handle on these characters, so it’s fun to see them two-plus years away from where we were just last week. One might assume to find a comedy in a louder, broader, and more generic state two years down the road, and honestly, I see a little of that in both of these episodes. Building an episode around Louie, particularly his pursuit of a woman, probably brings out the zaniest in the show and like Noel, I grew a little tired of how that pursuit was executed here. Louie following Phyllis around in the shop was charming but once he (and Alex) arrived at her place, the serendipity wasn’t that appealing, nor were the jokes.
At the same time though, there were moments here that felt like logical extensions of the characters or scenes we saw in the first two seasons. I particularly enjoyed Alex’s initial meeting with Phyllis at the restaurant. It was a humorous but mostly straightforward character moment that reinforced the manner in which Alex cares about people, even if those people are his ex-wife. The episode continues to play up this point as things progress but in less successful fashion.
And on a random note, I have to admit that I missed having Jeff Conaway’s Bobby around. Even if he would’ve been present, it’s not like he would have had a big part in this episode. However, it was still odd to see a shop sequence and not have Bobby chuckling in the background.
Les: Odd duck of an episode is one way to put it Noel—personally, I’d call this one a dud. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that there’s been 57 episodes since the excellent episodes we last watched and the show’s lost its energy in the interim, the fact that outside of Louie and Alex it barely involves the show’s ensemble, or that there’s no context for Alex and Phyllis beyond the phone call in the pilot, but it feels a hell of a lot weaker than the ones we’ve seen before.
And the reason for that I think goes to something I talked about in earlier installments, the sense of pacing. There’s some scenes here that only last a minute or two, such as the expositional scene between Tony and Alex, and even the longer scenes feel comparatively abrupt. None of the scenes have that same sense of theatrical pacing I’d started associating with Taxi, and it feels (as you say) like a more generic sitcom. In earlier episodes we’d have spent a third of the episode at the restaurant, a third at the garage and a third at the hotel—here, it comes across as throwing in scenes for the purpose of moving the action along. And while it’s certainly interesting to see where a show goes from one place to another, I’m (in proper Taxi fashion) a bit depressed by it.
That said, I think it’s still not a show past its prime, milking its fair share of humor from Louie’s seduction. I enjoyed that more than either Cory or Noel seemed to, because I continue to marvel at just how much Danny DeVito commits to the depravity of his chraracters (“I know where there are girls who just failed their bar exam!”). The raw joy he gets out of the “Bingo!” when Phyllis agrees to date him, the swift way he leaps into bed and throws off his shirt casting blame immediately at Alex. Alex yells at him and Phyllis can’t quite rationalize any of her decisions to be near him (“What is this, some kind of place in Manhattan where you rent out these guys?”) but Louie doesn’t care: he’s a demented gremlin, and utterly unapologetic about it.
Andy: Alex and Louie clashing head-to-head is usually a solid core for a Taxi episode, but like the rest of you I found this one a little limp. Louie’s courtship wasn’t so much a sampling of his oily charm as it was just plain oily, and Phyllis reversing her decision to go out with him didn’t make sense beyond it needing to happen in the script. She nails the line of the night when she sizes Louie up—“No real person acts like that”—but in fairness, he’d been telegraphing his ickiness all along.
You all mentioned the tonal shifts between early season two and late season four, the sort of thing that’s noticeable over a gap of that length in any series. (Sort of how you barely notice a person’s appearance changing gradually when you see them every day, but an old friend you haven’t seen for six months can look like a weirdly different person.) The most jarring example of it for me was Jim, whose mania seems to have escalated in proportion with his hair. Both his writing and Lloyd’s performance felt broader than they did 50+ episodes prior. I suspect this was a case of the writers knowing a particular character’s quirks were especially popular (or fun to write) and amplifying those quirks marginally, over and over, consequently wringing out some of the subtlety that kept them grounded. Or, as I’ve dubbed this phenomenon elsewhere, John Dorian Syndrome.
Season 4, Episode 21: “The Wedding of Latka and Simka”
Original airdate: March 25, 1982
Summary: Latka and Simka announce their engagement, but to get married according to the customs of their country, they have to pass a series of tests of their love.
Noel: “The Wedding of Latka and Simka” isn’t a terribly funny episode (despite great guest stars, including Dr. Joyce Brothers as herself), but I like that it basically exists to lampoon the whole institution of marriage and the silliness involved in the process. Even before the process of a wedding starts, Latka notes that his culture believes that the only thing that separates humans from animals are superstitions and pointless rituals, and the episode just keeps spinning that notion from there, from a silly proposal process to marriage ceremony designed to test love.
I do think it’s a bit interesting that Latka, our foreign man-child, is the one who seems to be in the stablest of relationships of the cast. Banta’s chasing twins, Alex is still single, Louie is no longer with Zena, I can’t see anyone with Jim (no mention made of Elaine’s status, though presumably single). Perhaps because he hasn’t been jaded by life, that he sees everything in the country as an oyster with a pearl, it’s the reason why Latka’s found, and married, the love of his life.
Cory: Noel, your points about the lampooning are spot-on, although I will say that by the end of the proceedings, I was worn out by how the episode kept wrenching the goofball vibe up. I think part of my frustration with this episode stems from the fact that we haven’t seen Simka before, or Latka’s mother for the matter. By skipping around, we’ve missed theoretically crucial character and relationship moments on all accounts. Both Simka and Latka’s mother seem like really curious, compelling characters and I’m guessing that this episode was some payoff to a larger story. Unfortunate side effect of our viewing schedule, I guess.
However, I do like how this episode contrasts with “Paper Marriage,” our other experience with Latka getting married. There, he was doing so for very different reasons (obviously) and I enjoyed how the writers made sure to make this one distinct. Latka is certainly more invested in this ceremony and Simka is definitely a more developed character than the escort from season one was. And instead of that episode being about other characters controlling circumstances to keep Latka around, he takes a more active role in this wedding (though Simka does the heavy lifting at the very end).
Les: Confession: I cheated a bit here in that I went for a little more context with this episode, watching season two’s “Guess Who’s Coming For Brefnish” and season four’s “Simka Returns” before this. (Which also let me know that evidently Latka literally becomes a different person in season four, one of the most baffling moments I’ve ever witnessed in a sitcom.) And you are right Cory, the relationship between the two has much more depth to it that’s explored in earlier episodes, with “Guess Who’s Coming For Brefnish” probably about as emotional as the show’s been. Carol Kane is particularly good as Simka, someone who can match the pace of Andy Kaufman’s indecipherable dialect and the endearing quality of his confusion/fascination with American culture. Rather than simply being a female copy of Latka, I think she fits well into the show’s universe.
As such, I enjoyed this one because it was nice to see a capper to that relationship (even though said relationship does go through more hurdles until the end of the series, according to the episode guides). Taxi‘s a show that usually emphasizes things may not get better, but we get better at dealing with them, and most of Latka’s romantic excursions have fallen into that vein as they’ve been either botched or done out of necessity. It’s nice to see someone at the garage get a win, and nice to see how the rest of the garage is willing to support those crazy kids.
Andy: We needed to include an episode that examined the pairing of Latka and Simka, and it’s true that this one doesn’t do the best job of introducing that relationship, which mostly blossoms during this season. In retrospect, I recommend echoing Les’s wise decision to watch some of those earlier episodes. The Latka-Simka dynamic does more than anything else in the series to flesh out the gibberish-prattling mechanic into a three-dimensional human being. And the episodes (like “Simka Returns”) which feature Latka’s inexplicable alter-ego Vic Ferrari—a sort of predecessor to Stefan Urqelle, for you T.G.I.F. fans out there—are worthwhile diversions.
But like you said, Cory, the contrast with “Paper Marriage” is as instructive as the contrast was last week between our two Elaine episodes. Once again some time has passed and the primary character has become more self-assured, as has our relationship with said character. And it’s strangely wonderful that this ceremony—officiated again by a lanky character-actor guest star, in this case Vincent Schiavelli—was conducted on the premises of the Sunshine Cab Company. For as much as we’ve observed the atmosphere of semi-acknowledged failure that hangs over the cabbies, for Latka, that garage isn’t where his dreams went to die—it’s where they flourished. It’s given him a home in America, important enough to be the setting of his betrothal. (I don’t think you can chalk that up entirely to behind-the-scenes budgetary concerns, either; if it was simply about using an existing set, the ceremony could’ve been held in his apartment).
Stay tuned for our last Roundtable of Taxi!
July 26: “The Road Not Taken, Parts 1 and 2″ (s04ep23, 24)
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