By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Taxi aired from 1978 until 1983—four seasons on ABC, followed by one on NBC. Although it was a Top-20 ratings hit only for its first two years, it won 18 Emmy awards during its run. It was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series in every season, winning the award for its first three. The ensemble cast included Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Andy Kaufman, and Christopher Lloyd.
For our first series of Roundtable Reviews, This Was Television will be discussing a sampling of episodes of Taxi: Our history with the show, how it plays to modern eyes, what influence it left on the TV landscape, and more. We welcome you to join in as well. The complete series of Taxi is on DVD, and is available through Netflix (disc only). Today, we begin with the pilot.
Season 1, Episode 1: “Like Father, Like Daughter”
Original Airdate: Sept. 12, 1978
Noel: I have very little actual experience with Taxi. I’ve seen the occasional clip here and there, and I’ve seen Man on the Moon. I’ve seen many of the actors in various other series and movies. I’ve never, until we started this project, actually seen an episode of Taxi from beginning to end. So beyond the show’s reputation, I come in pretty much cold.
But as first episodes go (it’s hard to think of this as a pilot), it’s an interesting one. We get a major character moment for Alex, an attempt at meeting and possibly reconciling with the daughter he never knew, in the very first episode, right off the bat. This is something that would’ve been built up to these days; we would’ve learned about Alex’s life a bit more, about his past, before laying doing this big emotional moment. Instead, it’s all predicated on the fact that people realize they can make free telephone calls from the garage’s pay phone.
It felt a little odd at first, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it kind of worked for what I think the show is aiming for. There’s an economy of character and storytelling here, even if Alex is the one who doles it all out for us. The taxi garage employees all have other lives and other dreams and life goals, but Alex’s life seems to be the cabs. When he says he’s the only full-time employee there, I don’t think he’s exaggerating in the slightest.
Then the episode, even though we’ve just met him, gives Alex this chance, this serendipitous chance, to suddenly have a life (or at the very least achieve a sense of closure) and starting living again. Yes, his chance to make a relationship with his daughter is whisked away from him, and given her profession is unlikely to recur, but he doesn’t seem down about it. If anything, he seems a little less angry than he was when Elaine walked into the garage.
Andy: I was raised on Nick At Nite. I recall Taxi being one of my favorites, in part because as a little kid in the late 80s I recognized Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Tony Danza from contemporary TV and movies. Although few of the specific plots or jokes stuck with me into adulthood, I always remembered Alex’s fantastic line—which you alluded to, Noel—as a perfect summation of the show. “Me? I’m a cab driver. I’m the only cab driver in this place.”
It’s one line that goes straight to the heart not only of our main protagonist, but also of the various oddballs and dreamers surrounding him. In our book club selection Top of The Rock, Jim Burrows (who directed this pilot, along with every other sitcom pilot in the universe) talks at several points about using jokes to build characters. The Taxi pilot does that expertly. The way Louie’s demeanor shifts when he realizes Elaine is a cabbie. The way everyone in the room can calculate a 73-cent tip in half a second. The way Bobby and Tony each elect to use their free phone call.
The pay phone gag Noel mentioned is a perfect example too: That the chance to save a few minutes of phone fare inspires a mad rush tells you everything you need to know about the milieu you’re in. Taxi is firmly entrenched in the sort of blue-collar setting that’s all but vanished from modern network TV. This material is of a piece with its distinctive time and place, a 1970s New York City whose brand identity is anything but aspirational. Could you do a prime time sitcom today set in a garage? (How about in a rundown police station? Or an inner-city classroom?)
One thing I’d like to consider as we explore this series is how Taxi treats the travails of working stiffs not just with humor but with warmth—and how it recalls a time when network TV even paid attention to those working stiffs in the first place.
Les: I’m with Noel on this, in that while I did watch a lot of Nick at Nite as a kid as well, I never actually saw a full episode of Taxi that I could remember. My classic comedy roots drifted more in the black-and-white territory—Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, I Love Lucy—and comedy from the 1970s and 1980s was a big black hole in my viewing library. (Like Cory, I only started watching Cheers last summer.) I obviously knew Taxi was a groundbreaking show—one of those sitcoms that everyone talked about as a classic, and having a cast that today seems like an embarrassment of riches — but I didn’t know a lot about the show before watching this pilot.
And truthfully, what surprised me the most? It wasn’t nearly as funny as I was expecting it to be. The first episode doesn’t display itself as a show with emphasis on outright laughs, opting to set up the world of the garage and give us a sense of who these people are. You have Alex as a jaded lifer, Elaine as a more cultured newcomer, Tony and Bobby as good-looking but slightly dim cabbies, Louie as the profane center of the action, and Latka as the goofy foreigner on the side. There’s certainly laughs to be had, particularly from the alien nature of Latka and Louie’s disproportionate ego, but I didn’t laugh at it a lot. I did like it, it just struck me as different.
Also, the main plot of the episode was higher-concept than I expected. While the conceit of the free telephone booth had goofier moments from Bobby and Tony’s choices of phone call, the main plot of Alex trying to see a daughter he hasn’t seen in 15 years was surprisingly deep and even emotional at times — and as you say Noel, was also a piece of character development other shows would have teased out for half a season. And I appreciated the fact that it was committed to that, when they could have devoted time to the wacky hijinks of Tony and Latka on the road to Florida. There was a very real sense of awkwardness between Alex and his daughter, and I was moved by the raw sincerity Judd Hirsch delivered when he told her just how real those two years of fatherhood were to him.
So, it was a different pilot than I expected, but one I really did appreciate for the groundwork it’s setting. I’m curious if it’ll move to broader comedy as time goes on, or if it’ll maintain the subtler and darker aspects.
Cory: Mark me down as yet another member of the TWTV team unfamiliar with Taxi, but in my various bouts of reading about TV history over the last few years, and random interviews with current comedy showrunners, the show was constantly referenced as one of the greats. And yet, it does feel (again, coming from someone who wasn’t even close to alive when Taxi ENDED, let alone began) like this one has been forgotten somewhat over time. All in the Family and the Lear productions often get all the pub for any discussion about 1970s sitcoms, while Cosby and Cheers lead the pack whenever comedies of the 1980s are written about.
Clearly, those three sitcoms deserve that spilled ink, but their centrality to the narrative of how sitcoms have developed leaves Taxi without a home. It debuted in 1978, a year before All the Family ended, and came to a conclusion in 1983 just a few years after the beginnings of Cosby and Cheers. The show belongs to neither era, really, which is likely one of the big reasons it falls by the wayside. I wouldn’t say our intent is to “reclaim” a show’s cultural capital or bring it back into the TV criticism world consciousness (mostly because that assumes people will read this, or care what we say), but I will admit that I personally wanted to watch Taxi because I wanted to at least discuss why it’s not as highly-regarded, or at least often-mentioned.
In any event, this pilot episode actually nicely embodies the show’s straddling of eras and lack of true historical home. Although the show’s setting is particularly blue-collar, nice connection to pre-1980s sitcoms, the humor and interactions among the characters is not as hateful on the surface like one would expect from something like All in the Family (though, that show wasn’t as hateful as it’s made out to be, either). Sure, the characters crack wise at other’s expense, but that’s to be expected from a workplace setting, especially one of this nature, with this saturation of male characters. Danny DeVito’s Louie is the most noticeably aggressive and angry character, but the episode undercuts all of that by playing his height for laughs once he comes down from the proverbial ivory tower of the station (side note: DeVito was still relatively unknown at this point—I’m not sure how many of the show’s viewers had seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—so I love how Taxi actually uses the reveal of his short stature as a big gag; it’s an odd experience knowing that already and still laughing pretty heavily at the bit).
In place of any obvious rage, Taxi‘s characters have a real sense of camaraderie. As Andy noted, the jokes build character, and even when there is an opportunity to go all exposition-heavy with the introduction of Marilu Henner’s Elaine, the script mostly avoids having characters tell us all about their lives or devolving into premise-pilot hijinks. We still learn that Bobby wants to be an actor, or that Tony is a boxer, but there’s very little didactic telling involved, despite the fact that a great chunk of the episode is one long static sequence in the garage. Instead, the solid creation of this (mostly) fully-formed world means that Alex’s rash decision to track down his daughter feels sufficiently organic. There’s no question that it might have been more powerful had we learned more about Alex and then watched him take this trip, but the fact that he does so early on establishes character instead of developing it.
So Taxi isn’t All in the Family, or really of the same piece. It reminds me much more of Cheers, which obviously makes sense considering Jimmy Burrows directed the pilot and the Charles brothers were executive producers. The way the characters interact with one another is similar to what audiences would later see in the Cheers bar, with Alex representing the older, rougher proxy for Sam and Elaine being our less obnoxious (although then less funny as well) Diane. And unsurprisingly, the garage, as a space, feels like the bar. Chances are, we’ll be talking about its healing properties sometime very soon. Together, the characters and the setting create an atmosphere from congeniality, recognition and maybe even real friendship — again, recalling Cheers.
However, this pilot, while solid, is nowhere near as good as the excellent initial Cheers offering. The comparison is probably unfair to make, but in many ways, this feels like a test run of a style, approach to character, etc. that would later become perfected with that Cheers pilot. There’s clearly no shame in not living up to the greatness of Cheers, but again, the similarities between the two give Taxi a connection to that era that would come very soon — the connection is perhaps just not deep enough. Perhaps then we should embrace Taxi’s grey-area status, and look at the show as a bridge between two popular, compelling and important eras of American sitcom. In that regard, I’m really hoping that watching Taxi can give us some quality insights to both eras and sort of help sketch a progression of where television comedy came and went throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Stay tuned as our Roundtable looks at a cross-section of Taxi over the next six weeks. Starting next week, we’ll be 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):