Taxi aired on television from 1978 to 1983, spanning four seasons on ABC and an additional one on NBC.
Although it initially ranked among the Top 20 in ratings for only the first two years, it managed to secure an impressive total of 18 Emmy awards throughout its broadcast.
The show received nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series in each season, ultimately winning the award for its first three seasons.
Notable members of the ensemble cast included Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Andy Kaufman, and Christopher Lloyd.
In our inaugural series of Roundtable Reviews, This Was Television will engage in a discussion about select episodes of Taxi.
We will delve into our personal histories with the show, analyze how it resonates with contemporary viewers, explore the impact it had on the television landscape, and more. We extend a warm invitation for you to participate in the conversation as well.
The complete series of Taxi is available on DVD and can be streamed on Netflix (DVD format only). Today, we kick off the series with a review of the pilot episode.
Season 1, Episode 1: “Like Father, Like Daughter”
Original Airdate: Sept. 12, 1978
Nirajan: My exposure to Taxi has been rather limited. I’ve come across occasional clips and watched the film Man on the Moon.
Many of the actors from the show have appeared in various other series and movies, but I had never watched a full episode of Taxi until we embarked on this project. So, aside from the show’s reputation, I approached it with relatively little prior knowledge.
However, considering it as a debut episode (it’s almost difficult to classify it as a traditional pilot), it’s intriguing. The episode opens with a significant character moment for Alex, who tries to connect with the daughter he never knew he had.
This is a kind of emotional revelation that modern shows typically build up to, gradually revealing more about a character’s past and personal life.
In contrast, Taxi jumps right into it, driven by the discovery that people can make free telephone calls from the garage’s payphone.
At first, it felt somewhat unusual, but upon further reflection, I realized it aligns with the show’s objectives. There’s an efficiency in character development and storytelling at play here, even though Alex is the one delivering most of the information.
While the employees of the taxi garage each have their own lives, dreams, and aspirations, it becomes evident that Alex’s life revolves around the cabs.
When he claims to be the sole full-time employee, it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration in the least.
In the episode, despite having just been introduced to him, Alex is presented with an unexpected opportunity, a serendipitous moment that allows him to rediscover life and perhaps find a sense of closure.
While his chance to establish a relationship with his daughter is abruptly taken away, especially given the unlikelihood of a recurring opportunity due to her profession, Alex doesn’t appear disheartened.
In fact, he seems to harbor less anger than when Elaine initially walked into the garage.
Naveen: My introduction to Taxi happened through Nick At Nite, and I remember it being one of my favorites.
In part, that’s because, as a little kid growing up in the late 80s, I recognized familiar faces like Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Tony Danza from contemporary TV and movies.
While I can’t recall specific plots or jokes from the show that stayed with me into adulthood, there’s one line from Alex that has always stuck in my memory, which Nirajan touched upon.
It’s a perfect encapsulation of the show: “Me? I’m a cab driver. I’m the only cab driver in this place.”
This single line manages to hit the core not just of our central character but also of the quirky and aspiring individuals that surround him.
In the book club selection Top of The Rock, Jim Burrows, who directed this pilot (as well as what feels like every other sitcom pilot in existence), discusses using humor to construct characters.
The Taxi pilot demonstrates this skill brilliantly. It’s in the way Louie’s demeanor shifts when he realizes Elaine is a cabbie, how everyone in the room can swiftly calculate a 73-cent tip, and how Bobby and Tony decide to utilize their free phone call.
The payphone situation that Nirajan brought up is a prime example. The frantic rush to save a few minutes of phone fare reveals all you need to know about the environment you’ve entered.
Taxi firmly establishes itself in a blue-collar setting that has largely disappeared from modern network TV. This material is a reflection of its unique time and place, set in 1970s New York City, a location with a brand identity that’s far from aspirational.
Can you imagine a prime-time sitcom today centered around a garage? How about one set in a run-down police station or an inner-city classroom?
One aspect I’d like to ponder as we delve into this series is how Taxi not only infuses the challenges of working-class individuals with humor but also imbues them with warmth.
It serves as a reminder of a time when network TV paid attention to these everyday working stiffs in the first place.
Sidant: I share Nirajan’s perspective on this matter. Although I did watch a lot of Nick at Nite during my childhood, I can’t recall ever watching a complete episode of Taxi.
My classic comedy interests leaned more toward black-and-white classics like Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, and I Love Lucy. The realm of comedy in the 1970s and 1980s remained largely unexplored in my viewing history. (To illustrate, I only began watching Cheers last summer.)
Undoubtedly, I was aware that Taxi was a groundbreaking show, one of those sitcoms that everyone hailed as a classic, boasting a cast that today appears as a treasure trove of talent. However, I didn’t possess much knowledge about the show until I watched this pilot.
Honestly, what took me by surprise the most was that Taxi wasn’t as humorous as I had expected. The first episode didn’t present itself as a comedy with a strong focus on generating outright laughter.
Instead, it chose to establish the world of the garage and introduce us to the characters. Alex was depicted as a weary veteran, Elaine as a more cultured newcomer, Tony and Bobby as good-looking but somewhat dim-witted cabbies, Louie as the profanity-laden center of the action, and Latka as the quirky foreigner on the fringe.
There were certainly moments that elicited laughter, particularly related to Latka’s foreignness and Louie’s oversized ego, but it didn’t make me burst into laughter frequently. I did appreciate it, but it struck me as something different.
Moreover, the episode’s main storyline was more high-concept than I had anticipated.
While the idea of the free telephone booth led to some amusing moments, particularly with Bobby and Tony’s choices of phone calls, the primary plot of Alex attempting to reconnect with a daughter he hadn’t seen in 15 years delved surprisingly deep and even carried emotional weight at times.
As Nirajan pointed out, this was character development that other shows might have stretched out over half a season, yet Taxi remained committed to it.
It offered a genuine sense of awkwardness between Alex and his daughter, and I was genuinely moved by the heartfelt sincerity that Judd Hirsch conveyed when he expressed just how significant those two years of fatherhood had been to him.
So, it turned out to be a pilot quite different from my initial expectations, but one that I genuinely appreciated for the groundwork it’s laying out.
I’m curious to see if the series will transition into broader comedy as it progresses or if it will continue to embrace its subtler and darker elements.
Kriti: Count me among the ranks of the TWTV team who was previously unacquainted with Taxi.
However, in my various encounters with TV history over the past few years and in random interviews with current comedy showrunners, the show was consistently hailed as one of the classics.
Nevertheless, it seems that, with the passage of time (and coming from someone who wasn’t even close to being alive when Taxi ended, let alone when it began), this show has been somewhat overlooked.
All in the Family and the Lear productions often dominate discussions of 1970s sitcoms, while Cosby and Cheers tend to take the lead when it comes to comedies from the 1980s.
Undoubtedly, All in the Family, Cosby, and Cheers have rightfully earned their prominent places in the discussions about sitcom history, but their dominance in the narrative of sitcom development leaves Taxi somewhat adrift.
It made its debut in 1978, a year before All in the Family concluded, and reached its conclusion in 1983, just a few years after the beginnings of Cosby and Cheers.
The show doesn’t neatly fit into either era, and this may be a significant reason why it often goes unnoticed.
I wouldn’t say our objective is to “reclaim” a show’s cultural significance or bring it back into the consciousness of the TV criticism world (primarily because that presumes people will read this or care about our opinions).
However, I can admit that my personal motivation for watching Taxi was to discuss why it isn’t held in higher regard or frequently mentioned.
In any case, this pilot episode effectively encapsulates the show’s ability to straddle eras and its lack of a clear historical niche.
Although the show’s setting is undeniably blue-collar, harking back to pre-1980s sitcoms, the humor and character interactions don’t exhibit the same level of overt hostility that one might expect from something like All in the Family (though it’s worth noting that All in the Family wasn’t as hateful as it’s often portrayed either).
While the characters engage in playful banter at each other’s expense, it’s a natural byproduct of a workplace setting, especially one like this, with a predominance of male characters.
Danny DeVito’s portrayal of Louie stands out as the most overtly aggressive and irate character, but the episode offsets this with humor, particularly by playing on his height for laughs after he descends from his metaphorical ivory tower (side note: DeVito was still relatively unknown at this point, and I appreciate how Taxi uses the revelation of his short stature as a significant comedic element; it’s a unique experience to know this fact already and still find the bit genuinely amusing).
Instead of overt anger, the characters in Taxi share a genuine sense of camaraderie.
As Naveen pointed out, the humor is used to build the characters, and even in situations where there’s an opportunity to delve into exposition-heavy introductions, such as Marilu Henner’s Elaine, the script largely avoids having characters narrate their entire life stories or descending into the standard premise-driven pilot shenanigans.
While we do gather that Bobby aspires to be an actor and Tony is a boxer, there’s minimal didactic storytelling, even though a substantial portion of the episode unfolds within the confines of the garage.
Instead, the effective establishment of this mostly complete world makes Alex’s impulsive decision to seek out his daughter feel sufficiently natural.
It’s undeniable that the moment might have carried more emotional weight if we had known more about Alex beforehand and then witnessed this journey, but the fact that he embarks on it early on contributes to character development rather than simply developing it.
So, Taxi isn’t quite in the same vein as All in the Family. It actually reminds me much more of Cheers, which isn’t surprising given that Jimmy Burrows directed the pilot, and the Charles brothers served as executive producers.
The way the characters interact with one another mirrors what audiences would later witness in the Cheers bar, with Alex playing the role of the older, gruffer counterpart to Sam and Elaine filling the less obnoxious (though less humorous) Diane role.
Predictably, the garage, as a space, feels akin to the bar. It’s likely we’ll soon discuss its therapeutic qualities.
Together, the characters and the setting create an environment of congeniality, recognition, and perhaps even genuine friendship, echoing the atmosphere of Cheers.
Nevertheless, this pilot, though commendable, falls short of the outstanding inaugural episode of Cheers.
It’s probably an unfair comparison to make, but in many respects, Taxi seems like a trial run of a style and approach to character development that would later be perfected in the Cheers pilot.
There’s certainly no shame in not quite reaching the heights of Cheers, but the parallels between the two shows establish a connection for Taxi to that era that was just around the corner, even if it isn’t as profound as one might hope.
So, perhaps we should embrace Taxi’s status as a grey area, recognizing it as a bridge between two popular, compelling, and influential eras of American sitcoms.
In this light, I’m genuinely hopeful that watching Taxi can provide us with valuable insights into both periods, helping us map out the evolution of television comedy through the 1970s and 1980s.