Taxi Season 1, Episode 8: “Paper Marriage”
Original airdate: Oct. 31, 1978
Summary: Latka, facing deportation, hastily marries a call girl in a peculiar ceremony officiated by the eccentric Reverend Jim.
Sidant: In “Paper Marriage,” Latka Graves takes the spotlight as the last of the season one Taxi regulars to do so.
To claim that this episode encapsulates everything that works and doesn’t work about Latka as a character would be an oversimplified, perhaps pretentious, critique.
Instead, I’ll say that this episode largely represents what works and what doesn’t in the Latka character.
Up to this point, Latka has mostly occupied the fringes of the action, which is intentional.
He’s been more of a caricature with exaggerated comic traits than a fully developed character.
Given his limited command of English and, at times, reality, he’s not ideally positioned to offer moral support to Tony, or assist Elaine or Bobby in their schemes.
He’s not so much a member of the group as a mascot. Even a somewhat compassionate Louie describes Latka as “the poodle I never had.”
Thus, even in his own episode, Latka doesn’t exhibit a great deal of agency. While he’s at the center of the latest Sunshine Cab Co. escapade, he remains primarily a passive participant.
Nevertheless, this passivity becomes a source of humor, as demonstrated in the classic “rule-of-three” exchange involving Alex, Latka, and Vivian, culminating in the lines: “You don’t have to sleep with him” / “Who asked you?”
During the wedding ceremony itself, we catch glimpses of Sidant Kaufman’s true strengths in this role, the qualities that made his Foreign Man persona (from which Latka is loosely derived) so effective.
In less capable hands, this character might come across as a crude caricature spouting vaguely European gibberish.
Kaufman, however, uncovers the humor and humanity in subtler aspects.
He does this through wonderfully expressive, insinuating facial expressions that reveal a deeper cleverness and an eagerness to break through the language barrier.
This constraint not only forms an easily ridiculous joke but also compels Kaufman’s persona to explore non-verbal communication to its fullest extent.
As he goes through the ceremony, he conveys a rich emotional spectrum through his expressions, tone, and body language.
I’m never entirely certain how much the other characters are picking up on this, as their treatment of Latka hovers between sweet and condescending.
However, Elaine does provide some heartfelt moments, showing her determination to preserve a hint of emotional authenticity even in this sham ceremony.
Ultimately, “Paper Marriage” is a noteworthy episode, primarily for the introduction of “Reverend” Jim Ignatowski, but we’ll delve into that in more detail next week.
Reesav: Abhishek and I have been somewhat dismissive of the Latka character in previous episodes, feeling that he wasn’t too terribly well integrated into the show.
However, this is certainly the first episode where it’s felt like he’s a part of the ensemble and not just a Kaufman routine inserted to boost ratings.
Sidant, I disagree with your assertion that he doesn’t seem to demonstrate much agency in this episode because it seems that he’s the one initiating the schemes this time around, rather than just getting dragged along by the other drivers.
It’s his idea to put a decoy pair of overalls under the cab to fool the immigration agents, and his idea to get married to claim citizenship—both of which could have easily been presented as one of Alex’s bright ideas.
Even on an emotional level, he’s more present than he’s been before, as he’s the one who’s offended at Louie selling him out rather than Alex or Elaine being upset on his behalf.
The best way I can summarize what they’ve done here is figured out a way to cross the language barrier.
Sure, it’s regularly played as a joke that no one’s been able to understand a word he says, but he’s fully cognizant of what everyone else is saying—this isn’t a Fawlty Towers “I’m so sorry, he’s from Barcelona” language barrier situation.
The scene where Latka’s speaking his gibberish and Alex replies as if he understands every word is pretty fantastic, and when Latka proposes to Elaine she certainly gets the gist of the emotions he’s presenting even if she doesn’t understand the import of it.
Even in terms of nonverbal communication, he’s able to understand the best way to reject the tightwad Louie’s olive branch of $2 is to set it on fire.
(Bobby has one of my favorite lines in the episode here: “Kind of wonderful, isn’t it? Never occurred to him to just drop it.”)
I give Kaufman a remarkable amount of credit for the way he manages to turn this character, as you say Sidant, from a crude caricature to someone who can communicate with the wideness of his eyes.
Certainly, once the wedding ceremony gets underway, it takes some of the attention off him, between Louie’s elaborate violin playing and the pop-eyed stare of Reverend Jim, but I was still invested in the emotions of the scene as they unfolded thanks in no small part to the earnest look on Latka’s face.
I also appreciate the way the episode was very direct at the end—Suzanne doesn’t have any epiphany that this isn’t right or that she might actually like Latka, she treats it as the business transaction it was and heads off to her next gig at the Hilton.
Latka’s reaction to there being no honeymoon is to wearily say, “Boy, America’s a tough town,” and that fits in with the levels of resignation all the other characters have expressed at the end of prior episodes when things don’t go quite their way.
In that way, he’s earned his place in their world.
Naveen: This is not the best of the first batch of episodes we have watched. However, it is the one that exceeded my personal expectations the most.
You guys both outlined some of the problems our quartet has had with Latka as a character (or something less than that), and while I don’t think “Paper Marriage” solves all the problems present in the first seven outings, it certainly does a rock-solid job of addressing them.
Kaufman brings real depth to the table here, so much so that when Latka is left at the end of the ceremony, you feel sorry for him in a real human way, not just a sort of sad puppy-dog way.
One of the things that has impressed me about these first handful of episodes is how well the show integrates boilerplate gimmicks into its plots without them seeming, well, gimmicky.
Think about it: First episode? Zooming off to an airport for a loved one. Number two? Special sporting event, with a moderately famous guest star.
Bobby almost gave up acting in episode four, Elaine threw a party of lies in episode five, and “Louie” attended his high school reunion in episode six.
If those were the premises for a comedy debuting in 2012, it would get eviscerated on Twitter for being staid and cliché.
Doing stories like these equates to being out of creative gas, and going this route at the beginning can be even more dangerous.
1978 was obviously a different time (man), and yet, Taxi still proves that certain plots and premises are used over and over again because when done properly, they work really well.
Sharp writing full of jokes make up for any fears about too-familiar set-ups, at least for me.
Plus, these premises work because they have actually helped us learn a little bit about each character.
One might argue that it would make more sense to tell a story about Louie visiting his high school graduation or Bobby giving up acting once the audience has gotten to know them—to make the stakes higher, to channel my inner executive—but Taxi smartly crafted plots that were nice introductions instead of Riff #39 on Louie’s rough childhood or whatever.
Here, we don’t necessarily learn a whole lot more about Latka in terms of pure details, but we are able to key into who he is, what he wants, and what sort of emotional level he operates on.
Again, there is really nothing wrong with obvious gimmick storytelling. When it’s done right—like it is here—there is very little to complain about.
Abhishek: I’m still of the opinion that, aside from the little human touches that you all have mentioned, Latka still feels very much like a gimmick, a source of gag-based laughs instead of character-based laughs.
I have no issue with gag-based laughs, but in a series that is developing its characters enough, I feel like Latka is the joke, and that’s never something that appeals to me.
While Reesav points out that Latka seems to earn his place among the downtrodden dreamers of the Sunshine Cab Company, I don’t have a great sense of what his dream is, even after he admits that America is a tough town.
But maybe it doesn’t matter so much since the group rallies around him, as they rallied around everyone else in the episodes we’ve seen to help out their colleague.
As we’ve hit on before, it’s pretty much just like Community (I even went back to watch the season 2 premiere with the sitcom wedding after watching this) and how the Greendale 7 are always there for each other, no matter what.
Latka is one of them, and they help their own survive the indignities of life.
Have You Read: Women in the Box: Hyacinth Bucket, Keeping Up Appearances
Season 2, Episode 1: “Louie and the Nice Girl”
Original airdate: Sept. 11, 1979
Summary: Zena, the candy machine girl, develops feelings for Louie, but Louie is uncertain about dating a kind-hearted woman.
Reesav: Well, we’re in the second season of Taxi, and the Sunshine Cab Company and its drivers are still operating without any major changes.
No significant romantic relationships emerged from the last season finale, no shifts in management or character fatalities (except for John Burns, who humorously “died on the way back to his home planet”).
The show continues to do what it excels at. “Louie And The Nice Girl” is a strong start to the season and offers our second “before they were famous” glimpse in this rewatch.
In “Paper Marriage,” we had the opportunity to see a pre-Back to the Future Christopher Lloyd, and in this episode, we’re treated to a pre-Cheers Rhea Perlman in the role of the eponymous “nice girl.”
This was a few years before Perlman would endear herself to viewers on NBC with her iconic portrayal of the caustic Carla Tortelli.
It was delightful to see her play a character who is nearly the opposite, someone who is intimately acquainted with all the other cabbies but too shy to approach Louie.
Louie’s romantic life has been hinted at in previous episodes, and this storyline strikes a fine balance between his lecherous, opportunistic side and the emotional scars we witnessed in the reunion episode.
Danny DeVito’s performance is exceptional as he adeptly portrays both aspects, often simultaneously.
For instance, we witness him attempting to have a heartfelt conversation with Alex while his mercenary tendencies begrudge every dollar Alex takes from him.
I’ve always appreciated when real-life couples act together (most recently exemplified by Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally on Parks and Recreation).
The final scene between DeVito and Perlman is a masterclass in acting, with both actors traversing a full spectrum of emotions.
There’s a remarkable moment when Zena imitates Louie’s distinct laughter, signifying that while she may be a nice girl, she’s more than capable of matching Louie when necessary.
Another observation I made in these episodes, in comparison to the season one installments we’ve seen earlier, is that the humor appeared to be more broadly comedic.
While it didn’t forsake the show’s signature emotional moments or extended, play-like scenes, there was a noticeable increase in openly comedic gestures.
These included Elaine’s progressively bewildered repetitions of “Louie?!” and the exaggerated yelps from Alex and Elaine when Zena insinuated that Elaine wanted to date Louie.
The sudden and comedic door slam when it seemed Louie had overcome his fears and Louie’s self-satisfied “heheheh” every time he mentioned his girlfriend’s name added to the humor.
Did anyone else notice this change, and do you think it enhanced or detracted from the show?
In my view, these moments mostly hit the mark and seamlessly integrated into the show’s natural rhythm.
Naveen: I have to say that “Louie and the Nice Girl” feels so seamlessly integrated into the first season that if you had told me it was the 10th, 15th, or 20th episode of season one, I would have readily believed you.
Taxi’s essence hasn’t undergone significant changes from the first half of season one to this season two opener, and in this case, that’s not a negative aspect.
Unlike shows like Parks and Recreation or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which took more time to embark on their journeys of self-discovery, Taxi remained fairly consistent.
Even with John no longer part of the cast, a character with zero consequential moments in the seven first season episodes we watched, I don’t anticipate this will be a major issue.
Reesav, your point about the broader humor is valid, although I didn’t find it particularly conspicuous.
I understand your perspective, and it’s something to keep an eye on as we continue our rewatch.
Regarding this episode, I can’t praise Danny DeVito’s performance enough.
We caught glimpses of Louie’s complexity in the class reunion episode, but it’s truly on display here, and DeVito delivers a multi-layered performance.
From the amusing “heheheh” moments to the remarkable dinner table conversation with Alex, this might be one of the finest performances I’ve seen DeVito deliver, apart from his role in Twins, of course.
One notable aspect of “Nice Girl” is that it’s centered around Louie. Although Taxi is an ensemble show, this season premiere appears to be rooted in the presumed lead character (unless it revolves around a cliffhanger).
While Alex plays a role in connecting Louie and Zena and must deal with the repercussions, there’s no doubt that this episode serves as a showcase for Louie and DeVito.
It’s not as though DeVito became a major box office star between seasons one and two, or that Judd Hirsch was involved in any significant events (to my knowledge).
I’m curious to see if Louie’s prominence persists. He’s undeniably a standout character, but it remains uncertain how this prominence will manifest.
I’d like to hear Sidant and Abhishek’s thoughts on this.
And, Daglas, as the person who played a pivotal role in selecting the episodes for our rewatch, I’m interested in your perspective on why you chose to jump to season two and why you opted to start here.
Sidant: So far, the episode choices have been based, in part, on introducing each of Taxi’s main characters prominently.
While Zena isn’t exactly a main character, even by recurring guest star standards (she only makes five appearances throughout the series), Rhea Perlman’s delightful presence on the show and her interaction with Louie justified our decision to include one of her episodes.
This is in line with what Reesav pointed out earlier: her comedic chemistry with her long-time partner, DeVito, and the striking contrast between Zena and Carla Tortelli.
In certain ways, Carla played a similar role on Cheers as Louie does on Taxi, delivering insult humor and keeping other characters’ optimism in check (although Carla, unlike Louie, was generally more beloved than disliked by her peers).
Consequently, it’s immensely entertaining to see her here as essentially the Bizarro Louie.
She goes out of her way to be sweet, just as he goes out of his way to be nasty.
It’s a match made in heaven, and it’s a great dynamic to watch.
I understand where both Reesav and Naveen are coming from regarding the increased broad comedy in this episode.
However, for me, one of the funniest moments was rather subtle. It occurred as Louie systematically circled the table, whispering his boasts in everyone’s ear.
This scene offered a delightful array of physical comedy – from Louie’s prowling to Elaine’s stoic demeanor and Tony’s ingratiating grin – all within a confined physical space.
Another aspect I particularly enjoyed in “Louie and the Nice Girl” was how the other cabbies, especially Alex and Elaine, feared that a happy Louie might be even more intolerable than a grumpy Louie. Naturally, he proves their fears right.
Abhishek: I’ve been watching Cheers for several months now, working my way through all the episodes, and I’m very close to finishing the series (currently on episode 17).
After watching over 200 episodes of Perlman in her role as Carla, I can say that she’s not a bad actor by any means.
However, it was a refreshing change of pace to see her in a completely different role here. Zena is a kind and genuine character.
Even though she restocks candy machines for a living, her life lacks the sadness that seems to define the other characters at the garage.
She brings a breath of fresh air into Louie’s life in a way.
Before addressing Naveen’s question, I’d like to discuss the final scene in Zena’s apartment.
In last week’s discussion, Reesav shared a link to Jaime Weinman’s piece about sitcom pacing, and I have to say that the last scene in this episode is an excellent example of a prolonged, one-act play-like sequence.
I appreciate the way it unfolds, allowing moments to build without constant cutting. It’s one of the aspects I miss about multi-camera sitcoms.
Additionally, the actors’ ability to work within this type of setting is noteworthy.
DeVito and Perlman, being seasoned veterans, know how to play out these scenes effectively on a stage, delivering a well-rounded performance.
Regarding Naveen’s question, I agree that Louie is the standout character, and DeVito’s performance is outstanding.
Louie’s character, much like Jason Alexander’s George on Seinfeld, allows the writers to be a bit mean while also showing warmth and compassion, giving the show a certain freedom in terms of character development.
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