As before, Taxi is set mainly in the garage/waiting area of the Sunshine Cab Company, where most of its drivers dream of bigger and better careers: would-be boxing champion Tony Banta (Tony Danza), aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway), art scene wannabe Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) among them. Only Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch), whom everyone turns to for advice and support, seems relatively content to live his life driving cabs.
At a time when retro-broad slapstick dominated ABC, and half-hour comedies about cozy, Reaganomics-driven suburban life (The Cosby Show, Family Ties) were taking the place of Norman Lear's left-leaning sitcoms and CBS's long-running M*A*S*H, Taxi was a rare urban show about a bunch of losers. Disco-era variations of bus driver Ralph Kramden, the cabbies of Taxi were dreamers, exaggerations of people we all know.
If Taxi's first season had any breakout stars, it was Andy Kaufman's immigrant mechanic, Latka Gravas, and, to a lesser extent, Danny DeVito's gleefully scurrilous dispatcher, Louie de Palma. The show's creators seemed aware that Kaufman's cutesy, non sequiturian foreigner from a make-believe, vaguely Eastern Bloc country would click on a network that gave birth to Mork and The Fonz. Less expected was the popularity of DeVito's unrepentant sleaze ball, whose antisocial behavior contrasted beautifully with each of the show's regulars. As they struggled to get out of the garage and better their lives, Louie was always there to kick 'em when they were down, gloating all the way. Like Richard Deacon's Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke, one imagines the writers turning to Louie whenever they needed an easy, sure-fire laugh.
Unlike Archie Bunker, Taxi's writers didn't soften Louie up with time, opting instead to push the boundaries of his depraved bad taste, insensitivity, and bald-faced greed even further. Except maybe for The Simpsons' Mr. Burns, there's nothing like him on TV.
Latka, on the other hand, after all the mangled phrasebook translations and Harpo-esque sight gags -- in one episode here, he pulls myriad items from the pockets of his coveralls, just as Harpo did in Love Happy -- the character had nowhere to go. And as dramatized in Milos Forman's Man on the Moon (1999), Kaufman and the show's writers and network brass were at odds as to what to do with the character.
Meanwhile, the popularity of these characters served to undercut the attention paid to less successfully realized ones. Bobby Wheeler was highlighted in few shows (and actor Jeff Conaway proved a limited actor beyond comic support), and Elaine Nardo at times plays like the token woman. (In "Nardo Loses Her Marbles," actress Henner is outshined by a terrific, Spencer Tracy-esque guest performance by Tom Ewell.) Randall Carver's John Burns, a wide-eyed innocent newly-arrived in New York and a promising character highlighted in several season 1 shows, was dropped altogether.
In his place came Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd), whose one-shot appearance in the first season made such an impression that he was gradually worked in as a regular the next year. Though the character might have been a painful riff of psychedelic nostalgia (remember Flashback?), like the hippies on Dragnet, Lloyd, not Kaufman, proved to be Taxi's real wild card, a zonked-out drifter who after years of tripping out on acid never quite came down to earth, whose goofy reactions play like Ed Norton -- if the breezy sewer work had been kicked in the head by a mule. Consider his introduction, in a very funny script by James Burrows:
Bobby: "My friends and I were wondering if you'd like to come and join us."
Reverend Jim: "What did you decide?"
And, referring to last season's wedding that introduced him:
Elaine: "Have you performed any other wedding ceremonies?"
Reverend Jim: "Let's see. I married two people stark-naked in the woods."
Elaine: "You mean the whole wedding party was nude?"
Reverend Jim: "No, just me."
Hilarious as Lloyd is, the key to Taxi's success rests squarely on the shoudlers of Alex Reiger and Judd Hirsch's marvelous performances, for which he won several well-deserved Emmys. One of the best Season 2 shows has Alex trying to come to terms with his long-estranged father after the latter suffers a heart attack. Hirsch is quite remarkable, in a show that teeters between the raw emotion of a Cassavetes film and the hilarity of the best Mary Tyler Moore shows. (Writers for this episode: Glen Charles and Les Charles.) Both this and numerous other episodes, particularly those by the Charleses and Earl Pomerantz, offer supremely funny twists on tried-and-true sitcom machinations.
Video & Audio
Don't panic, folks. Although the first reel of the first episode of Taxi -- Season 2 looks awful, like an old 16mm TV syndication print, the rest of that episode and the others this reviewer sampled looked and sounded (Dolby Digital mono) passable, though no better than that. The season's 24 episodes are spread over four discs (two episodes and disc more than Season 1). There are no subtitle options or chapter menus -- nothing -- and no Extra Features.
One of the all-time great sitcoms, Taxi is an especially sweet rediscovery on DVD. This reviewer hadn't seen the show since its original syndication (in the mid-1980s?), and was surprised how much of it lingered in the nether regions of my memory. ("What does a yellow light mean?" "Slow down!" "What...does...a...yellow...light...mean?" etc.) After a quarter century, Taxi is as funny as ever.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.