As sitcoms go, Taxi is one of the best. A wealth of talent converged for the ABC sitcom. Executive producers James L. Brooks (now the popular film director of Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, and As Good as it Gets), Stan Daniels, David Davis (The Bob Newhart Show), and Ed. Weinberger (The Cosby Show) all came from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Taxi's heritage would likewise be passed down to Cheers (and, by extension Frasier) and The Simpsons, among others.
Certainly, the cast of Taxi delivered famously strong character acting. Anchored by Judd Hirsch (Ordinary People) as Alex Reiger, the crew of the Sunshine Cab Company included Danny DeVito (Batman Returns) as Louie DePalma, the sleazy troll who managed the outfit from his "cage", and Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) as Jim Ignatowski, the idiot savant brain-damaged from years of drug abuse (DeVito and Lloyd had previously co-starred in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)
Marilu Henner played sweet-natured redhead Elaine Nardo, Tony Danza was blockhead boxer Tony Banta, and Jeff Conaway was Bobby Wheeler, an struggling actor (Conaway departed after Season Three). The odd man out was performance-art comic Andy Kaufman, who played immigrant mechanic Latka Gravas. Kaufman would be dead of lung cancer only a year after the series went off the air, and his mystique was enhanced by his well-known unwillingness to play by show-biz conventions.
Taxi's third season (1980-1981), though delayed and curtailed to 20 episodes by an actor's strike, revealed a show hitting its creative stride. The season starts well, with a fun episode pairing DeVito with real-life wife and future Cheers star Rhea Perlman ("Louie's Rival"), and ends with a run of classic episodes, including a season finale featuring Kaufman in his dual role of Latka and alter ego Vic Ferrari ("Latka the Playboy").
The writing staff during Season Three deserves special attention: producers Glen and Les Charles (who later created Cheers), executive script consultant Barry Kemp (creator of Coach), David Lloyd (Cheers, Frasier), Ken Estin (CheersThe Simpsons), and Michael Leeson (who penned The War of the Roses for director DeVito). The writing team of Ian Praiser and Howard Gewirtz would become producers the following year based on their quality of work. Producer James Burrows, the undisputed-champion sitcom director, helmed multiple episodes.
Taxi took the New York City of Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and, released during Season Three, Raging Bull) and looked at it from a more optimistic perspective. The wistful, blue-note theme and second-unit cab footage suggest that the tone will never match the cab company's ironic name, and the very premise of the series is that people who have more to offer than driving cabs are stuck together in the same dead-end job (Alex, in particular, is well-educated, smart, but under-motivated). But the cabbies find reason to hope.
Despite weekly setbacks, the characters remain irrepressible, in part because they lean on each other...and Alex. Alex reluctantly accepts his fate as the "go-to" guy for everyone's problems, but even he can usually only manage to wrestle the problem to a draw—as in "Going Home," when he becomes the go-between for Jim and his wealthy, estranged father (droll guest star Victor Buono)—or, on occasion, make it even worse (in "Bobby's Roommate," for example, Alex wrongly suggests that a "vulnerable" Elaine is bound to put the moves on Bobby).
In most cases, the quality of an episode is directly proportional to the scale of the problem. In "The Call of the Mild" (a rare episode that takes place almost entirely outside the garage), Bobby, Alex, Tony, and Jim nearly starve to death on a clueless week-long excursion to the mountains. "Bobby and the Critic" details what happens when Louie, behind the luckless actor's back, sends an invective-filled letter to an important theatre critic, and "Louie Bumps into an Old Lady" finds DePalma threatened by a million-dollar lawsuit when he hits an old lady with a cab (the courtroom scene has a gleefully sadistic punchline).
Showcases for the show's best characters are also reliable. DeVito's fully-realized character delivered most consistently over the years, and he has plenty of great moments in Season Three episodes like "Thy Boss' Wife" (Louie's crisis of self-preservation versus hedonism climaxes in a inimitable swan-dive) and "Louie's Mother," featuring a hilarious cameo by DeVito's real-life mother Julia. A vehicle for Jim—"Zen and the Art of Cab Driving"—doubles as an opportunity for the Charles brothers to satirize self-help seminars ("dynamic perfectionism") and the medium of television. "On the Job," Parts One and Two, discovers what would happen if the drivers were forced to take new jobs.
And Andy Kaufman remained a category of his own. It's apparent, in watching Season Three, that Kaufman was a bit of a hot potato. His business is often marginal, like a brilliant little monologue he could craft on his own, but the creative team went for broke with two Latka-themed episodes: "Latka's Cookies" and "Latka the Playboy." In the first, Latka builds a popular cookie business by accidentally abusing an illegal secret ingredient (guest star Famous Amos provides a psychedelic capper).
In "Latka the Playboy," fed-up with being dismissed as the "cute" foreigner, Latka studies Playboy and becomes an entirely different person: a suave caricature named Vic Ferrari. Both episodes again wield satirical edges, one skewering the addictive history of Coca-Cola, and the other an American culture of reinvention and assimilation that worships Hugh Hefner as a maculine ideal.
Taxi sometimes resembled a weekly Neil Simon play, with maudlin or sentimental character comedy goosed by punchlines, but James Brooks' celebrated brilliance with emotional storylines also justified experiments in the absurd and satirical. Give Season Three a spin, and keep your eyes open for guest stars (Julie Kavner, Eileen Brennan, Louise Lasser, George Wendt, and Al "Grandpa" Lewis); just don't ask yourself how cab drivers have so much time to hang around the garage, and you'll be just fine. Okeydoke?
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