Monday, August 25, 2008

Top 10 Things That I Love About the Sitcom Taxi (1978-1983)

As I have previously chronicled, I recently purchased Season One of Taxi for pretty cheap. I only have one two-part episode left in the first season, and man, have I really gotten into it! Taxi is seriously a show that is worthwhile not only as a historical piece (a good sitcom for the 70s) but seriously a great show with writing and acting that stands up and holds together as funny today. Let me explain why, LIST-STYLE.

10. It was the original Arrested Development

Taxi is a workplace sitcom about people who work for the Sunshine Taxi Cab company. It is also one of the earliest comedies that got critical acclaim but never could find the audience it deserved. Taxi started off relatively strong in the ratings, but was moved to a more competitive slot, and things worsened. Over five seasons, it was kicked around between two different stations and several different time slots until it got cancelled after five. It was the among the first TV shows and probably the first comedy to be declared "too smart for TV." HBO was interested in picking up the series after ABC dropped it but before NBC picked it up, another parallel to the Arrested-ness of a show ahead of its time.

Oh, and getting involved in a series of escalating dares that leads to marriage? Happens in the episode "The Great Line."

9. The theme song

*breaks out the smooth jazz slow jamz*

8. The quality of the guest spots

It's a show that's known for its main cast (and deservedly so, scan the rest of this list to see that), but man, did they manage to pack in lots of quality actors into the guest spots. In the first season alone, we get Martin Mull, Jeffrey Tambor (JEFFERY TAMBOR! BEFORE HE WAS FAMOUS!), Ruth Gordon, Tom Selleck, and Mandy Patinkin. If I buy the rest of the series, I have the following to look forward to (hangin' preps no regrets): Eileen Brennan, Carol Kane, Martin Short, Rhea Perlman, Jack Gilford, Ted Danson (TED DANSON!), Tom Hanks (TOM HANKS!), and Louise Lasser. Solid.

7. Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd)

Okay, I admit this one is a bit of me going on a show's legacy rather than my personal experience, as Reverend Jim only appears in one season one episode. He's great in it, however, and I have seen other episodes featuring him (he becomes a regular cast member in season two). He was the first hippie/burnout comedic character, and that alone would make him belong on the list: he was the original version of what is now a stock character. But he's also funny--really funny. Go ahead and watch this whole episode, it's all on YouTube, and it's probably the most famous of the series. It features Jim getting a job at Sunshine Taxi Company.






Her character isn't great but Henner does some good stuff with her, whatever her name is. Elaine, I think. BABE BABE BABE WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

5. The importance of New York to the show

In what other city are cabs so important and so tied to the life of the city? Taxi is about a taxi dispatching service, so it's also about New York, and why New York needs cabs, and who in New York needs and drives cabs. People spar verbally about Brooklyn and Harlem, and they all heap scorn on Los Angeles. And the main characters! Elaine Nardo is a single working mother. Cab dispatcher Louie de Palma is the most born-and-bred New York Italian imaginable. Alex Reiger, the lead, is Jewish (though it isn't mentioned frequently), and his cabby sensibility is perfectly New York.

4. The angles that the writing takes

This is possibly a little broad, but if I extended it to "writing" in general, I'd have no choice but to put it number one and basically call it "the show;" everyone knows that sitcoms live and die by the writing. What consistently impresses me in this show is that when standard comedic subjects are taken on, they are approached from a smarter angle. For instance, in the third episode ever, Alex goes on a blind date with a woman who turns out to be built like a...fatty. Instead of making fat jokes, though, the humor comes from the woman's bitterness and self-loathing stemming from past romantic encounters with judgmental men. In a way, it's much darker and chancy than just taking pot shots; it's engaging real problems that people have.

The character of Latka (Andy Kaufkman), the immigrant mechanic, in his entirety basically fits in here. He's the concept of an immigrant without being some specific ethnicity or culture that gets mocked--he's not from any country that's ever named, so he can't be! This narrows the comedy to being all about the difficulties in interaction between cultures, not about ridiculing some specific culture.

3. Alex Reiger (Judd Hirsch)

If you've never seen Taxi, you might recognize Judd Hirsch from the rant at the beginning of the first episode of Studio 60. Which he was good in, no doubt. But Judd Hirsch was also one of the all-time greatest straight men I have ever seen.

It's hard to have a good straight man in a comedy. It's pretty frequent that the "relatable dude" in a sitcom is too laid-back and detached to produce much real comedy of his/her own (Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Canterbury/Jim Halpert, et al) or too far in a stereotyped direction--be it washed-out emotional (Ted Mosby), intellectual (Lisa Simpson), or stereotypical family-role (Ray Barone)--to be truly relatable. (Perhaps the last one is just to me, or other people not old enough. Also: don't get me wrong, I like/respect basically all of those shows.) But Alex Reiger just strikes that balance that others like Michael Bluth, Larry Sanders, and Dave Nelson do to me. He can make the relatable snipe-takedown from the sidelines--easy to do when you're the only person at your workplace without delusions of grandeur--but he can also get into relatable sticky situations, like getting in over his head in a lie about being an oil-fire-fighter.

I ought to do a list of my favorite straight men sometime. FILE THAT AWAY.

2. The darkness of the show

Taxi is a workplace sitcom about a boss who employs six people, none of whom really enjoy their lives, and most of whom think they are going to break into some other business. Tony Banta (Tony Danza) wants to be a boxer, Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conway) wants to be an actor. Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner BABE ALERT WOOOOOOO) wants to be an artist or run an art gallery. Only the lead, Alex, is comfortable being a taxi driver. In another sitcom, that might be the guy they make fun of. In Taxi, he's the only sane one. Alex knows the truth of the matter, that most of them will never amount to anything better than being cab drivers. He's resigned to that fate, unlike anyone else, which makes him the most reliably positive and relatable character. That's pretty fucking dark. As well as being pretty fucking New York.

1. Louie de Palma (Danny DeVito)

Louie de Palma is the best character on Taxi, and seriously one of the funniest characters I have ever seen in a sitcom. He is an uncompromisingly slimy, money-grubbing bastard, and even the moments at which he shows weakness, he shows it in a pathetic, simpering way. He values money over his own emotions, even at his most emotional. Louis de Palma is, very simply, a bad human being. And it's hilarious. Somebody give me an example of a character that is absolutely completely objectively a bad person on a sitcom before this, and you'll win an award (probably my pocket change). There might be one, but I don't know who it is. In one episode, DeVito is thisclose to getting $15,000 to let a famous director film some scenes in his taxi garage. At the director's hotel room party, they find out the plug is being pulled, and Louie loses it and rages hard as everyone but Alex escapes the apartment. Then, this brilliant bit:

Louie: (from the hotel room bathroom) Well, as long as a man has his pride, and his dignity, it doesn't matter what this rotten world tries to do to him. (Louis emerges from the bathroom with about ten nice towels stacked high.) Come on, let's get out of here.

Verdict on Taxi: kickin' rad.

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