American Shithole #17 — The Beautiful Things: Taxi
By Eric Wilson
I asked a group of friends recently, “What is your go to for a feel-good television show?” The answers were as varied as you might imagine. I’d been looking for something to comfort me during a time of stress and sickness, and eventually I settled on an underappreciated effort from my childhood — dark days require comfort and sanctuary, and there is no sanctuary quite like nostalgia.
I don’t think I have ever understood nostalgia, or experienced it really, until revisiting the television series Taxi — which originally aired between 1978 and 1983. I remember watching old people get misty-eyed over black and white television programming from the ’40s and ’50s, and I would always wonder, what was it about those old shows that triggered such a powerful response?
I was pleased to discover that it’s the memories of the era — the experiences of that time that the show brings to the surface.
I only recalled two episodes from Taxi, but the memory of those two episodes triggered some interesting revelations, or at least observations after watching them again — especially the episode “Alex Jumps Out of an Airplane.”
A little background first: As I mentioned, Taxi ran from the late ’70s to the early ’80s, it was a critical success and ratings failure, created by a handful of people involved with The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show; most notably James L. Brooks. It won numerous awards and is widely regarded as one of the greatest ensemble casts in television history. It was also cancelled, twice.
In retrospect, it was a magical little show that never quite could.
The wizardry begins with the credits and the theme song Angela from smooth-jazz musician, Bob James. Never before or since has there been a more calming 70 seconds of television. Go ahead, listen to it. Watch the opening. Don’t you immediately feel at ease listening to James’ sweet melody wander, as a yellow cab crosses the Queensboro bridge?
I sure do.
I lived in the South Bronx in the ’70s, and as I made my way through the seasons, with each episode I would stay on the opening and closing credits, and I would get a rush of memories from that time. It got to where I looked forward to them, even though I was so very unhappy back then.
So it really does start with the credits and the music, where Taxi, above all other shows, shines so very brightly.
The cast however — that is the meat and potatoes of the show’s success. Let’s begin with Danny DeVito’s Louie De Palma, which is consistently ranked as one of the best television characters of all time. If the show’s only outstanding performance was from Mr. DeVito, we would still remember Taxi. That’s how amazing he was.
This is evident immediately when we are introduced to Louie in the pilot, where he treats Elaine with kindness until discovering she’s a new hack — an old industry term for a taxi driver — when the real Louie comes out. In five seasons, DeVito never once disappoints.
Luckily, the talented cast runs much deeper. Judd Hirsch richly inhabits Alex Reiger, Tony Danza is actually enjoyable as the eternally punch-drunk boxer, Tony Banta, and Marilu Henner’s headstrong, single-mother raising a family character, Elaine Nardo, was a refreshing voice for women in television, versus the sea of stay-at-home mothers and wallflowers and girlfriends and girls next door of the era.
Add to that, Andy Kaufman and Christopher Lloyd as Latka Gravas and Reverend Jim “Iggy” Ignatowski — talk about two performers that can chew scenery — both of these guys are legends. I distinctly remember the episode where Reverend Jim flashes back to when he was at Harvard, and as a kid, I was blown away that the same actor could be responsible for such disparate, brilliant performances of the same character.
Also, Kaufman being allowed to explore multiple personalities in later seasons would have jumped the shark if it had been anyone else.
Sadly, Jeff Conway’s battle with addiction never allowed him to fully develop Bobby Wheeler, and the character was downsized in season 4 and written off by season 5.
Even the guest actors are some of the finest working today. Mandy Patinkin, Martin Short and Tom Hanks immediately spring to mind. And lest I forget, Carol Kane was a marvelous addition to the cast in later seasons, and she was generously rewarded for her performances.
All in all, Taxi would be nominated for 55 awards, winning 27 (23 Emmys and Golden Globes) during the show’s five-year run.
As I jumped my way through seasons, I admit I found some of the writing to be dated, perhaps predictable, even mildly offensive at times when measured by today’s standards and expectations — more often than not though, I found the writing to be exceptional, and often times brilliant.
I was particularly moved revisiting the episode where Alex faces his fears, where his soliloquy raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I write a great deal about fear, so it’s not surprising this episode stuck with me. What truly surprised me was the discovery that a story I tell about skiing and skydiving is shockingly similar to the events of the episode. So much so, that it threw me into a bit of a panic. Had I made up the skiing incident entirely? There is no way it could mirror Alex’s ski jump story so exactly.
I found myself questioning my own memories. Did I even skydive? Yes, Yes I did. And the skiing story from Winter Park is also real — but how much of it is accurate? I am no longer certain, but I loved the experience of remembering just the same; and I loved exploring this show again as an adult, seeing through these older eyes how it had affected me.
I was looking for a little warmth in the world; a little comfort for these tired, old bones, and with Taxi, I found what I was looking for — a brief reprieve from the madness outside.
As season five came to a close, I found that I was moved by the experience of taking this little trip back in time — and my body was thankfully finally on the mend. Taxi was a very theatrical show, from a very different era of television. I think the highest compliment I can pay Taxi, is that it’s the only show to date that I can watch without being bothered in the slightest by the laughing of the studio audience. I despise canned laughter, and I refuse to even watch a show that has a laugh track today, but with Taxi, it didn’t matter; in fact it feels right. Taxi is so theatrical, that you feel a part of that audience; those are your friends laughing along with you.
Taxi is available on CBS All Access, and Hulu — although some of the episodes are inexplicably missing. When the shithole that is today's America gets you down or your body won't let up on you, give yourself a break. Taxi is always a relaxing ride that gets you right where you want to be.