The cast of Taxi reunited in May for an appearance on the Today show. Standing out amid the many compliments and claims to great fun on the show was the image of Danny DeVito gripping Carol Kane’s hand throughout. This affectionate display underlines what was most charming and moving about the series: the camaraderie among the hacks at New York’s Sunshine Cab Company was the cornerstone of its comedy.
At last available on DVD (though, sadly, extras-free), the first season of Taxi (22 episodes, which ran from 1978-‘79) laid out its longstanding focus on quirky characters who, despite disagreements, actually liked one another. Created by James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed. Weinberger, these characters (not including Kane’s Simka in this first season) struggled with the possibility that their dreams outside the garage might not come true. This imminent “reality” gave Taxi, as Henner suggested on Today, a “grittiness” not seen in other sitcoms, then or now.
Most of the characters are waiting for a way out of their current situations. Single mom Elaine Nardo (Henner) considers her receptionist position at an art gallery to be her real job, and sees driving as a temporary way to make ends meet until she meets the right guy. Prizefighter Tony Banta (Tony Danza) is waiting to win his first major bout and go professional. And actor Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway) longs for his entrée into showbiz. Only veteran driver Alex (Judd Hirsch) is happily a cabbie. Thus he takes it upon himself to help keep his co-workers’ dreams alive, especially in the face of ridicule from their loathsome dispatcher, Louie (DeVito). Add John Burns (Randall Carver), new to New York and proud of his job (“It’s the New York kinda thing I’ve always dreamed of”), and Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman), the foreign maintenance man naïve and barely able to speak English, and Alex has his hands full.
In the first episode, Bobby, Tony, John, and Latka accompany Alex on a road trip from New York to Miami, so he can reintroduce himself to the daughter he’s not seen in 15 years, before she flies to Portugal to attend college. One conversation between Alex and Cathy (Talia Balsam) sets up his background, including his reason for becoming a cab driver, and his guilt concerning the breakdown of his family. Alex appears a guy who’s been through it all and therefore has the kind of insight necessary to advise his friends. After episode one, Alex’s position as authority is never questioned. He’s a father figure and role model, even helping Louie through some rare sensitive moments.
If Alex is the dad, Louie is the drunk uncle who visits without calling first. Louie is also around when his employees need a little guidance, but where Alex charms and reassures them, he brings them as far down as he can. In “One-Punch Banta,” Alex tells Tony that even though his track record isn’t so great, he’s got the kind of passion that makes champions. Louie, on the other hand, calls makes fun of his Rocky-style ambition, labeling him the “Macaroni Pony” and bets against him.
Bobby receives similar treatment in “Bobby’s Big Break,” when he quits the garage after winning a gig on a soap opera. Knowing the show is a little absurd, Alex still praises Tony’s good work, while Louie tells him, “You’ll be back. They all come back. Only one guy ever made it out in the history of the garage and that was James Caan. And he’ll be back.”
While Louie’s insults make for some of the show’s best moments—“I hope someone slams a door on your nose and you sneeze and your head explodes”; “He’s worse than crabs”—he’s not all jerk, occasionally demonstrating compassion. In “Bobby’s Acting Career,” he comes through for the gang when they attempt to save a dog from an abusive owner, he helps Tony get rid of a clingy girlfriend by pretending to be his lover, and he takes it easy on Bobby when the soap opera gig unexpectedly ends. Such merciful moments, as well as DeVito’s delivery of the most caustic lines with a wonderfully sly smile on his face, establish Louie as a good guy, so that when his troubles begin—in “A Full House for Christmas” when his gambling brother drops in, and “Louie Sees the Light” when, after undergoing gallstone surgery, he dedicates himself to becoming a nice guy—the audience, as well as Louie’s long-suffering co-workers, want things to work out for him, too.
The season’s highlight, “High School Reunion,” is one such episode. When Louie receives an invitation to his 20th high school reunion, he tells his employees he was bullied all through school and wants nothing more than to attend and to fulfill two promises he made to himself—to make the prettiest girl in school to like him, and to “get even with everyone else.” And he knows that his position as a taxi dispatcher won’t impress his former bullies. In a few moments of classic sitcom silliness, Bobby ends up impersonating Louie at the reunion and suitably wins over the pretty girl and makes sufficient fools of the bullies.
It’s funny because it’s true, at least as true as a sitcom can be. Taxi is revolutionary in its way, providing consistent laughs and thought-provoking plots without sexual tension, physical gags, political grandstanding or any of those other sitcom conventions. The crew rarely gets what they want, but they’re good people, who work hard and appreciate perseverance and loyalty.