Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re beginning our coverage of the best episodes from Taxi (1978-1982, ABC; 1982-1983, NBC), the smartest and best written sitcom of the late ’70s/early ’80s. I’m pleased to announce that all five seasons have been released on DVD.
A group of New York cab drivers share the ups and downs of their lives in between shifts. Taxi stars JUDD HIRSCH as Alex Rieger, JEFF CONAWAY as Bobby Wheeler, DANNY DeVITO as Louie De Palma, MARILU HENNER as Elaine Nardo, TONY DANZA as Tony Banta, RANDALL CARVER as John Burns, and ANDY KAUFMAN as Latka Gravas.
The best written situation comedy of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Taxi was based on a 1975 New York Magazine article purchased by MTM at the request of Jim Brooks, David Davis, and Jerry Belson. In late 1977, Brooks, Davis, and two other MTM writer/producers, Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, left the company (reportedly with Tinker’s blessing) and formed their own group, John Charles Walters Productions. They partnered with Paramount and got a deal with ABC for three shows. The first show, which was guaranteed a 13-episode order, ended up being Taxi. After purchasing the article back from MTM, the team signed on another MTM vet, James Burrows, to be the series’ director, establishing a brilliant creative team of some of television’s finest. The series’ MTM roots are obvious: ensemble show, workplace oriented, complex characters, fantastic writing. All of these qualities are in place from the first episode, but as was the case with both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, a lot of the comedy is garnered from the audience’s acknowledgment and recognition of the characters. Thus, the show, although always well written, takes almost the entirety of its first year to earn the laughs that will come to typify the series in its remaining seasons.
Yet the first season automatically presents Taxi as a truly character driven piece, and all of the regulars, with the exception of the wide-eyed impossible-to-write-for John (who won’t make it past these 22 episodes), have an emotional depth that exceeds most of what situation comedies had to offer at the time. In addition to the high calibre writing, the brilliant cast, headlined by Hirsch, features many of the medium’s most talented players: Devito, Henner, Kaufman, etc. In simple terms, Taxi is a show in which everything clicks. It just took a whole season to refine its cast and build up the character-oriented laughs. (Trust me, although this season won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy, the best is yet to come…) But I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) All episodes this season are directed by James Burrows.
01) Episode 1: “Like Father, Like Daughter” (Aired: 09/12/78)
Alex goes to Miami to reconnect with his daughter.
Written by James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis, & Ed. Weinberger
The debut episode of Taxi, which features a story centered around our headliner, Judd Hirsch’s Alex, functions like a well made one-act play, with several moments of beautiful drama. And the script’s fine construction is evident, for never is the comedy encumbered by the heavier moments; instead, our understanding of the characters, particularly Alex, allows the funny moments to pack a stronger metaphorical punch. This episode illustrates a balance that this series will (for the most part) negotiate with great finesse, and although we don’t get to learn as much about the other characters as in some other pilots, we have reason to believe that each one will be awarded the same intricate psychological exploration. Thus, the first episode fulfills its purpose: the promise of something great.
02) Episode 3: “Blind Date” (Aired: 09/26/78)
Alex makes a date with the woman from Bobby’s answering service.
Written by Michael Leeson
In many ways, this episode features a lot of the same qualities that made the premiere so successful: it’s centered on Alex and combines quality comedy with emotional suffering. In this episode, Suzanne Kent plays a woman whose flirtatious phone voice gives no evidence of her sizable girth, which stuns Alex when he goes to pick her up on their blind date. But while that moment is briefly played, the real crux of the premise involves her anger and the seemingly impenetrable emotional wall that she has built up as a result of people’s reactions to her weight. There are a lot of unbearably real moments, but wonderfully, the comedy is still stronger, making this an even better episode than the one above, and — shockingly — among the absolute best installments ever produced on Taxi.
03) Episode 5: “Come As You Aren’t” (Aired: 10/10/78)
Elaine throws a party for her upperclass museum contacts.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Marilu Henner is marvelous in the show’s first Elaine episode, which deals with one of her character’s central conflicts: the clash between her cash-driven job as a cab driver and her desire to break into the high class museum world of artists and patrons. In this installment, these two identities are pitted against one another, as Elaine’s desire to keep her seedier job a secret when she throws a party for her museum contacts is spoiled by a chance encounter with a snobby pick-up with whom Elaine had an earlier confrontation. It’s another well-constructed story (and note that it’s the first script written by the team of Glen and Les Charles, who went on with Jim Burrows to create one of the next decade’s best written shows, Cheers). Great introduction to the Elaine character.
04) Episode 8: “Paper Marriage” (Aired: 10/31/78)
Latka marries a hooker to avoid deportation.
Story by Barton Dean | Teleplay by Glen Charles & Les Charles
In addition to being the first episode centered around the uproariously bizarre Latka (played by the late comedic genius, Andy Kaufman), this installment has the distinction of introducing Reverend Jim Ignatowski, who will go on to become a regular — one of the show’s funniest, most complex characters and the subject of many of the best episodes — in the second season. The story for this episode is a little more traditional “sitcom” than others, as Latka has to marry in a hurry to avoid deportation, but the show’s comedy is probably unmatched by any of the other offerings for this season. And with wonderful character moments, the introduction of an important character, and the biggest laughs of the season, “Paper Marriage” easily takes the prize of being my first season favorite.
05) Episode 10: “Men Are Such Beasts” (Aired: 11/21/78)
Tony can’t shake his obsessive addict girlfriend.
Written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels
Although this series often does episodes that featured an A-story and a B-story (a fact that hadn’t really occurred to me until I re-watched and adjudicated the entire series for these posts), rarely are the plots given equal weight. While Alex’s story of getting into an accident is more of a subplot and doesn’t get the same coverage as Tony’s attempt to shake off his amphetamine-popping ex-girlfriend, the multiple narratives — both set almost entirely in the garage — help fill out the episode and its comedy quotient. Admittedly, episodes centered around Tony are usually a miss, but this one, while far from the best of the first season, does a solid job of mixing laughs (and there are some pretty good ones here) with a potentially darker subject: the clingy girlfriend’s drug addiction.
06) Episode 11: “Memories Of Cab 804 (I)” (Aired: 11/28/78)
The cabbies reminisce about time spent in Cab 804.
Written by Barry Kemp
At the conclusion of each ABC season, the series would produce a two-part “pickup” episode, featuring each of the characters in individual segments that were shot throughout the year. In this first one, the cabbies reminisce about time spent in Cab 804, which they’ve just learned has been in an accident. Truthfully, these shows, though well regarded by much of the fandom, are collectively not among my favorites (they’re too gimmicky), but they do feature some nice character beats. This first part, which makes the list because of a very amusing segment with Louie and the rich kid, is preferred to the second half, which features a trite sequence in which Alex delivers a baby in the back seat, and a fine but unfunny scene in which Elaine picks up a hot fare played by Tom Selleck. (However, if you enjoy this show, and I think most people do, I’d encourage watching both parts.)
07) Episode 14: “Sugar Mama” (Aired: 01/16/79)
Alex begins escorting a wealthy old woman.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Ruth Gordon won an Emmy for her work here, in which she plays a lonely widow who takes a liking to Alex when he picks her up one evening. They quickly become friends and she begins bribing him to spend all of his time with her. When Alex joins her at an event, he meets Ramon, a gigolo who’s been escorting another old woman, leading Alex to feel that he’s not much better. While Gordon is a legend and always a force to be reckoned with whenever she’s on the screen, the real strength of this episode exists in the performance of Judd Hirsch, who makes his scenes with Gordon among the year’s most memorable. Although there are plenty of laughs, this is far from the funniest installment of the year; it’s the enjoyable script and fantastic guest star that make this episode unforgettable.
08) Episode 16: “Louie Sees The Light” (Aired: 02/06/79)
Louie promises God to turn over a new leaf.
Written by Ruth Bennett
Louie is the show’s most interesting character because he not only has to function as a major source of comedy, but also as the antagonist for most of the principals. While several other episodes this season (like “High School Reunion” and “A Full House For Christmas,” both of which were in contention for this list and can be found among the honorable mentions below) sought to give him more emotional depth, this episode’s primary aim is finding the comedy and riffing off of the audience’s already established recognition of Louie’s character. In other words, Louie’s vow to be good only works because we know how rotten his character usually is; as a result, the comedy that ensues is incredibly potent, ushering in the first of many fantastically funny Louie shows.
09) Episode 18: “Bobby’s Big Break” (Aired: 02/15/79)
Bobby quits the garage after getting a job on a soap.
Written by Barry Kemp
Tending to regard episodes centered around Bobby in a manner similar to those featuring Tony (that is, mostly misses with an occasional hit), this is probably my favorite of the character’s showcases, as Bobby’s aspiring actor beat, which will be replicated several times over the next few seasons, never is as fresh or as amusing as it is in this episode. The comedy of Bobby landing a part on a soap opera and thinking he’s finally getting out of the garage is mixed with inescapable sadness, as the cabbies’ (save Alex) collective desire to move on to bigger and better things is a dream that never gets realized. Thus, the story is fundamentally rooted to the series’ core premise, and with plenty of laughs (including the wicked soap opera parody scenes), this is a wonderful episode for Bobby and Conaway.
10) Episode 19: “Mama Gravas” (Aired: 02/27/79)
Alex sleeps with Latka’s attractive mother.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Another candidate for the season’s funniest installment, this offering utilizes another routinely “sitcom” story — one character becoming romantically involved with another character’s parent — but features several nice twists, most of which come from the crafting of the Latka character. Although Alex’s interactions with Mama Gravas form the story of the episode, the most rewarding stuff occurs in the second half, when Latka expects Alex to marry his mother following their night of passion. Along with strengthening the relationship between Alex and Latka, their final scene really helps give our favorite foreign mechanic more complexity, shading his character’s inherent comedic quality with much needed truth. And, as mentioned above, it’s a hysterically funny episode too. Divine.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “High School Reunion,” a well-liked episode that has Bobby impersonating Louie at the latter’s high school reunion (which, although many will disagree, I find too broad and not in keeping with the show’s early seasons charm), “Memories Of Cab 804 (II),” the second part of the two-parter discussed above, “A Full House For Christmas,” in which Louie’s brother visits and gets in a poker game over who has to take their mom for Christmas (and the show I was most inclined to include in today’s list), and “Alex Tastes Death And Finds A Nice Restaurant,” a fine Hirsch episode in which Alex has a near death experience and gets a job as a waiter (really great for Alex fans).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Taxi goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!