Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing our coverage on 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, CHRISTOPHER LLOYD as Jim Ignatowski, and ANDY KAUFMAN as Latka Gravas.
Although already of the quality that earns Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy, Taxi enters the second year with its comedic sensibilities firmly discovered, and following another winning appearance by Reverend Jim, the series smartly snaps up Christopher Lloyd as a regular for the last two thirds of the season (replacing Randall Carver as the dull John), elevating the laughs to heretofore unreached heights. With Jim as the missing piece of the metaphorical puzzle, Season Two begins a standard of excellence that will maintain throughout the rest of the show’s run on ABC, and this year houses many of the series’ classic installments. So it’s no surprise that this collection of episodes garnered the series its (much deserved) second consecutive award for Outstanding Comedy and its second consecutive Golden Globe. Indeed, there are so many fantastic offerings here, making this a very difficult list to narrow down. But, as usual, 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) All episodes, except one, this season are directed by James Burrows.
01) Episode 23: “Louie And The Nice Girl” (Aired: 09/11/79)
Louie dates the girl who fills the candy machine.
Written by Earl Pomerantz
Danny DeVito’s soon-to-be-wife Rhea Perlman makes her first appearance here as Zena, the sweet natured vending machine filler who takes a liking to Louie and begins dating him. A lot of the comedy comes from the other regulars’ reactions to this strange romantic combination of salty and sweet, but much of this episode rests on the capable shoulders of DeVito’s Louie, who faces a unique inner conflict: he can’t be physically demonstrative with Zena because she’s the first woman whom he hasn’t paid for intimacy. (In other words, he’s only dated hookers.) The installment climaxes with a scene in Zena’s apartment between the pair; the moment where the height-challenged Louie lies horizontal on the edge of the couch is a sight gag that never fails to crack me up.
02) Episode 25: “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” (Aired: 09/25/79)
The cabbies try to get Reverend Jim a job as a taxi driver.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
This installment is regarded by many as one of the funniest situation comedy episodes of all time. I must concur with this assessment, but not simply because of the iconic scene of Jim trying to pass his driver’s exam. (Yes, this is the “What does a yellow light mean?” episode!) This installment is extraordinarily written throughout — from the opening scene at Mario’s that quickly takes care of exposition and makes way for big character laughs, and all through the middle scene at the garage, where Jim gives Louie narcotics. It’s a hilarious bit for DeVito, as Louie treats the cabbies to his rendition of “Moonlight Bay.” Although the scene with Jim at the driving bureau is deservedly classic, I find Louie’s shtick to be just as uproariously funny and further proof of this episode’s consistent brilliance. Undoubtedly the season’s best. No contest.
03) Episode 26: “Nardo Loses Her Marbles” (Aired: 10/02/79)
A stressed out Elaine seeks psychiatric help.
Written by Earl Pomerantz
During the three middle seasons, viewers are treated to at least one episode per year that toys with the idea of pairing up Alex and Elaine in a romantic, or at least sexual, arrangement. (The will-they-won’t-they dynamic clearly plants the seed for what’s to come with Sam and Diane.) Although I’ve personally always found the chemistry between Hirsch and Henner palpable, especially in this episode, and really enjoyed the shows in which they are paired, I am proudly fascinated by the decision to keep them platonic, for it elevates the subtext without all of the histrionics that would accompany any major developments. As for this installment, Henner is fantastic in her scenes with both Hirsch and Tom Ewell, who gives a marvelously truthful performance as Elaine’s shrink. Just great.
04) Episode 30: “The Great Race” (Aired: 11/06/79)
Louie and Alex have a contest to see who can bring in the most money.
Written by Glenn Gordon Caron
While this episode is very story-driven, built on an easy sitcom premise that finds two characters in competition, thus guaranteeing an ending of only a few varieties, the script operates within the established definitions of the characters — particularly Alex and Louie — and still manages to keep things surprising (and therefore, comedic). The best moments occur within the confines of the cabs (which, ironically for a show called Taxi, is a rarity for this series, and therefore, more memorable), as Alex and Louie, both in character, vie for holding the title of the garage’s best earner. Another one of the reasons this episode is special is the camaraderie among the members of the garage, which heightens the show’s theatrical design and ensemble-focused storytelling.
05) Episode 34: “Elaine’s Secret Admirer” (Aired: 12/04/79)
Someone’s been sending Elaine love poems.
Written by Barry Kemp
Whenever I am turned off by this episode’s sentimentality, I step back and recognize how truthfully constructed the installment manages to be, especially with regard to Jim, who’s still a relatively mysterious figure (having only joined the series as a regular less than a month before). And, fortunately, there really are plenty of laughs in this offering, many coming from Louie, who tries to manipulate the situation to the best of his ability. Meanwhile, the climax, in which Jim builds a castle in Elaine’s living room, is another one of those Taxi moments that could possibly take your breath away on first viewing. Also, regular Sitcom Tuesday readers will note Rhoda’s old friend Johnny Venture (played by Michael DeLano) as Don Reavy, who is involved in a memorable bit. A justified classic.
06) Episode 35: “Louie Meets The Folks” (Aired: 12/11/79)
Louie brings Alex along to meet Zena’s parents.
Written by Barry Kemp
Admittedly, this isn’t one of Taxi‘s absolute stellar offerings; the story, of one character meeting his love interest’s parents and it going disastrously, is fairly routine. What’s more, the trajectory, in which Louie’s life is threatened by Zena’s seemingly sweet-natured mother, although unquestionably hysterical, isn’t terrifically unoriginal. However, the episode works because — not surprisingly — of all the character moments afforded to DeVito’s Louie, whose discomfort in the second act is pure genius. And the show, as it often does, keeps its headliner, Hirsch’s Alex, in on the action, as Louie goads him into tagging along for moral support. (It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but his presence is always welcome.) Not a true classic installment, but highly enjoyable due to the performances.
07) Episode 39: “Guess Who’s Coming For Brefnish” (Aired: 01/15/80)
Latka falls for Simka, a girl whose people is one of his people’s enemies.
Written by Barry Kemp
Carol Kane, future Taxi regular and recipient of two Emmy Awards for her work, makes her debut in this, a one-off, in which she plays a girl from Latka’s homeland for whom he falls. Unfortunately, his opinion of her is soured when he learns that she’s one of the “Mountain People” the sworn enemies of his people. While Kane’s Simka is already a comedic goldmine, the episode doesn’t bequeath her the same zany stuff that will come to propel her future appearances. But this is a very good Latka episode, furthering the exploration of his otherwise one-note character, and featuring its fair share of laughs. And note all those Grease jokes, which become hysterical with the knowledge of Henner and Conaway’s prior connection to the show. (That’s their voices singing “Summer Lovin’.”)
08) Episode 42: “Shut It Down (II)” (Aired: 02/05/80)
After agreeing to the cabbie’s demands, Louie gets a date with Elaine.
Written by Howard Geritz & Ian Praiser
As the second half of a two-parter, I do recommend that interested parties watch both parts in order. The first half, which is nevertheless solid, just can’t hold a comedic candle to this infamous second part. Why is it infamous? It features a highly regarded scene in which Louie and Elaine kiss. Indeed, it’s a hysterical moment for DeVito and a triumphant one for Louie, who’s been trying to bed Elaine practically since she first arrived in the garage during the premiere episode. But the script is amusing throughout, and gives plenty of worthwhile material to both DeVito and Henner, who usually make for a winning combination due to their antagonistic relationship (and his one-sided attraction). Highly funny, this is a fine episode of Taxi in top form. Memorable.
09) Episode 43: “Alex Jumps Out Of An Airplane” (Aired: 02/26/80)
Alex starts living life to the fullest.
Written by Ken Estin
There are many times in which Taxi reaches a level of beauty that no other series can match. This well written episode, about Alex’s renewed zest for life, is perhaps the best example of Taxi‘s unquantifiable ability to tap into rare human truths. While the structure of the installment is very sketch like, or as the writer described it, “variations on a theme,” the moment in the first act when Alex decides to conquer his fear of performing in public by going to the piano in Mario’s and playing (and singing) “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company is not only remarkably appropriate for the story, but an illustration of the show’s profound exploration of living. Maybe it’s because I’m a musical theatre man, but when I think of Alex Rieger (and the brilliant complexity of Judd Hirsch’s portrayal), I think of this scene.
10) Episode 44: “Art Work” (Aired: 03/04/80)
The cabbies pull together to invest in a valuable painting.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Of all the installments in today’s entry, this offering, which was foolishly excluded in the initial draft of my list, is the one that does the best job of incorporating character moments, and character revealing moments, for every single member of the ensemble. The tag scene, in which Elaine walks around and looks at all the artwork that her friends have purchased is the finest example of an unspoken coda that we’ve yet to see from a situation comedy. Interestingly, the actors were allowed to choose what pieces their own characters would buy, and the result is a truthful, eclectic, and in Louie’s case, hilarious, sequence. Yet the whole episode, with its emphasis on the ensemble and consistently comedic flow, is fantastic; that final moment, however, is divine.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Honor Thy Father,” in which Alex considers reuniting with his ailing father (played by Jack Gilford), “Jim Gets A Pet,” a highly regarded episode (written by David Lloyd) that goes a long way in furthering Jim’s emotional depth, and actually made the initial draft of my favorites — I wish it had a few more laughs — and “Fantasy Borough (II),” which, even though it didn’t officially make today’s list, is the best installment of the first four seasons’ “pick-up shows,” for its campy closing musical number and a brilliant sequence in which Priscilla Barnes plays the object of Alex’s fantasy (who turns out to be his niece). There are at least two other episodes that I really like a lot, but I have to keep the H.M. section trimmed down too! Heck, I’ll tell you anyway: “A Woman Between Friends” and “Alex’s Romance.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Taxi goes to…..
“Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!