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.
The third season of Taxi was plagued not only by the 1980 Actors’ Strike that delayed the start of every series by at least two months, but also the negotiations of the two highest paid stars, Hirsch and DeVito. While the latter only missed a day of rehearsal and settled his contract quickly, Hirsch’s battle was more drawn out, and hindered the start of Season Three’s production, which began well in advance of the strike and would have given the series a head start over the other shows. (As it turned out, only one episode was completed before the strike began in July.) When the strike was settled, the show managed to crank out 22 total episodes — 20 of which aired in this slightly hyphenated season. Despite the rocky start, this collection of offerings is probably the series’ best showing. Not only is the writing at its comedic peak, but the combination of characters, like the second half of Season Two, represents classic Taxi. (And the show won its third consecutive Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy!) Also, the ratio of delights to duds is never higher. Thus, even with a reduced number of choices, I could easily have compiled a list of my 15 favorites. The biggest challenge I had in making today’s list was narrowing things down; so be sure to check out the gem-fileld honorable mentions as well. But before you do that, 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 Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) All episodes this season, except one (noted below), are directed by James Burrows.
01) Episode 47: “Louie’s Rival” (Aired: 11/19/80)
Louie learns that Zena has been seeing another man.
Written by Ken Estin
By the third season, Danny DeVito’s Louie has eclipsed all but Judd Hirsch’s Alex in the unspoken competition over who gets the most material, and that’s no surprise considering the high quality track record of past ‘Louie episodes.’ Like several of his stories from this season (including the marvelous “Louie’s Mother,” which I really wanted to include), the superb comedy is balanced with a desire to probe more of the character’s emotional and psychological underpinnings. In this installment, which sees the return of Rhea Perlman, Louie deals with the heartbreak of learning that Zena has been seeing another man and wants to leave Louie to pursue this other relationship exclusively. As usual, the final scene between Louie and Zena, in which he wins her back, is a tour de force — for both. Great opener.
02) Episode 48: “Tony’s Sister And Jim” (Aired: 11/26/80)
Tony objects when his sister takes a liking to Jim.
Written by Michael Leeson
Julie Kavner, whom you’ll remember as Brenda from our past coverage on Rhoda, guest stars in this Emmy winning episode as Monica, Tony’s classical musician sister whom he tries to pair up with Alex. Unfortunately, she takes a liking to the charmingly strange Jim, who bonds with her over their love of the symphony. In addition to being a well scripted and well acted episode, this installment is blessed with a menagerie of memorable (and funny) moments — chief of which is the scene in which Tony catches Jim at Monica’s place and picks him up by the back of his jeans. (Incidentally, in addition to being known by the MTM folk for her prior award winning work for them, Kavner is, and was at the time of this episode, the longtime paramour of Taxi producer David Davis.)
03) Episode 49: “Fathers Of The Bride” (Aired: 12/03/80)
Alex and Elaine crash his estranged daughter’s wedding.
Written by Barry Kemp
The casting of Louise Lasser as Alex’s overweight ex-wife is one of the series’ smartest, for, like the man playing her fictional former husband, Judd Hirsch, Lasser is a brilliant performer who imbues all of her material with startling realism and believable comedy. Their scene alone near the end of the installment is one of this season’s highlights, and another fantastic episode for our protagonist. Storywise, it’s wonderful to see Alex’s relationship with his daughter, a thread introduced way back in the premiere episode, and the continuity is both rewarding for longtime viewers and memorable for fans of Alex, whose character, once again, is explored intricately in intimate detail — as only this series is able to do. A beautifully written episode with great performances and big laughs. A gem.
04) Episode 50: “Elaine’s Strange Triangle” (Aired: 12/10/80)
Elaine’s new boyfriend is bisexual and likes Tony.
Written by David Lloyd
Burrows won an Emmy for his directing of this groundbreaking installment that has the distinction of using a most original premise. The story has Elaine going out with a man who only approached her because he was after Tony. Bisexuality was still a taboo topic for primetime television at the time of this airing, and not only is it treated without any preaching or “very special episode” moments, but the inherent comedy in the situation posed for our regular cast is well played. Of course, the best scene occurs when Alex goes to a gay hang-out to talk to Elaine’s beau and ends up dancing on the bar at the request of the jubilant crowd. But there is continual comedy in this marvelously constructed offering, and it’s easily among the series’ best — and probably my favorite from this truly excellent season.
05) Episode 51: “Going Home” (Aired: 12/17/80)
Jim takes Alex along as he reunites with his wealthy family.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
In theory, my preference is for episodes that make a concerted effort to make plenty of time for each member of the ensemble, but a lot of the funniest shows involve one or two characters in a separate location. This installment is an example of the latter, as Jim brings Alex along when he goes home to meet his eccentric rich Southern family, which includes a brooding brother, a horny sister, and Victor Buono as his rotund father. Naturally, this Jim episode is brimming with an inordinate amount of laughs, but most enjoyable about this script is all of the new stuff we learn about Jim and his upbringings. For although we saw more of his emotional side in episodes last year, he (like Latka early on) was primarily being used for comedy only. With this one, Jim becomes fully realized.
06) Episode 53: “The Call Of The Mild” (Aired: 01/21/81)
Alex, Tony, Bobby, and Jim are stranded in a mountain cabin.
Written by Katherine Green
My sentiments regarding this episode have wavered back and forth over the years. Initially, I very much enjoyed this installment, enjoying the change of scenery and the freshness of the proceedings. In subsequent viewings, I found myself disappointed that the episode was never as funny as I seemingly anticipated it to be. But the past few times I’ve seen this outing, I’ve been able to appreciate all of the individual character moments, especially the stuff given to Jim, whose prayer over the dead bird is, like last season’s “Jim Gets A Pet,” a profound moment for the character and for the series. So I’m back to understanding why this is a very highly regarded episode, and although it’s not among my absolute favorites (nor do I think it deserves its reputation), I really do watch with unqualified enjoyment.
07) Episode 54: “Latka’s Cookies” (Aired: 02/05/81)
Latka’s grandma’s special cookies have cocaine in them.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
As Taxi slowly begins moving away from the total realism that seemed in play during most of the first two seasons, we find the show going broader, with highly original stories that are designed to contain a lot of large comedy. (In this season, the episodes usually succeed.) This installment, which takes its humor from the fact that all the cabbies get high off of Latka’s grandma’s cocaine-laced cookies, is one of this season’s unashamed funniest. Although much of this can be attributed to the premise rather than any nuances in the script (after all, the story isn’t driven by character), I am blown away by the delicious creativity of having Famous Amos himself visit Latka in a withdrawal-induced hallucination. It’s a beautifully bizarre moment in a beautifully bizarre — and very amusing — episode.
08) Episode 55: “Thy Boss’s Wife” (Aired: 02/12/81)
The boss’ wife targets Louie in her scheme to make her cheating husband jealous.
Written by Ken Estin
Eileen Brennan, one of my favorite comediennes, guest stars in this episode as the wife of Louie’s philandering boss. As Louie explains at the start of the first act, each time Brennan catches her man fooling around, she picks one of the cabbies with whom she can have sex and make her husband jealous — always at the expense of the poor sap’s job once she confesses. After walking in on her husband again, this time she chooses Louie (figuring that this will hurt her husband the most). It’s a very amusing moment, but much of the comedy comes from Louie’s simultaneous desire to bed her and practice self-control to avoid getting fired. It’s a marvelous showcase for DeVito, and Brennan, playing an incredibly lowdown and nasty character, becomes one of the show’s most memorable guest stars.
09) Episode 59: “Zen And The Art Of Cab Driving” (Aired: 03/19/81)
Jim is determined to be the best cab driver he can possibly be.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Episodes centered around Jim are now, with regularity, starting to become some of the series’ most pensive and ponderous, as the character’s spaced out charm makes him a fine candidate for espousing and exploring deeper and more metaphysical themes. This unique installment finds Jim earning record fares in his desire to become the best cab driver that he can be. But the cabbies later learn that this goal was for another purpose — to purchase a whole wall of television and video equipment. Jim’s poetic wonder at all the beautifully mundane and trivial things television has to offer (including the debate about Delawarians and Delawarites) is a commentary on the country’s fascination on the medium. Is television really happiness? It is for Jim… and probably for us as well. Unparalleled.
10) Episode 66: “Latka The Playboy” (Aired: 05/21/81)
The gang is concerned when Latka develops an obnoxious alter ego, Vic Ferrari.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
The show’s kookiest performer, Andy Kaufman, has a field day in this installment, which introduces to the series Latka’s first alter ego, Vic Ferrari, a parody of the obnoxious American swinger — with all his arrogance and self-centeredness. (It’s not too far off from Kaufman’s own alter ego, Tony Clifton.) Needless to say, the incorporation of this character, especially in contrast to Latka, coupled with the rest of the cast’s reactions to him, help earn this episode the honor of being another one of the season’s (heck, even the series’) top-tier funniest. The final scene where Alex tries to get the old Latka back is probably the most satisfying, but rest assured that we’ll be seeing Vic (and another alter ego) in the next season. It’s a fantastic, albeit broad, end to the show’s unquestionable strongest season.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Ten-Percent Solution,” in which Bobby becomes Tony’s manager when the boxer wants to take a stab at acting (a rare standout for fans of both characters), “Elaine’s Old Friend,” in which Alex poses as Elaine’s boyfriend on a date with her snobby high school friend (this is one that I really wanted to include; it’s great for Alex/Elaine fans), “Louie’s Mother,” in which Louie puts his mom in a nursing home, but then soon regrets the decision (an offering good enough to have made the above list, truly — I really wanted to spotlight this one and am almost pained that I had to bump it), and “Louie Bumps Into An Old Lady, in which Louie contests a woman’s claim that she has whiplash from his hitting her with a cab. This season’s “pick-up” two-parter is also worth mentioning, with Louie’s segment in Part II being my favorite.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Taxi goes to…..
“Elaine’s Strange Triangle”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!