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Taxi (ABC-NBC 1978-1983, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza)



They weren’t really taxi drivers—they just played them until something better came along. TV had done the whole workplace sitcom thing before (The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and others), but Taxi set its comedy in a workplace nobody really liked: the Sunshine Cab Company in New York City. Driving a cab was unglamorous enough, but driving for the cruelest man in sitcomdom made it worse. It was no big surprise that most of the fleet was looking for a shot at bigger dreams, but while they were there, the Sunshine Cab drivers made Taxi some of the funniest sitcom fare ever to hit prime time TV.

It certainly helped that Taxi had a dream team of writer/producers and actors, both the already famous and those that would be soon. The show’s creators—Ed. Weinberger, David Davis, Stan Daniels and James L. Brooks—were all veterans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the writing staff included the future minds behind Cheers and The Simpsons. On the screen, the Sunshine Cab Company featured a lineup of familiar and soon-to-be-familiar faces: Judd Hirsch, Jeff Conaway, Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, Randall Carver, Andy Kaufman, Christopher Lloyd, Carol Kane and J. Alan Thomas. In rock and roll, there’s a general understanding that supergroups usually disappoint, but on Taxi, the whole was even greater than the sum of its parts.

Hirsch’s Alex Rieger set up the show’s dynamic in Taxi’s first episode with the quote at the top. Alex was the only real cabbie of the bunch, a lifer with a world-weary outlook but a soft spot for a friend in need. Most of the other cabbies all had bigger plans: Bobby Wheeler (Conaway) wanted to be an actor, single mom Elaine Nardo (Henner) worked in an art gallery by day, Tony Banta (Danza) was a big-hearted boxer, and John Burns (Carver) was a naïve college student from the Midwest. The only one who seemed happy to be there was mechanic Latka Gravas (Kaufman), an oddball from ‘the Old Country’ (we never found out which one) whom we just assumed was happy because he was always so cheerfully clueless.

Lording over these assembled service workers was black-souled Louie De Palma (DeVito). Protected inside his wire dispatcher’s cage, De Palma delighted in breaking spirits and crushing dreams, and he did it well. This wasn’t your typical sitcom crusty boss with a heart of gold; this was a crusty boss with a heart of dead puppies.

Alex was a sort of moral center to the show (with Louie as an amoral center), but Taxi was a pure ensemble comedy. Latka was the most catchphrase-ready of the bunch (‘Tank you veddy much’), but everyone got a chance in the spotlight: Tony’s fight against an ex-champ trying to win one more for a boy in a wheelchair, Bobby’s soap opera gig that ended up on the cutting room floor, John’s whirlwind marriage to Suzanne Caruthers (after one very effective pickup line), Elaine’s unwanted date with Louie to settle a cabbies’ strike (and one well-remembered good night kiss), Alex’s various doomed dates, and more.

John left the Sunshine Cab Company after Taxi’s first season, but his place was ably filled by a former guest star: Reverend Jim Ignatowski (Lloyd). The burned-out hippie holdover had been called in to officiate in Latka’s emergency wedding to a prostitute (to help him stay in the country, of course) during the first season, and ‘Iggy’ fit so well into the mix that the producers decided to make him a regular. Jim even got a cab of his own after barely passing the driver’s exam (‘Whaaaaaat dooooes theeee yellooooow liiight meeeeean?’). Around this time, assistant dispatcher Jeff Bennett (Thomas) began to play a bigger role on the show as well, but the lineup of regulars wasn’t quite complete.

In the show’s second season, Latka fell in love with a girl from his homeland, Simka Dahblitz (Kane). After getting over the fact that she was one of the ‘mountain people,’ the mechanic fell in love, and after two more seasons of on-and-off romance (along with the exorcism of Latka’s swinging alter ego, Vic Ferrari), Latka and Simka were married and the ‘nik nik’ began in earnest.

Not that outlandish Old Country-ites were the only ones feeling the romance bug… Alex and Elaine had a long-running relationship tease, and on a getaway vacation to Europe, the two made at least a temporary love connection. Even Louie wasn’t quite past feeling, showing an unimaginable soft side in his unlikely romance with candy-machine girl Zena Sherman (played by DeVito’s real-life wife, Rhea Perlman).

No matter who got an episode’s focus, Taxi was comic dynamite, and the show was well-rewarded with Emmys—including three in a row for Outstanding Comedy Series. Taxi was also a Top-10 Nielsen hit, but its ratings faded a bit after losing its lead-in from Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and Three’s Company. ABC moved the show around on its schedule, then finally dropped it after the 1981-82 season.

Taxi was still enormously popular with critics and with its core fans, however, and NBC immediately snatched up the rights. One more season of new episodes followed, but NBC cancelled Taxi for good in 1983. The show went out with a flourish, winning three more Emmys that year, and ‘Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series’ Judd Hirsch offered a final blast at the network during his acceptance speech, claiming they should put the show back on the air.

Nobody took up Hirsch’s offer, but in hindsight, maybe they should have. Today, Taxi is considered one of the true sitcom greats, and syndicated reruns have been enormously popular. Sadly, Andy Kaufman’s premature death in 1984 dashed hopes of a full-scale Taxi comeback, but the rest of the cast (minus Danza) reunited for an appearance in the 1999 Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. In honor of the film’s release, Taxi marathons popped up on cable television, reminding everyone out in TV land that sometimes, the worst job in the world makes for the best in ensemble TV comedy.

production details
USA | ABC (later NBC) – Paramount – John Charles Walters | 112×30 minutes 1×60 minutes | 12 September 1978 – 10 June 1982 (ABC) and 30 September 1982 – 20 July 1983 (NBC)

Creators: James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis, Ed Weinberger

Danny DeVito as Louie De Palma
Tony Danza as Tony Banta
Judd Hirsch as Alex Reiger
Jeff Conaway as Bobby Wheeler
Marilu Henner as Elaine O’Connor-Nardo
Andy Kaufman as Latka Gravas
Carol Kane as Simka Dahblitz Gravas(82-83)
Randall Carver as John Burns(78-79)
Christopher Lloyd as Rev Jim ‘Iggy’ Ignatowski