10 Taxi episodes that find heart and humor in a dead-end job

10 Taxi episodes that find heart and humor in a dead-end job

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Harvey Pekar, the late author of American Splendor, once said that his impetus for writing comics was the idea that his daily life seemed like a font of material: “Why couldn’t I write about everyday quotidian subjects in comics? Why couldn’t comics be about the lives of working stiffs? We’re as interesting and funny as everyone else.” While a lot of sitcoms are set in a partial fantasy world where money isn’t an issue and characters can get into any sort of high jinks, there’s an equal number of shows that have taken Pekar’s advice and looked at the grind of everyday life as a source of humor. From The Honeymooners to Roseanne to The Middle, it’s always been a part of the genre.

Few shows, however, are able to make it simultaneously real and funny as well as Taxi did. Nominally centered on the employees of the fictional Sunshine Cab Company, Taxi became something more in its five years on the air: a show about frustrated dreams and missed opportunities. A makeshift family of finely drawn characters came together in that dingy New York garage, the overwhelming bleakness of their situation cut with cartoonish surrealism and dogged optimism.

Taxi was the brainchild of James L. Brooks, who’d already done his part to reinvigorate the sitcom format—winning a slew of Emmys in the process—with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Following the end of that show, Brooks formed the John Charles Walters Company alongside fellow Mary Tyler Moore writers Dave Davis, Ed. Weinberger, and Stan Daniels. The new production company’s first show was based on an article Brooks and Davis had read in New York magazine: “Night-Shifting For The Hip Fleet.” Written by Mark Jacobson, the article profiles the drivers for a Greenwich Village cab company—an eclectic mix, most of whom used the job to support less profitable endeavors: They were actually college professors, priests, musicians, artists, writers, etc. Few of them had the desire to be full-time cabbies, but the need for work and a lack of success in their chosen fields kept them coming back to the garage.

Brooks and company captured that feeling with Taxi’s ensemble, carrying over the MTM Enterprises sensibility that favored characters with depth and detail. Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch) was the father figure in the garage, the one who’d (mostly) made peace with the fact he was a Sunshine lifer. He expressed that sentiment perfectly in the pilot: “Me, I’m a cab driver. I’m the only cab driver in this place.” Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) was the single mother holding down two jobs to support her family. Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway) was a struggling actor looking for his big break. Tony Banta (Tony Danza) was a boxer determined to make it big despite a record that encouraged everyone to bet against him. By casting working actors rather than big stars, the Taxi producers conveyed the notion that their characters knew what it was like to look for a break. It was a feeling that allowed all four characters to become remarkably realized as the show went on.

As a counterbalance to this daily-grind realism, Taxi introduced colorful characters who became sitcom icons. Danny DeVito’s Louie De Palma was the unquestioned lord and master of the Sunshine Cab Company, a man feared and loathed by everyone who worked there. Thanks to a personality that eclipsed his short stature, Louie commanded attention from his dispatcher cage. Comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufman—a favorite of the producers—adapted his Foreign Man persona into good-natured mechanic Latka Gravas. Trapped behind a heavy language barrier, Latka became a sort of mascot to the rest of the garage. Introduced in the first-season episode “Paper Marriage,” Christopher Lloyd’s Reverend Jim joined the main ensemble in season two. “The living embodiment of the ’60s,” Jim was a man who’d fried every synapse in his brain—but he was capable of insight at the most unexpected times.

That mix of well-defined characters allowed Taxi to strike a unique balance between heart and humor—a tone established by the opening titles, which set footage of an endless cab ride to the melancholy rhythm of Bob James’ “Angela.” The series built off a framework of realism laid by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, going even further by regularly questioning a sitcom’s obligation to be funny. Episodes were as likely to end on a mournful note—a big break just missed or an unrealized romance—as they were on a punchline. In Hailing Taxi, Frank Lovece and Jules Franco’s official guide to the show, Brooks says the complexity of its characters unintentionally turned Taxi into a “morality play.” That complexity drove the show forward endlessly: Alex’s world-weariness, Elaine’s maternal empathy, Louie’s ruthlessness, Jim’s philosophical side.

“Play” is a term that’s easily applied to Taxi, as it’s a show deeply rooted in dramatic tradition. The show is a prime exhibit in arguments for the lost art of the multi-camera sitcom: In the best episodes, scenes are allowed to breathe and the garage soundstage takes on the feel of a theatrical stage, the audience’s laughter and silence feeding the actors. That sense of presentation was bolstered by the cast’s own stage experience; the majority of its run was directed by James Burrows, who’d worked in theater before helming episodes for a number of MTM sitcoms.

Along with executive producers Glen and Les Charles, Burrows would go on to create Taxi’s spiritual successor, Cheers. But unlike Cheers, Taxi never achieved breakout success. It was a top-10 hit in its first season and collected 18 Emmys over the course of its life—including three consecutive Best Comedy Series wins. But as audience tastes shifted away from darker, blue-collar fare, the show gradually declined in the ratings. It was even canceled at the end of its fourth season on ABC, surviving one more year thanks to a last-minute deal between Paramount and NBC. It’s appropriate: Like the staff of the garage, Taxi hung on against the odds, only wanting one more chance to do the job it was best at.

Here are 10 episodes that get the meter running for a journey into Taxi.

“High School Reunion” (season one, episode seven): The first few episodes of Taxi work well as a series of character pieces, describing what sort of people the cabbies are both on and off the job. The most powerful of these episodes is the one centered on Louie, who’s in low spirits because of an upcoming high-school reunion where he won’t be able to return to his tormenters as the big shot he promised he’d become. Despite Louie’s established status as the terror of the garage, “High School Reunion” sees the cabbies pull around him; for the first time, he seems like a human being rather than a threat. The suggestion that Bobby could pretend to be Louie at the reunion is a classic sitcom idea, but it’s the execution that makes it stick. Bobby-as-Louie is a performance that demonstrates how indelible the character of Louie De Palma was, even in the show’s earliest days—and though Bobby’s acting is treated as questionable, Conaway reveals himself as one of the show’s secret weapons. It’s a definite win for Louie when the entire reunion collapses into anarchy, and in the Taxi universe, every victory needs to be celebrated.

“Memories Of Cab 804” (season one, episodes 21 and 22): “Night-Shifting For The Hip Fleet” details the numerous stories its subjects accumulated over the years, a trait shared by Taxi’s cabbies. When hapless cabbie John Burns (Randall Carver) wrecks the garage’s longest serving cab in this two-part season finale, it prompts his co-workers to share their own “greatest hits” from Cab 804. These are the white-whale stories of the garage, likely embellished over time, but certain to keep a driver warm on cold nights: Bobby wins a standoff with a mugger and charges him for his time. Elaine courts a one-night stand (Tom Selleck) for the ages. Alex stands in for a panicked father (Mandy Patinkin) and delivers a baby in the backseat. Louie manages to bilk an obnoxious preteen out of his entire wallet. (The guest stars also make the two-parter one of the most interesting episodes for modern viewers.) Latka is ultimately unable to get the cab back on the road, but it’s clear the stories will go on for years to come.

“Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” (season two, episode three): With John Burns written off the show after season one, there was a vacancy in the garage—one filled fantastically by Lloyd’s Reverend Jim. Jim was another character whose life had gone far off track, but unlike the other drivers he didn’t seem too bothered by that fact, content to remain in his hazy memories of making macramé couches or being the 500,000th attendee at Woodstock. Jim’s addition to the cast heralded a new level of comedic possibilities for Taxi, turning conversation into vaudeville-esque crosstalk—“Mental illness or narcotic addiction?” “That’s a tough choice.” The “Space Odyssey” scene in which Jim requests help with his written driving test (“What does a yellow light mean?” “Slow down.” “Okay. What… does… a… yellow… light… mean?”) belongs in the top tier of great sitcom moments.

“The Great Race” (season two, episode nine): While Taxi was never as much about the Sunshine Cab Company as, say, Cheers was about the bar, its writers had a firm grasp on the garage’s energy level and knew how to tap into it. This typically occurred when Louie came into conflict with Alex, the sober yin to Louie’s raging yang. “The Great Race” is the best example of this dynamic, as a debate about low bookings leads to a spirited bet over which cabbie can rack up the most earnings in a night. For a few moments, driving a taxi becomes exciting again, as the competitors ferry nuns, inspectors, and tourists around the five boroughs of New York, with Louie’s mercenary approach facing off against Alex’s empathetic side. Fittingly, while Louie racks up the most money in fares, it’s Alex’s people skills that win out: His tips put him on top, reminding the viewers who’s really in charge in the garage.

“Out Of Commission” (season three, episode 12): As much as Taxi loved its characters, it was never afraid to be brutally honest with them. The most devastating of these revelations came to Tony in the third season, when he learns that his boxing career could literally kill him. (This depresses Louie as well: Betting against Tony is his secondary source of income.) Danza—whose own boxing career overlapped with Taxi’s first two seasons—gives his best performance in “Out Of Commission,” waxing nostalgic about perfect combos and managing to appear serious, while sporting a fake mustache and the Puerto Rican alias “Kid Rodriguez.” The show would put Tony back in the ring in later seasons, but “Out Of Commission” plays the development as a very real and permanent change—at no point does it feel like a contrived setback.

“Latka The Playboy” (season three, episode 20): Andy Kaufman expressed no great sentimentality toward Taxi. He was contractually obligated to appear in only 14 episodes per season, and he was often dismissive of the show in interviews. In an effort to keep the star interested, Brooks and company introduced the idea that Latka had developed multiple personalities, allowing Kaufman to play different characters on a regular basis. The most prominent of these personas was Vic Ferrari, who transformed the mild mechanic into an obnoxious lothario. It’s one of the most jarring moves a sitcom has ever made: The notion that sweet Latka could go so overwhelmingly crazy could’ve alienated viewers in addition to the character’s co-workers. However, “Latka The Playboy” grounds itself in Taxi humanism when Vic proves he’s as vulnerable as the rest, begging Alex’s help to get him back to the man he used to be. Ferrari would make a few more appearances, but “Latka The Playboy” marked the only time it felt right for the show to use him.

“Louie Goes Too Far” (season four, episode 10): Taxi portrayed Louie De Palma as the worst person anyone could ever know—unapologetically conniving, greedy, and abusive. And yet there’s humanity underneath it all, which makes him one of the greatest sitcom characters of all time. When a peephole into the women’s restroom pushes Elaine to take action and get Louie fired, he’s forced to grovel at her feet. Louie’s unabashed lust for Elaine ran through the entire series, and her refusal to accept his apology proves how well she understands him: He can say whatever he wants, but she knows he doesn’t understand why he was wrong. It’s a powerhouse moment for DeVito, as Louie is forced to scour his brain for empathy, finally finding it with a story about buying his clothes in the boys’ department. Based on a real-life anecdote from DeVito, the monologue drives Elaine to tears. When Louie uses a hug as an excuse to grab Elaine’s ass, it proves he may have grown in some ways, but he’ll never change.

“Elegant Iggy” (season four, episode 20): For all of Reverend Jim’s burnout qualities, for all the times he was used for a punchline, he always possessed an indefinable sweetness that explained why everyone looked out for him. “Elegant Iggy” puts these traits on display, sending him far out of his comfort zone as Elaine’s date to a high-society party. It’s one of those episodes where everyone’s holding their breath begging Jim not to be Jim-like, but they can’t bring themselves to tell him he should stay home. Turns out their fears are unfounded: Jim procures a mountain of gifts for Elaine, bluffs his way through conversation with socialites, and wows the entire party with heretofore unseen piano talents. (“I musta taken lessons,” he muses in confusion.) The terrifically funny sequence is cut with the sad implication that the evening may have passed Jim by: “Tell me something, Elaine: Did I have a good time?”

“Scenskees From A Marriage” (season five, episodes four and five): Sitcoms go broader as they age, a tendency that affected Taxi’s fifth season. Some of that broadness was owed to the addition of Carol Kane as Latka’s wife, Simka. Kane could match pace with Kaufman when rattling off his invented language, but too frequently her character was used as a vehicle for ridiculous traditions from Latka’s homeland. The best use of those traditions came when Latka sleeps with another woman to ward off hypothermia during a snowstorm; in order to make things right, Simka has to sleep with someone Latka works with. “Scenskees From A Marriage” runs the emotional gamut: There’s the fear over who the unlucky cabbie will be (and Simka’s clear relief it’s not Louie), Simka’s over-the-top efforts to seduce Alex, and the crushing realization that their hearts aren’t really in it. The final suggestion from Jim that Latka and Simka just remarry and move past the transgression evokes a wonderful reaction from the couple, cementing Taxi’s finest hidden truth: Reverend Jim Ignatowski is one of the wisest men in the world.

“A Grand Gesture” (season five, episode 23): Taxi didn’t have the chance to do a proper finale, but its penultimate episode (and the final episode of the series to be filmed) is an appropriate sendoff. Jim, who’s living off a generous stipend from his father’s estate, gives each of the cabbies $1,000 and encourages them to give it away. It’s a perfect ensemble episode, giving each character a chance to shine when they give the money to the people they deem most deserving. Even Louie manages to get in on the action, only to be rebuffed by his assistant, Jeff (longtime supporting cast member J. Alan Thomas). Jeff doesn’t believe Louie is capable of a selfless act; his realization that he is closes Taxi beautifully. Nobody gets to leave the garage for good, but they do walk out feeling better than they did when they walked in. It’s the type of little victory that gets them out of the bed in the morning and sends them out into the street every night, hoping that something new will turn up.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Come As You Aren’t” (season one, episode five); “Paper Marriage” (season one, episode eight); “Louie And The Nice Girl” (season two, episode one); “Wherefore Art Thou, Bobby?” (season two, episode six); “Jim Gets A Pet” (season two, episode 15); “Elaine’s Strange Triangle” (season three, episode four); “Zen And The Art Of Cab Driving” (season three, episode 13); “Vienna Waits” (season four, episode two); “Simka Returns” (season four, episode 15); “Jim’s Inheritance” (season five, episode two).

Availability: All five seasons are available on DVD, and select episodes from the first four seasons are streaming on CBS.com.

Next time: Phil Dyess-Nugent sits down for some intelligent discussion with a panel of The Dick Cavett Show’s 10 most representational episodes.