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Taxi asks, “How much of a sitcom needs to be comedic?”

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next three installments focus on episodes with musical sequences.

“Substitute Father” (Taxi, season one, episode 22; originally aired 5/15/1979)
In which the Sunshine Cab Company adopts its own “Sonny Boy”…

(Available on YouTube)

Erik Adams: So far, this edition of the Roundtable has focused exclusively on the last 20 years of TV history. The oldest episode we’ve discussed was a Frasier from 1996; the last two weeks dealt with musical episodes that aired after Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “Once More, With Feeling,” the prototype for integrating song and dance into a non-musical universe in the post-Sopranos era. My original pick was the Rocko’s Modern Life Earth Day special, “Zanzibar!,” but after a while it just seemed like more of the same. Besides, we already looked at a toe-tapping installment of a cable cartoon that glanced sideways at suburbia, and it nearly ripped our little Roundtable asunder. (Also, the other Rocko’s Modern Life short that’s paired with “Zanzibar!,” “Fatal Contraption,” features no songs. In fact, it features no character dialogue at all. It’s “Once More, With Feeling” and “Hush” in a single half-hour.)

Frankly, it makes more sense to go back to a TV period when Frasier Crane was but a twinkle in Glen and Les Charles’ eyes. The sight of a character sitting down to pound out a tune at the piano or make a swipe at being a star in the music biz is a longstanding TV tradition—it’s only recently that it’s assumed such highfalutin’ thematic weight or put on theatrical airs. Just the other day, I found myself flipping between I Love Lucy’s “The Operetta”—in which Lucy’s spendthrift ways result in her women’s league operetta being dismantled by repo men mid-performance—and a Petticoat Junction repeat that ended with the Shady Rest crew and an out-of-town visitor gathering around the upright for a parlor-room sing-along. (Apparently that kind of thing happened a lot during the show’s later years; Petticoat Junction’s tortured production history and demise at the hand of CBS’ “rural purge” would make for an interesting 100 Episodes piece down the line.) The TV archives are positively littered with discarded Bodine-O-Phones and characters who can fit the Johnny Bravo suit. 

Ultimately, I didn’t end up reaching that far back. I went with an episode that shares some DNA with “Look Before You Leap” (as well as the Roundtable’s old stomping grounds, Cheers), from another series written and produced by the Charles brothers: “Substitute Father,” one of the final episodes of Taxi’s first season. 

Befitting Taxi’s laid-back, character-driven storytelling, the musical sequence in “Substitute Father” doesn’t call much attention to itself. In fact, it takes place apart from the main body of the episode entirely: If “Substitute Father” were made today, the sozzled rendition of “Sonny Boy” led by Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito) and Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch) would be reserved for the post-episode tag. Here, it’s the moon-eyed denouement to a story that finds the men of the Sunshine Cab Company watching after the son of fellow driver Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner), each taking a unique shine to the kid. Struggling actor Bobby Wheeler (the late Jeff Conaway) opens up to the boy, Jason, after he relays some positive reviews from Elaine; palooka-with-a-heart-of-gold Tony Banta (Tony Danza) gives up his Jason-induced panic when he realizes he can spend his time with the kid doing what he used to as a youth: punching. (Relax. He takes the boy to the boxing gym.) 

Unfortunately, what they’re actually supposed to be doing with Jason is helping him study for a citywide spelling bee. When he’s felled by a wily noun (“vermeil”) that’s beyond the swath of the dictionary he’s memorized, the guys take it hard—another disappointment in lives built on the stuff. Never mind that they proved their true worth as father figures. They let the kid down, they let Elaine down, and so they let Louie’s bottle of 12-year-old Scotch down their throats, which sets the stage for a little Al Jolson.

I love the understated elements of the performance: The way Louie bursts into song after a few silent beats suggests a genuine spontaneity, and though Alex’s call-and-response routine is as musty as the song itself, Hirsch’s slow trudge toward DeVito’s lap deserves the laughs it gets from the studio audience. Swinging his cup around and hitting his consonant sounds hard (no “boy’s soul”/“boy’s hole” confusion on this one), DeVito hams it up, but in a way that the legitimately soused are wont to do. And at the end of the song, Conaway, Danza, and Randall Carver (in his final credited appearance as college boy John Burns) all gather around to join in on a climactic, rough-hewn harmony. It’s a delightful testament to what they’ve gone through during the previous 23 minutes, a series of events that takes them from co-workers to participants in a five-way custody and back again. The characters take a lot of actions as a collective in “Substitute Father,” hence Tony’s brilliantly dunderheaded follow-up to Alex’s comment about getting over-excited at the spelling bee: “Yeah, we’re his father.”

I’m going to guess that the placement of “Sonny Boy” inspired some anxiety in viewers who are seeing this episode for the first time, a certain “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” sensation regarding the musical sequence. (And maybe even some concerns that this was the wrong episode.) My main question to the group: Does “Sonny Boy” feel like it belongs with the rest of this episode? Is it an effective way of articulating the emotions the cabbies don’t seem to have the words for after Elaine returns for Jason? And have our expectations for musical sequences where musical sequences don’t normally go reached the point where a relatively quiet moment like this lacks impact? Or is it more effective in its lack of bluster?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: God, how I loved this show when I first caught up with it, in reruns, in the mid-’80s. It seemed casually sophisticated in a way that nothing else on primetime TV did then, and not too many things have since. Part of that came down to the way the writers were willing to try things that came from far out of left field, but the actors worked together with such skill and conviction that the episodes held together without ever seeming scattershot. 

This isn’t my favorite episode of the series—none of the ones from the first season are. (The first season had a tendency to fall back on sentimental hugging-and-learning moments, such as the line from Judd Hirsch here that elicits an “Awww!” from someone in the studio audience. This probably helped put it over with critics, though once the show was going full speed, it dropped those kinds of scenes like a hot rock.) But the closer here is one of my favorite scenes. At its best, the show—which had Andy Kaufman adapting his stage act to a sitcom role and people like Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, and the late Lenny Baker dropping in to fill its guest spots—had an off-Broadway feel amid the polished cartoon brashness of most of the network TV of its time. There’s a weird beauty in the way this story morphs into first a rap session and then a revue number. It’s perfect for these people, and like a lot of Taxi at its best, it sums up the enduring appeal of New York at a moment when the city itself was on the verge of imploding. In the context of both the city these people live in and the TV schedule they were part of, it’s a little break from all the pushiness.

Genevieve Koski: As to your first question, Erik, I think “Sonny Boy” definitely works—much better than the discussion between the five guys that precedes it, in my opinion. It’s not that the “What have we learned today?” wrap-up between the five guys over a bottle of Scotch is terrible, or terribly out of place in a show like Taxi, but it’s very static and stagy in a way that calls attention to its efforts to wrap things up following Elaine and Jason’s exit. Now, granted, “Sonny Boy” wouldn’t have really worked without that initial bout of inebriated feelings-sharing. But on an emotional level, it works better as a conclusion, walking the fine line between sentiment and comedy more ably than Alex’s concluding observation that raising kids is hard, but if all you get out of it is the occasional hug, hey, it’s not such a bad deal. That very well may be true, but stating it so explicitly, and in such an incongruously macho environment, is just kind of awkward. Ironically, Louie’s clumsy, Scotch-soaked performance turns out to be much more graceful and affecting.

Setting aside the musical component for a moment, I enjoyed “Substitute Father,” which I hadn’t seen before (I’ve seen a fair amount of Taxi, but just the episodes deemed marathon-worthy by Nick At Nite schedulers in the ’90s), as a whole for its take on parenting. The idea of a “fun parent” and a “mean parent” is a pretty familiar sitcom convention, but it’s usually seen in family sitcoms—like The Simpsons or Modern Family, to cite a couple more current examples. This episode takes the idea behind that—the idea that a parent can be a kid’s friend, but also occasionally has to be a parent—and injects it into more unusual circumstances. I’m not sure how sound Elaine’s idea to leave her young child in the care of a bunch of childless bachelors overnight is (but hey, it was the ’70s, I wasn’t there, what do I know?), but the results are well-realized. There’s a little bit of the requisite fearful overreaction—oh God, kids, what do I do??—on the part of Tony, but all of the guys quickly realize that being around kids can be an awful lot of fun, provided all you have to do is hang out and be their pal. However, none of them are prepared for—or perhaps even aware of—the other side of the coin, the one that requires you to be the bad guy and make the kid study. Interestingly, Jason himself sort of fills this role, or tries to, though his halfhearted reminders to his babysitters that he has to study can’t stand up to their enthusiasm to hang out with their new playmate. As a character, Jason is kind of a weenie (especially that whole “It was my fault, mom” B.S.), but it’s interesting to see the range of parental-like reactions he inspires in his temporary guardians: fear, curiosity, wonder, loyalty, wistfulness. Which is what makes “Sonny Boy,” a song that evokes all those emotions, such a fitting epilogue.

Ryan McGee: I’ll be the outlier here and say that I quite liked the scene involving the five men after Jason leaves. As several of you have pointed out, it’s so on-the-nose that you half expect that “The More You Know” rainbow to appear on the edges of the screen. However, one of my favorite aspects of Taxi is its melancholy. In this case, the letdown that occurs after Jason’s departure naturally flows from the highs each man experienced in sharing a little piece of his life. Had Jason never showed up, none of these men would be feeling the loss they do in that scene. And while the lifestyle depicted in this show doesn’t always offer much chance for real introspection, the time allotted to these men to admit just how incredible it would be to be a father is downright heartwarming. It’s not the type of scene I’d like to see every week; such moments turn into part of the larger narrative machinery rather than an exception that proves the rule. (It’s probably why season five’s “Jim’s Inheritance” haunts me in ways few other episodes do.)

What those final five minutes raise is a question that in many ways is more relevant than ever: To what extent do we tolerate non-comedic elements in our half-hour shows? (I’m borrowing this phrase from Todd’s analysis last year, although I’ve offered up thoughts like this myself as well in the past.) At the time Taxi aired, one simply had to call programs of that length “sitcoms.” But even by the time Scrubs, which we’ll cover next week, was in full swing, there were plenty of programs taking the 30-minute slot and filling it with as much pathos, angst, anger, and sorrow as any hourlong drama. Are we inherently resistant to the type of moralizing in those final moments because of the execution or its very placement within an episode of Taxi itself? In this particular case, despite being higher on that scene than most here, I can see how its execution is less than perfect. But the metric of “How much did it make me laugh?” is still applied to Girls, Louie, Wilfred, and a host of other programs, persisting as the dominant way of determining the success of an episode of TV. I like shows that take the format and do more than try to make people laugh. And while I did laugh quite a bit while watching it, that final non-musical scene will stick with me longer than anything else.

Noel Murray: Like Phil, I watched Taxi fairly obsessively in syndication in the ’80s, and yet I had zero memory of this episode—perhaps because it’s not an especially flashy or wacky one. There’s no Reverend Jim, since he wasn’t a regular yet. No Latka, for reasons unknown. And very little Elaine, which may be the real reason why this one never stuck with me. (I kind of had a crush on Marilu Henner when I was a teenager.) Yet I liked “Substitute Father” a great deal, even though it’s a decidedly softer Taxi. The show could be profoundly sentimental at times—Ryan mentioned one of my own favorite episodes in that regard, “Jim’s Inheritance”—but this one is sentimental in a different way, in keeping with its focus on a child. Even Louie is a gentler crank, not as cartoonishly awful (in a good way) as he’d eventually become. The humor stems a lot from Jason’s non-precocious reactions to the Sunshine crew. When one of them nervously asks, “You’re a kid, huh?” Jason answers, “I try.” When asked “What do you wanna eat, kid?” he answers, “Food.” Those are believably kid-like jokes.

They’re also very true to what it feels like to be an adult, entertaining a youngster. Even we parents, who are used to our own broods, often feel like we’re onstage for long stretches, whether we’re trying to impart stern life lessons or we’re trying to make sure that our kids have a happy, memorable day. No wonder then that the guys all get drunk and sing at the end of this episode. What else could they do with all that residual actorly energy?

Donna Bowman: I never expected to hear a distinct echo from Renaissance Florence in the mouth of Judd Hirsch. And yet his speech at the end of the episode (“What about all the money, not to mention all the worry and heartache that goes into it? It never ends! What’s it all for? What’s the best you get out of it?”) could have been lifted directly from Book One of Leon Battista Alberti’s I Libri Della Famiglia, a 15th-century dialogue about fatherhood. As Lionardo, a swinging bachelor, expounds how joyful and easy it is to raise excellent sons, his brother Adovardo pipes up every few pages to interject some reality into the proceedings. “I think I might soon show you that with children of every age, a father has not a few troubles,” he deadpans, before discussing illness, waywardness, vanishing prospects, and the constant fear and anxiety parents suffer in knowing that fortune, a fickle and unpredictable force, might desert their offspring despite all efforts to procure advantages for them. Lionardo’s rosy moral admonitions are supposed to be taken seriously, but I find myself siding with Adovardo—not because my kids give me any grief, but because I know that this state of affairs is not due to my excellence as a parent, but to sheer dumb luck.

This episode really won me over (although I respect Taxi tremendously, I’ve never been a student of the show) with its crackerjack acting and warm, humane perspective on the stagy setting and the schticky characters. Just look at the gag with Louie trying to get the attention of the trio as they search for an emergency babysitter for Jason. DeVito’s prompting coughs are huge, wet hacks, and Alex immediately seizes on the opportunity to send him into paroxysms by affecting deliberate cluelessness. The punchline—“Nah, I don’t want Jason to catch his cold”—delivers classic rimshot satisfaction, but not at Louie’s expense, as the gang immediately lets him in on the joke during the fadeout.

Todd VanDerWerff: Taxi’s one of my favorite shows to point to when it comes to arguing that the multi-camera sitcom can feel as moving and modern and artful as the single-camera sitcom (an argument I make so often that I can feel myself turning into a cranky old man). And while “Substitute Father” is nowhere near one of my favorite episodes of the show, it exemplifies much of the way the series worked in that regard, at least for me. It’s quiet and almost stately at times, and it’s driven by the characters’ uncertainties and doubts as much as it is by big punchlines and jokes. That quietude slowly seeped out of the multi-camera sitcom over the years, and I’ve always liked the way that Taxi echoed those plays so beloved by college-theater groups and community-theater companies—plays that take place in a single location where a group of characters work, then follow them through a workday (or two or three). It’s memorable and not particularly fussy and often just fun to watch.

As for the musical sequence (or the scene preceding it), I don’t have all that much to add. What I like about it is the way it contributes to the loose feeling of the episode as a whole. Noel mentions up top that it feels almost off the cuff, meant to fill time at the end of a long season when everybody involved probably just wanted to get on with the hiatus. But that gives it an almost joyous immediacy, too. These guys have found themselves in the bottom of their cups and in this song, and that will be enough for now. Taxi was never again as popular as it was in this season. It sank down the Nielsen charts, and finally died an unfortunate death on a channel other than the one that first picked it up, which was seen as a harbinger of the networks abandoning quality TV. (Its timeslot partner that season? Cheers, the whole reason this little group got together in the first place.) But the show was discovered and fondly remembered by those who happened upon it in syndication, and I’ve always seen it as the perfect show to watch at 3 a.m., something to stumble upon when you can’t sleep, and TV needs to be not just a way to deaden your senses, but a kind of balm as well.

Stray observations:
No offense to Randall Carver, but John is lost in Taxi’s world. You can feel the writers trying to elbow him out of “Substitute Father,” all the while thinking, “Too bad we can’t work that acid casualty who oversaw Latka’s green-card marriage into this.” (Or Latka himself, for that matter.) [EA]

Randall Carver got a bad break. (According to Wikipedia, he’s now a real-estate investor in the San Fernando Valley who “has appeared in a religious docudrama that sometimes turns up on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.” Also, he was in There Will Be Blood.) There’s nothing especially wrong with his sweet-schmuck character, except that he’s extraneous; he’s too obviously there because someone thought the audience needed an innocent to identify with, and the show already had its perfect audience-identification character in Alex, the middle-aged guy who’s the only one of the cabbies who identifies himself as a cab driver, not as someone on the way to something better. To achieve full strength, Taxi needed Christopher Lloyd’s Reverend Jim and Latka and, eventually, Carol Kane as Mrs. Latka; but it never felt as if it needed John, even when he was supposed to be at the center of an episode. (The John episode that I remember best is the one where he impulsively gets married, and it belongs to Dolph Sweet in the role of John’s his father-in-law.) [PDN]

Crimson carpeting, exaggerated geometric patterns, utilitarian yet artful placement of a vertical “EXIT” on the doors: Yep, that’s definitely a school auditorium that was remodeled in the 1970s. [EA]

Danny DeVito still has his uses, I suppose, but like his frequent collaborator Jack Nicholson, he turned into a self-conscious, self-congratulatory institution a while back, and it’s amazing to see him back when he was still an actor creating characters. As Erik points out, his hamminess during the song is in character, and so is his behavior when he’s on the phone taking the complaint from the woman a cabbie insulted (“How fat are you?”) or telling Jason that it can be tough when you don’t have a father to teach you to drink or use rough language. If DeVito played those scenes today, he’d play them as an impish troublemaker who delights in knowingly being bad, for the audience’s delectation. But Louie is just a guy who’s so unsocialized that, at the end of the day, he’s kind of winning. [PDN]

I know it’s the late ’70s, but I think three is the maximum number of undone buttons allowed in the presence of children, Jeff Conaway. [GK]

I liked the detail of the guys looking over to the judges’ table for confirmation of the correct spelling after every word. As a fairly terrible speller—hey, I grew up in the era of spell check!—I sympathize. [GK]

Sticking with the melancholy theme of my analysis—my word, that’s a semi-depressing theme song, no?—it feels like the person riding in that cab just woke up after a night spent in hell and is returning to his barely-worth-it existence on the other side of the bridge. [RM]

It’s funny that you should mention waking up with regard to Bob James’ “Angela (Theme From Taxi),” Ryan. I’ve always associated that flute intro and the sound of James’ electric piano with falling asleep in the backseat of my parents’ car, thanks to the song’s heavy rotation within the playlist of the Detroit-area late-night radio show Pillow Talk. The vibe of the track is so nocturnal—and so closely tied to half-remembered visions of headlights and illuminated signs streaking by—that it’s always been odd to me that the Taxi opening takes place during the day. [EA]

I’ve written a few times about the Taxi opening credits, which are maybe my favorite in all of TV history. The music of Taxi in general feels like being lost inside of a Steely Dan song, which is a place I very much like to be. [NM]

Of all the proscenium sets in sitcoms of this time, the Taxi set might be my favorite. It’s relatively uncluttered downstage, but has a wealth of information along the peripheries that makes it feel lived in. [RM]

I’d be curious to know the origin of that musical tag. It almost feels like the episode was running short and they threw the whole scene together at the last minute, kind of like how Andy Griffith and Don Knotts used to on The Andy Griffith Show. That’s one of the reasons I love TV so much. [NM]

Maybe I’m more attuned to accents after writing a whole For Our Consideration essay about them, but it seemed to me like Henner was doing more of an exaggerated “New York” voice in her scenes here. [NM]

Was anybody else sure that Jason would be bounced in the first round? Finishing second in a district-wide spelling bee is really nothing to be embarrassed about. (That said, as someone who sweats through his shirt every time his son is at a Quiz Bowl tournament, I identified with the guys’ anxiety.) [NM]

I’m with Noel; I was certain that, after the buildup of Jason’s thwarted attempts to study and the vigor of his cheering section, he would flop on the first word. Why didn’t somebody tell him that first runner-up is awesome? On the other hand, I’m glad that the episode was more about the experience of the men making such an investment in the kid, rather than the kid feeling like he let himself down. [DB]

I could swear I’d never set eyes on John, the Sunshine Cab Company’s blandest member, before this moment. So his defining character traits were that he was a) married, and b) kinda dim? [DB]

I do so miss the MTM house style of putting the “star credits” in the closing credits, then showing a representative shot from the episode that just ended. (Taxi was a Paramount production, but its brain trust involved most of the guys who’d made MTM what it was, so it counts.) [TV]

Next week: Ryan McGee directs the Sacred Heart Singers as they learn “Everything Comes Down To Poo” (and other important life lessons) in Scrubs’ “My Musical.” (It’s available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon.) After that, we bring the curtain down with readers’ choice, so start making the case for your favorites here; we’ll collect the nominees and post a poll Friday.