Taxi made its debut in 1978, just as television audiences were abandoning squalid urban workplace comedies for the jiggle-heavy fantasies of the fabulous wealthy. The show never became a runaway hit, but it lasted five seasons because the behind-the-scenes talent, including producer James L. Brooks and director James Burrows, watched sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show and learned how to cut sophisticated banter with warmth and wackiness. Late-'70s audiences were fed up with watching motley losers trade existential quips, but they still tuned in to Taxi to catch Andy Kaufman's elfin mechanic, Danny DeVito's loutish dispatcher, and Christopher Lloyd's disengaged acid casualty. The weirdoes fought with the straights for camera time, and often won.
Lloyd only appears in one of the 22 episodes on the three-disc Taxi: The Complete First Season set, and Kaufman and DeVito haven't yet become as cartoonish as they would by the time the show went off the air in 1983. In 1978 and '79, Taxi mainly stayed low-key, building small stories out of the cabbies' money troubles or their offbeat passengers while dealing more honestly and humorously with the indignity of a service economy than any American sitcom of its era. Taxi was also anchored by two of the most fully realized characters in television history: Marilu Henner's brassy, sensuous, privately insecure single mother, and Judd Hirsch's wry, compassionate working-class intellectual. In an era of sensitive sitcom heroes like M*A*S*H's Alan Alda, Hirsch played a sweet guy with a deep cynical streak, masking a criminal lack of ambition.
Reviewing the pilot episode—a poignant story about Hirsch using a busted payphone to call the daughter he hasn't seen in 15 years—critic Tom Shales wrote, "The quality of the dialogue is particularly good… not just rapid-fire gags or exchanges but lines that delineate characters and states of mind." In fact, much of the comedy on Taxi works cumulatively, as Tony Danza's dim boxer and Jeff Conaway's brash actor deliver lines that are only funny because of what the audience already knows about the characters. The personable cast carries the creators' vision of a New York full of false hope, made tolerable by a network of friends. And then there's that Bob James theme song, so pretty and forlorn, playing in the opening credits over an endless shot of a cab crossing a bridge and never getting anywhere. It's the whole mood and meaning of the show, established in less than a minute.