At the Sunshine Cab Company on the television series Taxi (1978-1983), everyone comes off a little angry for putting in long hours at an unrewarding job while yearning for something better. Everyone that is except for Alex Reiger (Judd Hirsch), the only practical thinker in the entire garage who declares in the initial episode, "Me? I'm a cab driver. I'm the only cab driver in this place." Like Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners, each week the characters of Taxi would take a new chance at success only to return to the garage defeated but still hopeful about the future.
Taxi was not only one of the best situation comedies of the latter 1970s, it was also one of the most awarded and critically acclaimed. It won 18 Emmys in its five year run (winning the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy the first three of those years), and helped to launch the careers of Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd. The series came into existence solely on the track record of its writer-producers, James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed Weinberger, who had been behind the highly successful Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-offs. The four men decided to leave MTM and form their own production unit at Paramount Studios, which they named John Charles Walters Productions after a sign Weinberger had seen in an English pub. There was no such person at the company, but the name sounded dignified.
Wanting to get away from shows about white collar women workers, James Brooks decided to revive an idea he had with David Davis about doing a show concerned with taxi drivers, an idea once considered in conjunction with Jerry Belson (co-creator of The Odd Couple TV series) before it was abandoned. The producers had persuaded MTM to purchase the rights to an article on cabbies by Mark Jacobson that ran in the June 21, 1976 issue of New York magazine. Grant Tinker of MTM agreed to sell the rights for the article to the new production company for the same amount that he had purchased them for—$1,500.
The part of Alex Reiger was written with Judd Hirsch in mind, but after the failure of his series Delvecchio, Hirsch was reluctant to return to television until he read the show's first script. While Reiger would sometimes be troubled by philosophical questions when not dispensing advice to the others, Louie DePalma (DeVito), the firm's disagreeable, dishonest dispatcher never seemed to suffer from hurt feelings or a troubled conscience.
The DePalma character was originally a minor part until casting director Joel Thurm brought in Danny DeVito who walked into the office in character and quickly came to dominate the show just as he did the garage. By and large, the show resisted using gratuitous insults and wisecracks, with the exception of DePalma, who was given to saying thinks like, "Banta, sometimes I wish you were smarter just so you could see how dumb you are" or "Fill out this form, and I hope you fill it out better than you fill out your pants." DePalma provides the conflict and is the enemy that the other cabbies band against.
Other characters went through changes as well. Tony Danza's Tony Banta character was originally supposed to be a punch-drunk Irish heavyweight rather than an unsuccessful young boxer, while Marilu Henner's Elaine Nardo character was supposed to be a tough-minded Italian woman in her thirties rather than a young, divorced woman looking to make ends meet, but the producers altered the characters to fit the performers they selected.
The characters on the show were realistic, except for Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman), the cheerful mechanic from a mythic foreign country, who was included because the producers had enjoyed Kaufman's stand-up act and wanted to incorporate the kind of material he did into the show. Other characters included an aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conway) unable to land a part, and Reverend Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd), a former hippie burn-out and minister of the "Church of the Peaceful" who seemed off in his own world and had an infinite number of peculiarities. Rev. Jim had been written as a one-shot, and was recruited to become a regular the second season when the shy John Burns' character—played by Randall Carver—was written out of the show.
What makes the show a classic is the enormously high quality of the writing and the acting that went into the series. Taxi, like M*A*S*H, found a way to bring humor to what would often be potentially tragic situations. The characters are often estranged from other family and by being co-workers become friends, forming an unlikely family of their own. Hirsch was particularly adept at picking out subtle, perceptive nuances in his performances, while Kaufman, Carol Kane (who played Latka's wife Simka), and Christopher Lloyd were simply off-the-wall wacky and amusing. The entire cast was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 1979.
Left alone by the network and given a good time slot, Taxi started off as a resounding success, finishing its first two seasons in the top twenty. However, in the third season, ABC moved the series to Wednesday night and saw the ratings fall off. When it was moved to Thursdays the following season, it did even worse, falling to 53rd place, and it was soon canceled despite its Best Comedy Series Emmy wins.
Strangely enough, Grant Tinker left MTM in 1981 to become the head of the NBC Network, where he promoted the idea of quality programming. He beat out a bid from HBO for giving the series a second chance, and Taxi was picked up by NBC for its fifth and final season. (DeVito recorded a promo as DePalma snarling, "Same time, better network!").
Unfortunately for the show's followers, the numbers remained low. The following September when the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences presented the series with three Emmys, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series winner Hirsch quipped, "Don't they know we've been canceled?" In accepting his award, Hirsch declared, "If you can't get it out of your mind, if you have to keep giving laurels to us, then you should put it back on the air." However, there was to be no second reprieve, though the series proved very successful in syndication.
Lovece, Frank, with Jules Franco. Hailing Taxi. New York, Prentice-Hall, 1988.
Sorensen, Jeff. The Taxi Book: The Complete Guide to Television's Most Lovable Cabbies. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best in Prime-Time Comedy. New York, Collier Books, 1987.