Taxi came at an odd time in sitcom history. The show premiered in 1978, as workplace comedies that commented on social issues like M*A*S*H were on the decline and exceedingly quirky, low-stakes sitcoms like ALF were on the rise. Yet the show maintained a strong viewership through its end in 1983, the working-class, hopelessly aspirational characters having lived two years under Reagan before bailing.
Unlike a lot of its peers, Taxi is based on something: a 1975 New York feature by Mark Jacobson titled “Night-Shifting for the Hip Fleet,” that profiled several working-class, hopelessly aspirational drivers for the Dover Taxi Garage, located on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. Having seen the show once before, it’s not hard to pick up where the creators and writers of the show were cribbing directly from the article. Suzanne Gagne, the cabbie who asks Jacobson, “I don’t look like a cab driver, do I?” and tells him about her work creating “assemblages” for SoHo galleries? Why, that’s Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner), who in the pilot tells longtime cabbie Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch) that she only drives a cab part-time – she’s really a receptionist at an art gallery. “I understand,” Alex says. “You see that guy over there? He’s an actor. And on the phone? He’s a prizefighter. This lady over here, she’s a beautician. The man behind her? He’s a writer. Me, I’m a cab driver. I’m the only cab driver in this place.” Like Gagne at the Dover, Elaine spends more time at the Sunshine Cab Company – located on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village – than she ever wanted to.
Jacobson wrote of Gagne, “Her eyes still gleam—they aren’t fried from too many confrontations with the oncoming brights on the Queensboro Bridge.” The tired brokenness of the characters is front and foremost in Taxi. From the opening credits – a minute-long meditation on a cab driving on the Queensboro Bridge and never getting anywhere, set to Bob James’ “Angela” – the show feels like many of its characters, a little slow and sad and dark. The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray wrote that the creators of Taxi‘s vision of New York was one “full of false hope, made tolerable by a network of friends.”
All of which makes the show sound like much more of a downer than it really is. It’s still an American sitcom, after all, and not one of the genre-busting ones like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Unfortunately, like most American sitcoms, the pilot is not particularly good and not particularly funny. There’s the rudimentary introduction of the core cast – wannabe actor Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway), dim boxer Tony Banta (Tony Danza), Danny DeVito-like cab dispatcher Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito), mechanic Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman), and a new driver, John Burns (Randall Carver) – who all get about four minutes of screen time, before the episode devotes its A-plot (and only plot) to Alex meeting his estranged daughter in Miami.
Jacobson wrote of the two kinds of cab drivers: The Big Fear cab driver, who started driving part-time for a company and is now trapped in a low-wage hell, and the Cabby, who owns their cab and loves it. No one on Taxi is a Cabby. Small victories are treated as major events; when John discovers that the garage payphone is broken can call anywhere for free, the whole garage sprints to the phone. Bobby calls Laurence Olivier’s secretary; Tony, a massage parlor in Bangkok he frequented while serving in Vietnam. Only Alex stays in his seat. “I have no one to call,” he says, but he does.
It’s an odd choice to set the first episode of the show outside of the garage (which, spoiler alert, is where most of the show takes place), and even stranger to focus on one specific, vulnerable aspect of one character’s life. After a conversation with Elaine – who has just met him, at this point, and really isn’t in any position to be in his business – Alex calls his ex-wife in an attempt to make contact with his teenaged daughter, who’s lived in Rio de Janeiro with her mother and stepfather for most of her life. He learns she’s on her way to college in Portugal (?) and has a layover in Miami. Alex drives to the airport and has a 30-second conversation with his daughter. Taxi is at its best when its characters are allowed to break down a little inside, but the show hadn’t quite figured out how to that; instead, the airport scene ends on an off beat and cuts to Alex cracking wise about the broken pay phone in the garage.
Taxi figures these beats out soon enough, but imperfections aside, it’s not difficult to see the show that Taxi becomes based on its pilot. It’s remarkably true to the pinned-on-the-sleeve heart of the show; each episode, the main takeaway is that these people need each other (maybe even more than regular sitcom characters) because their lives are lonely and hard and they don’t make any money. Indeed, throughout the show, when a character attempts to rise above the rest, they are quickly slapped back down by the powers that be. No one is really allowed to win in Taxi that much, but hey: at least they’re all losers together.