“One Punch Banta”
The second episodes of American network TV shows are, traditionally, just rehashes of things established in the pilot, which is usually shot and edited months before the network even decides to pick up the show or not. Taxi, like in its pilot, decides to eschew the idea that the central characters of a TV show need to be fully introduced by the second episode – we’ve still barely heard from John, played by series regular Randall Carver – to focus on one character.
In “One Punch Banta,” the character we learn about is Louie De Palma, the scummy cab dispatcher. Ostensibly an episode about Tony Banta getting a big shot in his boxing career, the real main takeaway is that Louie De Palma is a scuzzy, unpleasant person who certainly shouldn’t have a management position. Over the course of the show, he and Tony act as special foils to one another. Tony is the kind of simpleton only found in sitcoms, warm and cheerful and dumb like a golden retriever puppy, and Louie is the kind of arch villain only found in sitcoms: a conniving, money-obsessed, capitalistic rat who enjoys profiting off the pain of others. He’s a bit like the Wario of the show, if you think about it. The relationship between Tony and Louie is forever tipped in Louie’s favor, but sometimes Tony surprises him. When Alex Rieger tells Louie that he and the whole garage will be at Tony’s fight against a big-name boxer that Friday night, Louie calls bullshit – but then he’s there in the garage, alone, on Friday night. (Alex’s good-heartedness bites him in the ass, too; he bets $100 he knows he’ll lose to Louie as to whether or not Tony will lose the fight, just so he doesn’t hurt Tony’s feelings.)
Louie’s, uh, demeanor in this episode is not limited to discouraging Tony from following his dreams and becoming the first person to make it out of the garage (to which Louie says: “Nuh-uh! Once a bum, always a bum.”) In no particular order, he tells John (the new driver who I feel I have to keep reintroducing because, who is he??) to never “pick up a cripple,” threatens Latka, who does not speak English, with physical violence in the workplace, and breaks a part of an engine Latka had just fixed because he is a terrible person. He is the ultimate sitcom evil boss, so much worse than Michael Scott or really any regulars from any major shows; he’s more like one of Elaine or George’s bosses from Seinfeld made into a starring character. In the end, though, he’s is right. Tony loses the fight, Alex loses his $100, and everyone returns to the garage, a little worse for wear. Except Louie, of course.
If Taxi could allow its regular characters to be unnaturally cruel to each other (see: Louie to Latka), then it really let them rip into guest characters. In “Blind Date,” Taxi‘s first Very Special Message Episode, Alex, after some over-the-phone conversation and flirting, goes out with Angela Matusa (Suzanne Kent), an operator for Bobby’s answering service. (I have absolutely no idea what an answering service is.) The Big Catch, though: Angela is fat. If it feels like I’m skipping anything in the episode yet, I’m not; we first see Angela at six minutes, thirty seconds into the episode. On her arrival, the studio audience gives a big “Ohhhhhh,” because she is fat. I am not reading into anything here. There is no subtext to be misinterpreted.
It’s not as if the idea at laughing at people because they’re perceived to be overweight has gone away in the time since – hello, Mike & Molly, entering its sixth season on CBS this fall – but television has at least gotten a bit gentler. The script for this episode calls for Kent, a veteran of LA improv troupe the Groundlings and best known for her recurring role as Mrs. Rene on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, to put herself down the entire episode. Indeed, it’s difficult to see why she agrees to go out with Alex. From the moment she’s introduced, she’s hostile, expecting him to be like everyone else who interacts with her and run the other direction. “I’m not exactly beautiful, or even good-looking,” she tells Alex. “I’m plain. Feel free to jump in and stop me at any time.” It doesn’t get much better at the restaurant, where Tony, John, Latka, and Bobby crash the date and giggle about Angela in front of her face.
Alex feels so badly about how awful she felt on the date that he forces himself to show up at her apartment the next night. He explains himself to Elaine by comparing Angela to a “car wreck” he can’t walk away from. Angela is little more than a thin-guilt project to him; when he gets to her apartment, he propositions that they become friends. She asks him, if she loses weight, could she be a romantic pursuit for Alex? He hedges on that question (fatally, as it turns out, but you’ll have to wait until next season for that), but stresses to her that he could be a friend. “So what it is is is,” Angela tearfully stammers, “I could call you whenever I feel like it? If I need advice, I could call you?” An overweight character who could peaceably interact with other people and not be brought to tears by the idea of someone paying attention to them was evidently too much to ask of the writers of Taxi.
Looking elsewhere in the episode, the writers’ biases, or ignorances, are similarly clear. Latka, the mechanic character played by Andy Kaufman, really just has one joke: the concept that he is foreign, and would have different language, ideas, and culture from the Americans in the garage. (At one point in this episode, Louie refers to him as a “foreigner” with a curse on his tongue.) Foreign Man, which Latka is based on, was a goofy nightclub act that launched Kaufman into late-night fame. Alex Pappademas wrote of it on Grantland:
Foreign Man, who hailed from an island in the Caspian Sea, spoke with a thick, unplaceable accent and did jokes and impressions so ineptly you began to feel bad for him. Then he would announce that he wanted to im-ee-tehhht de Elvis Presley, and he’d turn around and do a costume change, and when he faced the crowd again, Kaufman would do his extraordinary Elvis impersonation, an Elvis impersonation even Elvis himself was said to have praised, and people who’d never seen the act before felt amazement and relief. Kaufman’s transformation into Elvis revealed that Foreign Man’s sad, sweaty failure, his abjection, had been just part of the show all along; Elvis released the audience from the discomfort Foreign Man had created, because if Elvis was the reality then Foreign Man was just a mask, and this was somehow comforting.
Andy Kaufman was always just punking us at his own expense, but Foreign Man, as one of his earliest jokes, is also one of his sweetest and most enjoyable (it’s certainly funny, but not altogether comfortable, to watch Jerry Lawler piledrive him). Latka Gravas is the first half of Foreign Man – the poor, pathetic wannabe comedian – without the relief of the second half. As such, the jokes that Taxi make about Latka early on focus on him and not on us; it is enough that he is just simply “foreign.”
“Blind Date” ends with Alex and Angela embracing in her kitchen, him absolved of his guilt at feeling unattracted to her and her having what the show makes it seem like is the first friend she’s had in years. Alex gets to have an emotional victory for playing out his “good guy” fantasy, something which Angela points out to him several times in the episode. Sometimes straight men are just so awful.