Taxi was one of the many traditional sitcoms that revolved around “let’s find an excuse for a bunch of strange characters to converse with each other in a central location.” Gonna give you a second to guess where this one takes place. Most of you probably correctly guessed that it’s the fleet garage of the Sunshine Cab Company, and the cast are the employees. The guys who did this episode, director James Burrows, and Producers the Charles Brothers, would later create another, similar show, called Cheers. The writer of this show, James L. Brooks, wrote several episodes on this list, including the number 1, and, of course, was the guy who helped Matt Groening make the Simpsons. So, you know, there was a lot of talent off-screen.
On-screen, Alex Geiger (Judd Hirsch) is the cynical protagonist, and the only one who acknowledges that he drives a cab for a living, and not for a side project. Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway) is the struggling actor with big dreams. Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) is the working mother of two. Tony Banta (Tony Danza) is a veteran and failed boxer (one of his only wins was when the opponent tripped on the ropes and knocked himself out).
Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman) was a foreign mechanic and an excuse for Andy Kaufman to be insane. Of course, he’s Andy Kaufman, so it worked out pretty well. Perhaps most brilliantly, because Andy Kaufman chose to make up his own country, language, and customs which don’t really resemble any actual country, it doesn’t come off as racist or insensitive even if you watch it today.
Louie De Palma (Danny De Vito) is… I don’t exactly know how to describe him. He’s the bad guy, most of the time. He’s a scumbag, but he’s also so funny that you find yourself loving him. TV Guide ranked him as the best character of all time, and the fact that he was hard to nail down into an archetype at the time he was created is part of why. Now, there are other characters that act like him, but the archetype they’re following is Louie De Palma.
All of these characters, even Latka, have a sort of air of sadness or futility surrounding them. That’s really one of the themes of the first season of the show, the fact that only our protagonist, Alex, has actually come to terms with his lot in life. He’s a cab driver. He has no higher aspirations. The others are all just shown to be people who want to be better, but keep getting swatted back into their place by life. Then, this episode happens in the second season, and slightly changed the show’s dynamic by dredging up a former guest character by the name of the Great Reverend Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd).
Jim Ignatowski is the waste of potential that comes from being wasted. He is an unbelievably intelligent former Harvard student, but he partied so hard in the 60s that, by the 70s, he now is a homeless street preacher. Despite the fact that he is seen as being spaced out most of the time to the point that he’s basically useless or childish, Jim’s biggest redeeming factors are that he is usually happy, he has one of the biggest hearts of any characters on television, and, because it’s Christopher Lloyd, he is freaking hilarious. This episode both re-introduces him as a main character, and contains some of the best scenes the character ever got.
The main characters run into Reverend Jim, and find out that he’s lost his unofficial church. Jim recounts his history as a “living embodiment of the 60s,” as well as some of his past and present issues, saying “I kept finding God all over, but he kept ditching me.” Feeling sad for him, they decide they’re going to get him a job as a taxi driver. What follows is one of the best routines ever, as the cast all work together to get Jim hired by Louie and to help Jim pass his driving test. Probably the most memorable part is the Yellow Light bit. It is truly a sketch that should never have worked. However, Brooks and Burrows had so much faith in it that, instead of scripting it fully, director James Burrows just told Conway and Lloyd to keep going until the audience stopped finding it funny. It lasts a full minute, consisting only of 8 words. Right before the cut, you can even see the other cast members starting to break character and laugh at Lloyd’s delivery.
As I said earlier, this changed the feel of the show, by adding a character who, despite his horrible life, didn’t feel down about it. He was positive and happy, even if he didn’t believe he had any real meaning left in his existence, saying that he thought he’d reach Nirvana, but all he found were images of the original mouseketeers popping out of seedpods. He had realized the absurdity of any further search for meaning, and, rather than be horrified or depressed by it, he chose to accept it and reach a state of contented happiness. Albert Camus once wrote of the same concept, the absurd hero, in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” So, rather than making the audience start to feel worse about the state of the cast’s unchanging lots in life, Taxi introduced someone who had accepted it and chosen to be happy anyway. Bet you didn’t see a French Absurdist philosophy reference coming here, did you?
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