TAXI

U.S. Situation Comedy

Taxi's television history is filled with contradictions. Produced by some of television comedy's most well-regarded talent, the show was canceled by two different networks. Despite winning fourteen Emmy Awards in only five seasons, the program's ratings were rock-bottom for its final seasons. Although it thrives in syndication and is still well-loved by many viewers, Taxi will be best remembered as the ancestral bridge between two of the most successful sit-coms of all time: The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers.

In the mid-1970s, MTM Productions had achieved huge success with both popularity and critical appraisal. So it was an unexpected move when four of the company's finest writers and producers, James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed. Weinberger, jumped off the stable ship of MTM in 1978 to form their own production company, John Charles Walters Company. To launch their new venture, they looked back to an idea that Brooks and Davis had previously considered with MTM: the daily life of a New York City taxi company. From MTM head Grant Tinker they purchased the rights to the newspaper article that had initiated the concept and began producing this new show at Paramount for ABC. They brought a few other MTM veterans along for the ride, including director James Burrows and writer/producers Glen and Les Charles.

Although Taxi certainly bore many of the trademark signs of "quality television" as exemplified by MTM, other changes in style and focus distinguished this from an MTM product. After working on the middle-class female-centered worlds of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis for years, the group at John Charles Walters wanted to create a program focusing on blue-collar male experience. MTM programs all had clearly defined settings, but Taxi's creators wanted a show that was firmly rooted in a city's identity--Taxi's situations and mood were distinctly New York. Despite MTM Productions innovations in creating ensemble character comedy, there was always one central star around which the ensemble revolved. In Taxi Judd Hirsch's Alex Rieger was a main character, but his importance seemed secondary to the centrality of the ensemble and the Sunshine Cab Company itself. While The Mary Tyler Moore Show proudly proclaimed that "you're going to make it on your own," the destitute drivers of Taxi were doomed to perpetual failure; the closest any of them came to happiness was Rieger's content acceptance of his lot in life--to be a cabby.

Taxi debuted on 12 September 1978, amidst a strong ABC Tuesday night line-up. It followed Three's Company, a wildly-successful example of the type of show MTM "quality" sit-coms reacted against. Taxi used this strong position to end the season ninth in the ratings and garner its first of three straight Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series. The show's success was due to its excellent writing, Burrows's award-winning directing using his innovative four-camera technique, and its largely unknown but talented cast. Danny DeVito's Louie DePalma soon became one of the most despised men on television--possibly the most unredeemable and worthless louse of a character ever to reside on the small screen. Andy Kaufman's foreign mechanic Latka Gravas provided over-the-top comedy within an ensemble emphasizing subtle character humor. But Kaufman sometimes also brought a demonic edge to the character, an echo of his infamous appearances on Saturday Night Live as a macho wrestler of women and Mighty Mouse lip-syncher. In the second season Christopher Lloyd's Reverend Jim Ignatowski was added to the group as television's first drugged-out '60s burn-out character. But Lloyd's Emmy-winning performance created in Jim more than just a storehouse of fried brain cells; he established a deep, complex humanity that moved far beyond mere caricature. The program launched successful movie careers for DeVito and Lloyd, as well as the fairly-notable television careers of Tony Danza and Marilu Henner; Kaufman's controversial career would certainly have continued had he not died of cancer in 1984.

In its third season ABC moved Taxi from beneath Three's Company's protective wing to a more competitive Wednesday night slot; the ratings plummeted and Taxi finished the next two years in 53rd place. ABC canceled the show in early 1982 as part of a larger network push away from "quality" and toward the Aaron Spelling-produced popular fare of Dynasty and The Love Boat. HBO bid for the show, looking for it to become the first ongoing sitcom for the pay channel, but lost out to NBC, which scheduled the series for the 1982-83 season. Ironically, this reunited the show's executive producers with their former boss Tinker, who had taken over NBC. Tinker's reign at NBC was focused, not surprisingly, on "quality" programming which he hoped would attract viewers to the perennially last-place network. Taxi was partnered with a very compatible show on Thursday night--Cheers, created by Taxi veterans Charles, Burrows, and Charles. Although this line-up featured some of the great programs in television history--the comedies were sandwiched by dramas Fame and Hill St. Blues--the ratings were dreadful and Taxi finished the season in 73rd place. NBC was willing to stick by Cheers for another chance, but felt Taxi had run its course and canceled it at the end of the season. Had Taxi been given another year or two, it would have been part of one of the most successful nights on television, featuring The Cosby Show (co-created by Taxi creator Weinberger), Family Ties, Hill St. Blues, L.A. Law, and eventual powerhouse Cheers.

Taxi lives on in syndication, but its most significant place in television history is as the middle generation between The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers. It served as a transition between the star-driven middle-class character comedy of MTM programs and the location-centered ensemble comedy inhabited by the losers of Cheers and Taxi. Considered one of the great sit-coms of its era, Taxi stands as a prime example of the constant tension in television programming between standards of "quality" and reliance on high ratings to determine success.

-Jason Mittel

 


Taxi

CAST

Alex Rieger................................................. Judd Hirsch
Bobby Wheeler
(l978-1981) ........................Jeff Conaway
Louie De Palma.......................................
Danny DeVito
Elaine Nardo............................................ Marilu Henner
Tony Banta .................................................Tony Danza
John Burns
(1978-1979)........................... Randall Carver
Latka Gravas
..........................................Andy Kaufman
"Reverend Jim" Ignatowski (1979-1983).......................... ..........................................................Christopher Lloyd
Simka Gravas
(1981-1983) ...........................Carol Kane

PRODUCERS    James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, Ed Weinberger, David Davis, Glen Charles, Les Charles, Ian Praiser, Richard Sakai, Howard Gewirtz

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 111 Episodes

ABC
September 1978-October 1980           Tuesday 9:30-10:00 November 1980-January 1981         Wednesday 9:00-9:30 February 1981-June 1982                 Thursday 9:30-10:00

NBC
September 1982-December 1982      Thursday 9:30-10:00 January 1983-February 1983             Saturday 9:30-10:00 March 1983-May 1983                  Wednesday 9:30-10:00
June 1983-July 1983                   Wednesday 10:30-11:00

FURTHER READING

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, editors. MTM-'Quality Television.' London: British Film Institute, 1984.

Sorensen, Jeff. The Taxi Book. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best of Prime-Time Comedy. New York: MacMillan, 1987.

 

See also Brooks, James L.; Burrows, James; Charles, Glen and Les; Cheers; Comedy, Workplace Settings; Mary Tyler Moore Show; Weinberger, Ed