Taxi

The Best Of...Taxi

‘we get to see the best of the characters at their most eccentric’

Brian Slade reviews his favourite episode of the classic sitcom

In the world of American sitcoms, Taxi was somewhat of an enigma. Hugely popular with its audiences, multi-award-winning during television’s backslapping season, and a career-making job for a number of its main cast. And yet the show was axed not once, but twice, lasted only five series, poor for a successful show by American standards, and its first series lacked a certain something to kick it into gear. But in its second series, one early episode highlighted just how talented its cast was, how perfect the writing was and at the same time introduced a character that would have audiences in hysterics for the next four seasons. That man was the ever-bizarre denim-clad Jim Ignatowski, re-introduced in the classic episode, Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey.

After the first season of Taxi, John Burns (Randall Carver) was axed with no explanation. The belief was that the character was too similar to that of slow but loveable amateur boxer Tony Banta (Tony Danza). In the third episode of season two, and with a slot still open in the ensemble cast, Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd) appears at the gang’s local bar, Marios, just as the friends are celebrating a rare victory for Tony, courtesy of his opponent knocking himself out cold by tripping as he entered the ring.

Jim had actually appeared in a first season episode when he was brought in to perform a wedding ceremony for eccentric immigrant Latka (Andy Kaufman) in order to avoid him being deported. Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conway), the amateur actor in the group, is first to recognise Jim when he enters the bar. The classic spaced-out look is given out by Lloyd as his character is bemused as to who these people are and wanders off to the kitchen looking for the bathroom.

Taxi

The gang then turn their attention to the next entrant to the bar – the bemused looking Latka. Latka has made a mess of his directions and instead of attending Tony’s fight, he has spent the evening in Harlem, going into a bar and telling everyone he is looking for a fight! As Latka explains his evening, Jim reappears, and Latka also instantly recognises him. We soon see the state of Jim’s mind. As Latka opens his broken English conversation with, ‘you marry me,’ Jim responds with, ‘believe me, it would never work out.’ It’s the kind of nonsensical misunderstanding we would hear from for many episodes, and there were plenty more to come in this one. Now parked at the bar, Jim is supping on his own when Bobby reaches out in friendship: ‘my friends and I were wondering if you wanted to join us.’ Jim responds earnestly, ‘What did you decide?’

Jim’s life has hit a rough spot. His time as a reverend is over and he now seems to be struggling for cash. Elaine (Marilu Henner) is concerned that his life is just consisting of getting high all the time, though Jim insists everything he takes is from a doctor’s prescription, ‘…though finding the right doctor can be difficult!’ Alex (Judd Hirsch) is less convinced that they should get involved as Jim seems content enough - Jim considers himself the living embodiment of the 60s.

Taxi

Eventually Elaine decides that they should try and get Jim a job at the garage, home of course to the Sunshine Cab Company. But one or two things stand in his way. His first challenge is that of winning over one of American sitcom’s greatest creations – garage head dispatcher Louie De Palma, played so menacingly and hysterically by Danny DeVito. With Louie in one of his angry moods (what other mood did he ever have?) Jim slips a tranquiliser into his coffee to try and help smooth the way.

Louie is soon chilled and friendly and all smiles, even to Latka, normally the victim of his most vociferous complaints. And as he gently encourages the gang to get their cabs on the road, he lapses into singing On Moonlight Bay, accompanied swiftly by Jim. As Louie dances onto the bonnet of one of the cabs for a nap, he quickly acquiesces to Bobby’s request for Jim to join the team…after all, ‘everybody works on Moonlight Bay.’

With Louie conquered, all that’s left is the examination for Jim. Elaine, Alex, Tony and Bobby come along to try and help, but it still isn’t plain sailing. Completing the entry form is tricky enough –‘Eyes? Two…mental illness or narcotics addiction? That’s a tough choice.’ With the form done, it’s time for the test, even though Jim thought the form was the test.

Taxi

Of course, for the test itself, Jim’s on his own. But he tries his best to get help from Bobby as he whispers across the test centre the first question – ‘what does a yellow light mean?’ The correct response is slow down, which is what Bobby tries to discreetly feed back – but this is Jim. Taking slow down literally, he repeats the question in a classic piece of comedy as he and Bobby exchange increasing frustration as they go back and forth with the same question and answer, Jim slowing the question down to a snail’s pace via ever more drawn-out syllables.

Jim of course gets his licence and promptly reverses his first cab straight through the door to the garage to close out his chaotic arrival as a regular member of the team.

Taxi

What makes this episode so good is that we get to see the best of the characters at their most eccentric. Alex is the garage’s father figure and the closest thing there is to a normal, functioning human being. Hirsch happily takes a back seat to the antics around him though in this classic episode. DeVito has minimal screentime and there are classic episodes focussed on his hysterical creation elsewhere, but what he achieves with his few minutes going from snarky boss to chilled out and drugged up calmness is genius. Kaufman was of course a controversial and flawed comedian, but his innocent portrayal of Latka is at its peak in the first few series, and his retelling of his Harlem adventures is a bonus in the episode. And finally, Christopher Lloyd turns in a performance of such bizarre eccentricity that we instantly want more of Jim.

Taxi was treated badly by its networks. Many shows lasted far longer at much lesser quality, but episodes such as Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey are testament to how high the standard was at its peak. Every actor was at the top of their game, every character once Jim joined the fun had something unique to bring to the party. It may not see much in the ways of repeats, but in the UK Taxi was primetime BBC fare when first aired, a reflection of its quality and popularity, and this episode showcases the talents of all concerned to perfection.

Published on February 27th, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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