Taxi was an American sitcom – it ran from 1978-1982. I was just a kid – but it was one of those Friday night fish’n’chips family-sits-in-front-of-the-TV shows. The characters were colourful – well Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito’s breakout role) and later “the Reverend” Jim (Christopher Lloyd) were colourful and wonderful. They shouted a lot. Jim was one of those philosophers with that Oscar Wilde notion – sure he (looked like he) was down in the gutter but he was still looking up at the stars. Most often they were circling about his brain, fizzing, popping, pulsing…
There was Bobby the hunk/the cool guy/failed actor, and Tony (one of several roles Tony Danza played where it seemed best to call his character Tony, so that, you know, he’d respond when the other actors said his name) the amateur boxer with quick hands and a not so quick mouth.
Holding it all together – the key to the show, one of TV’s most wonderful and fascinating characters was Alex Rieger (played by Judd Hirsch). Alex wasn’t cool, he was never rude. He knew how to have fun. But he was lonely. There was always some sense of sadness in his life – but he put the problems of other people first. He was in fact a recovered problem-gambler, he’d lost his marriage, his child, his job – he drove a taxi as a way of getting by; perhaps solving problems for other people meant he didn’t ever have to properly address his. He was the moral center of a show that featured a star turn from one of TV’s most delightfully deplorable fiends. Louie De Palma, the head dispatcher at the Sunshine Cab Company, would steal your glass eye and shit in the socket. A rotten chap – and the raging embodiment of Small Man Syndrome.
Taxi’s characters were fascinating to me – always. More so with time. Rewatching the show, revisiting it – once I learned all about Andy Kaufman’s life and work outside and away from how I first knew him (his “foreign man” anti-comedy character the basis for mechanic Latka Gravas, his cameo-turn that he grew to loathe, a paycheck only even though he’s one of the show’s much loved characters) – I realised I knew these characters. Had worked with them in a garage myself, or in shops, in bands, had met them in bars – had lived with people like them. The show took on a whole new meaning to me.
And what a line-up of talent, they’d all started before Taxi, done things. Were hopeful and talented young actors with some track-record but this was some launching pad. For almost all of them. At least for a while.
When I was a kid I laughed at it probably because my parents laughed. And because it was on at 6pm so that meant it was safe – and I was allowed to watch it. That’s what got me into it.
But I was also transfixed by the music – Bob James’ song, “Angela”, written as the opening and end-credit music (he also composed versions of his dinner-jazz-meets-funk-lite for scenes inside the show) has been one of my all-time favourite pieces of music since I first heard it/since I first heard the show.
Last Christmas we drove up the coast with the baby fading down toward sleep in the back and I put Angela (Theme from ‘Taxi’) on a loop. We listened to it 20 or 30 times. We made it most of the way to our journey. I never got sick of it – travelling at night, my wife and child asleep in the car – I was the taxi driver, I was Alex Rieger. And all my problems were there behind me in the rear-view mirror. No issues to speak of – and that insatiable groove (R.I.P. Idris Muhammad) taking me home.
Nuts. Sure. But that’s how it was. And that’s how it is. Most DJ sets I play I finish with the theme from Taxi as my closer; my little joke. Time to call a cab. Show’s over. The night is done. The bar’s about to close. Last drinks. Move on. But also that music speaks to me of nostalgia – not just the nostalgia of watching that show as a kid, with my folks (though that’s in there too, sure) it’s about movement, a moving on, the idea of constantly creeping forward at least. Never staying still – you can look back, but that’s what the rear view mirror is for, you need, also, to be moving forward. Rolling on…
The theme tune to Taxi was the trigger. It’s what got me hooked the first time. It’s what lured me back to the show. Watching the Jim Carey vehicle, Man On The Moon, a fairly decent version of Andy Kaufman’s life and story as sold to the multiplexes, it was as soon as I heard just a snippet of that TV theme that I was transported back to the show.
I found a video-tape of the first few episodes. Watched them a few times. Paid the late fees. Rented it again. And then a few years on the shows were released on DVD. I worked through the first two seasons. I haven’t watched every episode again – in order. Though I’m sure I’ve seen most of them – many of them more than once. You can catch the reruns now (again) or go to YouTube or whatever. And wherever…
But what I love about this show is that it remains funny. It’s a comedy that comes from equal-opportunity fun-poking. The characters weren’t especially nasty to one another (apart from Louie – an intended comedy-villain, usually he lost out, got his comeuppance). But they dealt with their problems – and life (usually that was the problem in a nutshell) with humour, with heart. They talked to one another. They shared the pain of just trying to make it through the days between pay-checks – your head, if you could, held high.
And there are some funny lines. Still. They haven’t dated. Sure, the sets, the clothes, the music, the feel and look – all of that dates the show. You watch it now you know it’s late-70s/early-80s in an instant. But as the scenes work, as each episodes works – and is resolved – it seems to run more like a stage-play. That one main set – a few external locations – and inside half an hour you had something that was never too syrupy and corny. Or if it was that seemed to be exactly what the doctor ordered. No, for the most part it was about heart – about showing comedy characters as more than just caricatures. There are some obvious tropes and types, Marilu Henner’s Elaine Nardo was this tribe’s Smurfette, that’s for sure. Alex goes five seasons wishing he could fuck her – and knowing he never could (more importantly that he never should).
I’m probably strangely obsessed with this show – but I’ll acknowledge that (in fact, haven’t I just done that?) There are several shows from my childhood, some that arrived right at that time, some that were already in re-runs: this, Mash, Happy Days, Family Ties, Cheers…and that’s just to name a few.
I’m going to look at a few of those – and others, from later in my life, maybe even some that I discovered only on DVD, away from ads, away from that weekly schedule, the appointment viewing – in this new series of posts. I can gladly do without TV most days of the week, most of the time. But anyone that tells you that TV is awful and pointless and that it’s given us nothing – well I’m deeply sceptical of that. I’m saddened by it in fact. TV has given me some of my best friends – I might have only known them as 2D characters on a screen. But I’d go on to meet versions of them in real life after – in my own real-life situations. The very best TV shows, the ones I can watch over and again, have told me a lot about life. As well as sometimes just being a 20-45 minute escape from it.
Taxi meant the world to me. And whenever I watch it again now, for 21 minutes or so, it still does.
TV Shows That Meant The World To Me started life as a weekly series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page