‘Taxi’ and the Workplace

Why the classic ’70s sitcom deserves a rewatch in 2024.

Peeking out beside the staircase, a sign in bright red letters reads “DO NOT THROW GARBAGE ON THE FLOOR.” Next to it, another sign: “YOU WILL BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR ALL ACCIDENTS.” The wide open space of this room is cluttered in a way that makes it feel smaller, but not any more homey: the notices on the walls blend into an industrial wallpaper that would mark this as a workspace even if there weren’t a mechanic working on a car engine in the centre. In one corner of this large space is the “cage”—more than a raised platform, but less than office, it’s both part of and set apart from the open floor. To one side of the cage is taped a notice to drivers about shifts; to the other side is a Trips Conversion Chart and a punch clock. Standing nearby, behind a bench, is a coin-operated machine dispensing coffee, and, allegedly but never witnessed, soup and hot chocolate. “Each cup,” the machine assures us, is “INDIVIDUALLY brewed.”

This is the fleet garage of the Sunshine Cab Company. The show you’re watching is Taxi.

In his book Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community, Saul Austerlitz describes Taxi as “the middle link between The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers, though it never reached the cultural ubiquity of either of those shows.” Starting in 1978, Taxi aired on ABC, where it coasted on having Three’s Company as a lead-in before it got moved in the schedule, tanked in the ratings, and was unceremoniously cancelled in its fourth season. A fifth aired on NBC—“same time, better network”—where it was then unceremoniously cancelled.

It’s as brightly lit as any traditional, multi-camera sitcom—punctuated by the laughter of a live studio audience—but this time, the bright lights just seem to highlight the grime and decay. Austerlitz calls Taxi “a New York sitcom for the financially strapped, crime-ridden era of ‘FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD’,” referring to the infamous New York Daily News headline during the 1976 presidential election. It’s a sitcom about taxi drivers—so even though the “situation” part of “situation comedy” means constantly resetting to a stable status quo, on Taxi, the status quo is one of transience. It doesn’t seem all that notable when characters are written out without a send-off, because—unlike, say, Chuck Cunningham’s disappearance during the second season of Happy Days—the Sunshine Cab Company is, by definition, somewhere people come and go. In The Taxi Book, Jeff Sorensen quotes producer Ian Praiser explaining that they didn’t write a big finale because, ultimately, “Even if the cab company had gone broke, the drivers would’ve only gone on to another cab company. And so the story would’ve continued.” There is nothing Beckettian, nothing purgatorial, in this cycle: just the mundanity and insanity that comprises casual labor. “The characters in Taxi,” Sorensen writes, “often seem to be caught unawares as they go about their day-to-day lives.” Shooting the breeze while they wait for a fare, then driving a cab while they wait for some grander aspiration to come into grasp. In the show’s pilot, Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner), a divorced mother of two, starts work at the cab company. She explains to Alex (Judd Hirsch) that she’s not really a taxi driver: she’s doing this part time, just to make some extra money while she works at an art gallery during the day.

“No, no, I understand,” Alex replies, sitting on a table with his feet on the chair in front of him, a pencil tucked behind his ear and a paper coffee cup in his hand. “You see that guy over there? Now, he’s an actor. The guy on the phone, he’s a prize-fighter. This lady over here, she’s a beautician. The man behind her, he’s a writer.” It’s light, casual, teasing, but there are sharper teeth behind it, too. At once it eviscerates the idea that being a cab driver is some existential part of your identity, inborn, in which people like Elaine—the aspirational class—temporarily masquerade, while also defiantly claiming membership in the inborn identity that everyone else is so eager to shrug off: “Me, I’m a cab driver,” Alex says, “I’m the only cab driver in this place.”

Alex is the show’s center: Hirsch, then best known for his stage work, was 43 when Taxi debuted, and his performance wavers beautifully between Alex having a zen acceptance of his life as it is and a bitter cynicism that short-circuits all ambition. You’re never quite sure if he’s just here or stuck here. Either way, there is no obvious way out. In an episode late in the show’s run, a passenger asks him a condescending question about the theater to get an “everyman” perspective, and when Alex schools him with his extensive theater knowledge, the passenger suggests he would have made a good gofer—if he were 20 years younger. But Alex can’t turn back the clock. And so here he is: divorced, estranged from his father, and hasn’t much of a relationship with his daughter, either. He’s a recovering compulsive gambler. Most of these things hum away in the background, a handful of the tiny tragedies that make up a life. But he’s level-headed, sensible, and more than anything, good—bearing the nigh unbearable burden of advice dispenser, conundrum fixer, and taker of righteous stands with, if not ease, then a certain wry wit. He’s a father figure to the other cabbies in a way his dad never was for him, and that he never was for his daughter, either.

Elaine, the only female character in the main cast for most of the show’s run, is Alex’s feminine counterpoint: kind, sensible, divorced—but with time on her side. Though the part was written for an older actress who would have a teenage kid, Henner was cast at the age of 26. In a lesser show, she’d be a cipher onto which the audience could apply all their assumptions about women: sexual object, mother figure, feeding the boys straight lines without getting to be funny herself, the Margaret Dumont to their Marx Brothers. A tall, pretty redhead, it is true that she is both an object of many of the male characters’ lust and a warmly maternal presence. But as performed by Henner, she’s spikier than that: at once gutsy and gentle, self-doubting yet light on her feet, a foil to Alex’s fits of melancholy. In the first season, she’s one of two new drivers at the Sunshine Cab Company, the other being John (Randall Carver), working as a cabbie to pay his way through college. He seems like he’s meant to be the audience surrogate, but he proves superfluous, and is abruptly written out. Elaine is our true way into Taxi’s world: distinctly proletarian, distinctly feminine, and most importantly, really funny.

Elaine and Alex never have a true will-they-won’t-they, like Sam and Diane on Cheers or Ross and Rachel on Friends, but there is a seductive tension between them, however rarely articulated—and more than that, an instinctive, affectionate closeness. Every year on her son’s birthday, Alex comes over and they all go to Coney Island together: someone else for him to play father to.

illustrations by C.M. Duffy

Even though Alex and Elaine are ostensibly the show’s leads, on Taxi, Austerlitz writes, “Sidekicks were now the stars.” It’s Fonzies all the way down. Danny DeVito plays Louie De Palma, resident of the fleet garage’s “cage.” He’s a dispatcher for the Sunshine Cab Company: middle management, at once the sadistic boss in the lives of the cabbies and mechanics and a striving loser holding white-knuckled to the position to which he’s ascended. He’s less a fun sitcom jerk than a truly horrible person, in a way that makes his role on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia decades later seem fated. “Louie is the untrammeled id run amok,” Austerlitz writes, “funny precisely for his inability to summon any grace, or compassion, or decency.”

And yet. Louie has humanizing moments that, even though they never undermine his integral scumbaggery, are deeply affecting. Perhaps none more than “Louie Goes Too Far,” in which Louie peeks at Elaine changing. Elaine files a complaint and Louie gets fired. He pesters Elaine to get him his job back, and she explains that she would love to forgive him, but she can’t if he’s not truly sorry, and for that he needs to understand why what he did was wrong. After a couple of stabs in the dark—“It’s wrong because God doesn’t like it.” “No!” “God likes it?”—Elaine asks him if he’s ever felt violated. Louie looks taken aback, but then he, haltingly, sometimes indistinctly, tells Elaine a story: how twice a year, he has to get new clothes, and he goes to a men’s store, straight to the boys’ department to “ask if they have anything in the husky sizes.” DeVito has multiple epiphyseal dysplasia, a genetic disorder that affects bone growth, causing his short stature. Louie says he’ll go to the clothes store during school hours, but no matter what, there’ll be kids all around. He grabs whatever will fit him, doesn’t even look, and goes to the dressing room. But the worst moment is when you got to push open those doors, and walk out into that room, wearing your new corduroys,” he tells Elaine, “and then, all the parents tell their kids not to stare.” 

“Is that the way I made you feel when I peeked?” he asks. 

Smiling and wiping away tears, Elaine says, “Kinda.”

This time, when Louie says he’s sorry, you can feel it in your gut. 

Taxi’s most legendary sidekick-star, though, was comedian/performance artist/wrestler/song and dance man Andy Kaufman as Latka Gravas. Based on Kaufman’s “Foreign Man” character, Latka is an immigrant from an unnamed European country who works as a mechanic at Sunshine Cabs. If that makes him sound like a one-note gag at the expense of foreigners and their silly foreign ways, it somehow never plays like that in practice. He’s not from some Eastern Bloc country with a new coat of paint slapped over it: Latka’s home country, religion and traditions are written the way you would invent an alien society, which avoids being even the most veiled comment on any group of people in particular. As a character, he is a product of play of the purest, more childish kind. He’s a wide-eyed innocent whose belief in the American Dream is so earnest that it’s razor-sharp parody, his understanding of his adopted country a hodgepodge of his exploitative work environment and old I Nik-Nik Lucy ​​(as I Love Lucy was called in his home country) episodes. Speaking of nik-nik, Latka speaks a language entirely of Kaufman’s own devising: Carol Kane says he told her, “it’s like when you’re a kid and you speak Russian or Chinese. You don’t know there are rules to a language. But there’s a very specific rhythm.”

Kane plays Simka, a woman from Latka’s home country whom he eventually marries. When they first meet, she talks about how she came to America because of all the trouble when the mountain people moved down from the mountains. Latka instantly, unblinkingly starts going on about how awful the mountain people are, never doubting that Simka would nod along and laugh. What he doesn’t realize, of course, is that Simka is a mountain person. She moved to America not to escape the mountain people, but to escape discrimination. It’s sneakily one of my favorite TV episodes about prejudice ever—because it threads a needle on showing that the rift between mountain and non-mountain people is, to Latka and Simka, deathly serious, but is, to an outside observer, arbitrary to the point of nonsense. And those two contradictory truths are, ultimately, racism’s beak and claw.

But long before he meets Simka, Latka marries a sex worker in order to get his green card to stay in America. It’s pretty much ignored to allow for his and Simka’s love story to proceed unimpeded, but fascinating in the moment: everybody’s on board, outraged at the prospect of Latka being deported, with the only caution coming not out of some devotion to following immigration laws, but out of Elaine’s concern that Latka—still with very limited English at this point in the show—may be overly emotionally invested in what he doesn’t fully understand is a sham marriage. No one doubts that Latka should be allowed to stay in America. Louie rats Latka out to the feds when they come looking at the start of the episode, but by the end, he delivers an epic speech to convince the feds of the depth of love between Latka and his bride. It works.

The paper marriage is performed by Reverend Jim Ignatowski, played by Christopher Lloyd. He’s a spacey, burnt-out hippie in a ratty denim jacket. “I was ordained in ’68, the Church of the Peaceful,” he tells the gang, “The church was investigated and cleared completely.” When Alex asked what it was cleared of, Jim pauses for just a moment before saying, “Why go into it?” It’s a one-episode guest role, but in season two, Lloyd was added to the main cast, and quickly becomes a sidekick-star.

Jim is, as he puts it, “the living embodiment of the Sixties.” Though he was raised by a wealthy father, he was disowned after he dropped out of Harvard, not long after his girlfriend introduced him to “funny brownies.” He protested against the Vietnam War. He went to Woodstock. He did lots of drugs. He was traded from one commune to another for two goats and a Donovan album. He was arrested at the 1968 Democratic Convention—for stealing decorations, the same ones that he uses for Simka’s green card party. He is, in short, way, way out: a childlike combination of trusting, unreliable, sweet and vulnerable, through which his latent genius occasionally pokes through. And, more importantly, his latent wisdom.

When Alex relapses into compulsive gambling—he takes a fare to Atlantic City, gets a big tip, and here he is, with a lot of money in Atlantic City—he calls Jim to take him the money he keeps in his locker. He takes half, and tells Jim not to give him the other half under any circumstances. Then, when he’s down, he asks Jim to give him the other half, and Jim—between his ailing memory and pathological lack of stubbornness—does. When he blows that, too, Alex tries to manipulate Jim into giving him his own money. And in some grimy casino bathroom, not only does Jim tell him no, he uses his own experience with addiction to talk him through it: “You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I wasn’t always this together. But my problem wasn’t gambling. It was drugs. … I couldn’t stop doing them. I always thought my next high would be the best. I couldn’t quit until I hit rock bottom.”

Jim tells him about being broke and friendless, and taken in by “an old Indian shaman.” They were doing mushrooms together, and when one was left, Jim thought up “this great plan” to distract a man who had taught him so much about honor and trust: 

I looked up to the sky and I said, ‘Look at that star.’ And he looked. Who wouldn’t? Then, when his attention was distracted, I grabbed the mushroom and I was going to eat it. But I didn’t. I gave it to him and he ate it. I see. And I felt better. And it wasn’t just because he jumped off the cliff trying to fly. It was because at that moment when I gave him the mushroom, I knew I had the willpower so I never had to be at rock bottom again, like you are now.

When Alex insists that he’s not at rock bottom, Jim asks him “What’re you doing sitting in some toilet, after losing all your money and begging an easy mark for a few dollars and not getting it?”

For a moment, Alex looks bruised. Then he points at the bathroom’s harsh ceiling light, and tells Jim to look at it, just like Jim told the Indian shaman to look at a star. And Jim looks, stares open-mouthed into its incandescent glare, while Alex reaches his hand into the pocket of Jim’s denim jacket. But once he gets his hand on some cash, he puts it back. 

“Come on, Jim,” Alex says, “Let’s go home.”

“What’s the rush?” Jim asks, “How often do you get to see a light like that?”

Alex, leaning against him, a smile on his lips and an ache in his heart, says, “Yeah, it’s a good light.”

Taxi is a show about transience, but it is also a show about community. About the moments in between productivity—the parts of work that are just sitting around and talking about nothing important, about a menagerie of Fonzies accumulated on the margins, where people go when they’ve got nowhere else to go, about finding beauty in the fluorescent light in a bathroom ceiling.

Decades later, the transitory has given way to precarity. A bad, exploitative system of casual, part-time employment has been replaced by a much worse, more nakedly exploitative system of gig work. And so what played as proletarian realism when Taxi aired in the 1970s feels uncomfortably close to aspirational today. Uber and other ride-sharing apps have denied their workers so, so much, from paid time off to pension entitlements. The violations of workers’ rights are the most important, of course, but watching Taxi, I think about all the smaller, ambient injustices that make up the gig economy, about the foreclosure of space, literal and figurative, that exists outside of brute-force productivity. A lot of hay was made during the pandemic romanticizing the physical office, much of it for nonsense reasons. When people wax nostalgic for watercooler talk, I think the root appeal being gestured towards is an ineffable desire for stability, community, for the moments that exist between the “work” part of work.

The “situation” part of “situation comedy” means constantly resetting to a stable status quo, but now, the status quo transience of Taxi feels assured. Less and less of our lives are lived in conditions stable enough to comprise a “situation” at all. 

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