(art by Aireen Arellano - to view larger version, click here)
EPISODE: “On the Job” parts 1 & 2
FIRST AIRED: May 07 & 14, 1981
Sadness. Despair. Dashed hopes. Broken dreams. Jokes about suicide. Welcome to the nonstop party room that is Taxi!
All sitcoms necessarily operate under the same mission statement: make them laugh, the end. Comedy writers deploy an array of tools at their disposal to get the job done. Pratfalls, double entendres, acidic insults, sight gags, sex, horrifying social situations, and bad behavior are the usual order of the day. And then there’s Taxi, the rare sitcom to have its feet planted firmly in melancholy.
Musings on regret, failure, and hardship are one of the richest wellsprings for laughter, yet not many studio sitcoms have really bothered to have their characters stare deep into the void of their own lives. Sure, most modern sitcoms have come to embrace the intertwining of comedy and tragedy with such fervor that the beloved term ‘dramedy’ has stayed in vogue for the past couple of decades. But unlike The Office or Weeds, Taxi’s brand of everyday bleakness was shot in front of a live studio audience. Weekly, the writers had enough honest chutzpah to take grounded and downright bummer situations and move a whole live audience to laughter.
Season Three’s “On the Job” gives our fearless crew of forlorn cabbies a new reason to laugh in the dark: they no longer have jobs.
Dispatcher Louie breaks the news to the cabbies that Sunshine Cab Company has gone broke due to employees’ “outrageous” demands like functioning brake pads. Faced with unemployment, the cabbies actually react with excitement. They’ve had it with their miserable and futureless jobs anyway, and agree to march forth to find brand new occupations.
A month later, they meet up at the local dive bar to swap stories about their new adventures in gainful employment. Their flashbacks make up the rest of the two-parter, with about 5-7 minutes of episode time devoted to each character. This was a format used at least once a season; other ‘one segment per character’ episodes include the cabbies sharing memories of a special cab, fork-in-the-road moments from their past, or their innermost fantasies. The annual device only underscored the creative team’s dedication to character introspection over zany situational comedy.
Tony, the dim and giddy boxer played by (who else?) Tony Danza, goes first: he’s been working as a collector for a bookie, and has paid a visit to his parish priest. The priest thinks Tony’s seeking counsel or absolution… but in fact, he’s seeking the $300 that the priest owes the bookie. Tony’s caught between doing his job and defending the helpless priest to the bookie. Though not amused by Tony’s soft stance, the bookie relents and lets the priest off the hook. This plot banks its humor on the sadly outdated audience notion that priests are morally infallible. Still, it’s a fun and quick piece in which Tony’s nobility renders him futile, which became something of a running theme for him throughout the show.
Bobby, the testy and insecure struggling actor played by Jeff “Hickey from Kenickie” Conway, tries his luck performing for children’s parties. He arrives at an Easter party dressed in that classic standby for humiliating a sitcom character: the head-to-toe bunny outfit. When he realizes that the host is a respected Broadway director, he goes to desperate lengths to prove his acting mettle to her. It culminates in the delirious juxtaposition of confused toddlers watching the Easter bunny perform a dramatic monologue in which his character is paralyzed from the neck down.
Bobby’s and Tony’s segments are the plainest of the bunch. They’re both sturdy enough for sitcom fodder and offer some insights into the inner engines of the characters. But as with most episodes, the real fun lays elsewhere from those two. Jim Ignatowski, Christopher Lloyd’s wild-eyed brain-scrambled burnout hippie, takes a job as a door-to-door salesman. He arrives at a WASP-y housewife’s apartment and dumps some dirt on her carpet, promising his amazing vacuum cleaner will lift it right out.
Then he spills cigarette ashes onto the pile. Then sugar. Then ketchup. Then grease. A lot of it. He mushes it all together with his foot in motions that qualify as a victory dance. All the while, she looks on with the horror of a mother watching someone kidnap her child. Finally, he removes his product from his carrying case: it’s a book. “Oh, that’s right,” he proclaims. “I didn’t get the vacuum cleaner job. I’m selling encyclopedias!” Black out.
Alex’s story takes the same approach as Jim’s, placing a high valuation on physical comedy. After a month of lording over a panel of surveillance screens as a night watchman, he’s taken to extreme measures to quell his boredom, including counting the hairs on his head and using his video screens to fuel his fantasy of being on The Alex Rieger Show. The Jim and Alex stories showcase the Taxi team’s fine understanding of how to craft scenes that would feel just as home onstage at a sketch comedy revue.
The stand-alone comedic sequence has oddly become something of a rarity in modern narrative comedy. Even the best of today’s sitcoms – 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation – are strictly story driven, almost never taking the time out to engage in an extended physical comedy sight gag, a la The Marx Brothers or Lucille Ball. Taxi offered the best of both worlds. Even more notable in regards to the Alex story is that the writers entrusted Judd Hirsch with a full-on one-man comedy routine, when as the unflinching and hapless moral center of the group, he usually found his brand of humor closer to his chest.
The true core of the episode, and by extension the whole show, can be found in the stories of Louie and Elaine, the darkest dark and lightest light of Taxi’s ensemble. Louie convinces the CEO of a trading company to give him a job as a stockbroker on the grounds that he’ll “get dirty.” Louie makes good on his promise, generating a dearth of business. However, he gets fired when the company complains about his lack of decorum, tact, manners, or good hygiene practice.
Elaine finds work as a secretary to a veteran paper pusher who takes pride in his anonymity at the company. Elaine, ever the optimist, tries at length to convince him to share his revolutionary ideas with his cohorts. At her behest, he breaks his longstanding tradition of keeping his mouth shut and boldly announces his ideas at a board meeting. For his troubles – and Elaine’s – they’re both fired.
The two stories are packed with Taxi’s signature ironies and twists that insisted on deflating the characters back to reality. Danny DeVito spent five years turning Louie DePalma into the most grotesque, despicable, and shameless concoction ever known to television. “Humans make eating noises when they eat!” proclaims his soon-to-be-ex-boss. “Yours aren’t eating noises!” He’s so piglike that not even a morally ambiguous financial institution wants anything to do with him. While Louie’s deplorable nature finds him without a job, so too does Elaine’s “anything is possible” attitude make backwards strides. Optimism is the lingua franca of many sitcom characters, but in the world of Taxi, anyone who dares to dream, most of all Marilu Henner’s sunny Elaine Nardo, only finds unemployment at the end of the rainbow.
The six segments have the succinct richness of a lovingly assembled short story collection. While they have varying approaches in terms of comedy and storytelling, together they play on the same grand theme of desperation and striving.
The episode ends with the restoration of the cab company. After hearing each other’s stories, the characters realize that they’re not fit for much else and return to their duties as cab drivers. Not once is the word “fate” dropped into the script, the way that more navel-gazing shows might do today, but that’s the crux of this episode and the whole damn show. For better or worse, these characters accepted their fate. In a country continually spellbound with the American dream, despite the shoddy state of the economy, this show spun a more immediate reality (the all-Caucasian cast in a show about New York taxi drivers notwithstanding).
It’s a hard sell for an American sitcom to take seriously the notion that some of us are not destined to fame as well-off actors, athletes, artists, or any of the other dreams held dear by the Taxi gang. But the creative team, led by the master of televised comedy James L. Brooks, found endless humor in the idea that some futures aren’t so rosy, and sometimes the best we can do is to find the people within our spheres that make the journey bearable. Perhaps the most poetic offering of the show was the opening credit sequence itself: against a haunting melody rife with pangs of reflection, a lone cab drives along a bridge, never speeding up or changing direction, but also never stopping. Such was the steady charge of the human spirit so beautifully encapsulated by the lost souls of Taxi.
~ C.J. Arellano
About the Art: When I saw how odd it was to see the cabbies in different jobs in this episode, I thought back to my days as a little girl playing with my paper dolls. The switch of an outfit made the doll completely different. Despite the changes, there was always one outfit that fit the doll the best. Like our characters of Taxi, we felt most at home seeing them as cab drivers, working to make it. ~ Aireen Arellano