When people hear that I wrote for Taxi (I wrote nine episodes), they often respond by saying, “Taxi was one of my favorite sitcoms of all time. Why don’t they do shows like Taxi today?”
Sometimes, I think they’re just telling me that to make me feel better. You know, “What you did was better than what they’re doing now, so you shouldn’t feel bad that you’ve been unceremoniously cast aside.”
Sometimes, they’re just saying, “I liked the shows they did when I was young, but when you get down to it, I didn’t really like them, I just liked being young.”
Them, I understand.
Sometimes, however, they’re actually saying something about the show. What I hear them saying is that they enjoyed Taxi’s honest and imaginative storytelling and the richly developed characterizations. The bulk of the credit for that belongs to the writers, not me especially – with two exceptions, I didn’t come up with any of the story ideas that became the scripts I wrote – the kudos go primarily to the prodigiously talented Mr. Brooks, Mr. Weinberger and Mr. Daniels. It also didn’t hurt that Taxi had maybe the most talented ensemble of actors ever assembled.
But there was something else.
I believe writing is fundamentally affected by the prevailing technology. I recently tried to explore how creativity was affected by the fact that the authors of the enterprises were writing with a feather. Tethered to so tedious a method of getting things down, not to mention an elaborate and flowing sentence-writing style, I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand how the feather-writers could remember what they were trying to say. I can’t a lot of the times, and I’m writing short sentences quickly. How did those ancient quill pushers pull it off? The answer is,
I don’t know, but they did.
Maybe they had better memories than we do. That happens. People once walked seven miles to town; we’re out of breath going across the street for a paper. When we don’t use them anymore, because of technological advances or other reasons, previously well-honed faculties can atrophy and ultimately disappear, or at least become seriously diminished. Once, storytellers used to sit around a fire and recount entire oral histories. I can barely remember a phone number.
I may have to accept that I may never figure that mystery out.
This one I know. Because I was there.
I know one reason, I think an important one, why Taxi was the show that it was.
Again, aside from the talent involved, it involves the issue of available technology.
Taxi was filmed in what’s called the “three-camera” format, (a format that became the “four-camera” format when they subsequently added a camera). In the “three-camera” technique, all three cameras film the scene at the same time. This results in your having three times as much film as you can actually use (if you do extra “takes”, even more). The final product is achieved by editing the most desirable portions of the filmed material together, resulting in the show you end up seeing on TV.
Taxi, and all other sitcoms filmed in this manner, was filmed in front of a live studio audience, three hundred or so people waiting for hours outside, only to be ushered in to sit on back-spasmly uncomfortable bleacher seats. These were the folks we were contracted to make laugh.
The bleachers are situated a number of feet above the soundstage floor, allowing audience members to see the performance, as the cameras set up in front of them are filming it. This is vitally important. Audiences don’t laugh at performances they are unable to see.
The laughter of the studio audience is essential. It energizes the performers, and allows the writers to feel successful, hugging each other triumphantly at the completion of “show night”, rather than going out and shooting themselves. You can’t have that. Writers are notoriously bad shots. They may well miss and accidentally take out a departing audience member whose only crime was not laughing enough.
“Audiences don’t laugh at performances they are unable to see.”
That’s the whole thing right there. Think back to what film was. A spool of shiny brownish material with sprocket holes down the sides. Film was the medium on which the show was recorded. Unlike “digital”, where you can see what you’ve just shot immediately, with film, that’s not possible. To see what’s on the film, you have to send the footage to Fotomat or someplace, and get it developed.
What did this mean specifically to Taxi? Because Taxi was shot on “pre digital” film, there were no immediately generated pictures for the audience to watch on the monitors. Their only access to the performances was the performance itself.
Lacking that “digital” advantage, Taxi was prevented from doing scenes performed on sets set up behind other sets. The studio audience might be able to hear the performance, but they wouldn’t be able to see it. Suddenly, they’re at a radio show.
You notice on Seinfeld? Due to digital technology, Seinfeld was able to build sets where the audience couldn’t see the scenes directly, but they were still able to watch and laugh at those scenes by looking at the monitors. This allowed them to build considerably more sets, which, in turn, initiated an entirely different style of storytelling.
Without digital technology, Taxi also couldn’t, as Seinfeld could, go out onto the “New York street” – actually a standing set at Studio Center, California – shoot an exterior scene, and show it later that week to a live audience watching on the monitor. Why not? No time to develop the film, no monitor.
What was Taxi restricted to, besides the garage set and maybe one other interior location?
That’s all they had to work with. A minimum number of (necessarily longer) scenes, in a limited number of locations. What held people’s attention? The writing and the acting.
I’m not against advancing technology. I don’t know how to use it, but I’m not against it. The hope is that we remember the good parts of what did – parts in no way precluded by technological progress – and not allow them to disappear.