Taxi – Season 1, Episode 8 – “Paper Marriage”

Holy crap, Christopher Lloyd is in this!

While I began Taxi with virtually no knowledge of the show, I’ve since learned a little more about it, even reading a couple articles from The A.V. Club on the subject. One piece of info that kept coming up was that, at some point, it was going to add a new character called “Reverend Jim”, a guy who fried his brain during the 60’s drug craze, and who’s apparently a fan favorite. I learned that much, yet somehow missed the fact that this character is played by Christopher frickin’ Lloyd!

I’ve only seen Lloyd in movies or guest appearances on TV shows before, but every single role I’ve seen him in he’s been fantastic, whether it’s Doc Brown in Back to the Future, Professor Plum in Clue, or that weirdo artist who broke up Sam and Diane on Cheers. The knowledge that his character will eventually become a regular on Taxi, that I’ll be able to watch Christopher Lloyd doing his thing on a weekly basis . . . sometimes you need to give thanks for small treasures in your life, y’know?

I should probably talk about the episode as a whole, though, which is mostly light on Christopher Lloyd but still quite a good outing.

In almost any TV show with an immigrant character, you’re gonna get the they’re-about-to-be-deported episode. It’s not hard to see why. Deportation is a threat all too many people face, and its potential to permanently disrupt entire lives makes for high-stakes storytelling. What’s more, such episodes pit our heroes against the forces of government bureaucracy, and for a sitcom there are few adversaries with more comedic potential. We see that here when immigration agents come looking for Latka, and the scheme he comes up with to stay in the country is an oldie but a goodie: find an American citizen who’s willing to marry him on a couple days’ notice.

Getting Latka a bride turns out to be pretty simple: the gang just hires a hooker to do it. Where complications arise is the concern (mostly voiced by Elaine) that Latka might be more emotionally invested in this marriage than just getting to stay in the country, that he might have real feelings for his prosti-bride. This is okay as an explanation for why they bother having a full wedding ceremony (held in the taxi garage, but still) for what’s supposed to just be a green card marriage. However, as dramatic stakes, it doesn’t entirely work.

Between Latka’s limited English and the odd mannerisms Andy Kauffman gives him, it’s hard for us to know what’s going on in his head. That’s not a flaw; it’s the backbone of his comedic shtick. But it does make forming an emotional connection to him difficult, since we’re often not sure just what emotions he’s having. Even when he tells his prosti-fiancée “I love you”, that could just be him repeating what his English phrase book told him to say in this situation.

That interpretation is backed up when his new prosti-wife immediately runs off to her next job as soon as the vows are said, and Latka asks if this means “No honeymoon?” When told yes, he remarks, “Boy, America’s a tough town.” The studio audience laughs hard, and that’s the end of the episode.

It’s a pretty great punchline, but like in “Bobby’s Acting Career”, it does kinda invalidate the episode’s previous efforts to build up pathos. Unlike in that earlier episode, though, “Paper Marriage” never puts too much emphasis on its dramatic side, and the jokes come pretty steadily.

The more intriguing bit of character development comes, not from Latka, but from Louie. The previous episode, “High School Reunion” (which I watched but did not review), was the first time the normally antagonistic Louie was shown being emotionally vulnerable, stooping so low as to seek out his cabbie underlings for company. This episode humanizes him even further; we see Louie actually caring about another person and doing something nice for them, without even demanding a dollar first.

When the immigration agents first arrived looking for Latka, Louie (terrified of getting on the Feds’ bad side) immediately ratted Latka out, telling the agents exactly where to find him. That Latka would be pissed at him for this is something Louie accepts; the guy is no stranger to being disliked. He once purposely damaged a car just so he could force Latka to fix it, and when Latka said that Louie did that “because you are a terrible person”, he happily agreed.

What makes this different isn’t that Latka’s upset with him, but that he stays upset, giving Louie what amounts to the silent treatment for much of the episode. Louie becomes confused and eventually hurt by this attitude, not understanding why Latka hasn’t gotten over it and forgiven him by now. The animosity Louie inspires in people is normally a fleeting thing: he insults and demeans them, they grouse about it or fire back an insult of their own, then they all go back to doing their jobs and put it behind them. That Latka won’t just put this behind him, that what Louie did has permanently affected every interaction the two will have from now on, makes Louie feel, if not guilt, then at least regret, a desire to put things between them back where they were before. That’s the first we’ve seen of this emotion in Louie, and it inspires another first: an actual selfless act from the mean little troll.

When the immigration agents come asking whether Latka’s marriage is legitimate or just a con so he can stay in the country, Louie overcomes his fear of lying to the Feds and weaves them an epic string of BS about Latka’s love for his fiancée, spicing it up with details from his own life, though altered so that Latka looks like a standup guy instead of . . . like Louie. When he’s done, Louie and Latka share an honest to goodness hug, and Louie even plays the violin at Latka’s wedding (he plays it horribly, but it’s the thought that counts).

I don’t know whether this will be a sign of character growth, with Louie softening from this point forward, or if this is one of those sitcom episodes where a character grows a heart and has a warm, touching moment, then the very next week they go back to being a comedically huge bastard. Time will tell, but I’m kinda hoping it’s the latter. Character growth is good, but Danny DeVito is awesome at being bad.


Stray Observations:

  • I went on and on about Christopher Lloyd in the beginning, but didn’t actually talk about his role in this episode. It was small, just serving as the minister for Latka’s wedding, but he did get the funniest joke of the episode. He assures everyone he’s a legitimate minister, saying, “I was ordained in ’68, the Church of the Peaceful. The church was investigated and cleared completely.” When Alex asks, “Cleared of what?”, he pauses the exact right amount of time before saying, “Why go into it?”
  • Has the show said (or will it say) what country Latka is from? Here they mention that him going back to his homeland would be very bad, something about even the stamps having barbed wire on them.