Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.
Taxi, season 4, episode 20: “Elegant Iggy,” written by Ken Estin, aired 1982.
From its debut, in 1978, the high quality of Taxi was practically unquestioned. Created by James L. Brooks and a trio of his Mary Tyler Moore Show collaborators (Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed. Weinberger), the series was an immediate critical darling and an Emmy magnet. Taxi was a nominee for Outstanding Comedy Series in each of the five years it was on the air, claiming the prize its first three seasons. It was also a hit, at least initially, claiming a spot in the Neilsen Top 10 for the 1978-79 television season. (To put in perspective how fleeting ratings success could be in the nineteen-seventies, among the shows that outperformed Taxi that year were The Ropers and Angie.)
Taxi also figured prominently in the writing categories, collecting eight nominations during its run. Although the series was ostensibly an ensemble piece set in a unique workplace, when it came to teleplays favored by the Television Academy, one character clearly stood out. Five of the last six of those writing nods were for episodes that centered on Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd), the burned out cabbie who first appeared in a season one episode that featured him presiding over a wedding of the taxi company’s foreign-born mechanic, Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman). Quickly determining they’d struck comic gold with the character — especially in Lloyd’s sputtering, sweetly addled performance — the producers made Reverend Jim a regular by the second season and he become a dominant figure, bringing an absurdist streak to an otherwise fairly strait-laced show.
“Elegant Iggy” is a perfect encapsulation of how easy it was to generate laughs while Jim was central. The plot is set in motion when Jim is given tickets to a classical music performance by one of his fares. After a brief debate among coworkers angling for the seat beside him at the erudite affair, Jim opts to bring Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) as his companion. Although Jim cleans up well, donning a dapper suit in lieu of his usual heavily scuffed denim ensemble, his eccentricities still prove embarrassing to Elaine when she encounters a wealthy acquaintance (stalwart TV guest character actress Fran Ryan) who she hopes to enlist to provide funding for her fledgling art gallery. The potential patron invites both Elaine and Jim to a gala event she’s hosting.
The conflict of the story rests in Elaine’s fretting about the ways Jim’s behavior among the high society crowd could jeopardize her shot at much needed investments held up against her devotion to her friend, arguably the most innocent soul in the glum cab company. There’s nothing all that profound about the story’s progression, so the award-worthy qualities are found in the dialogue. Writing for Jim, whose intellectual edges were buffed down to literalist nubs, providing the opportunity for wordplay that was like a gentler version of Marx Brothers’ inspired verbal lunacy. Without ever seeming like manipulation to provide a pathway to a punchline, the teleplay sets up Jim for an inspired twist of comic misunderstanding over and over again. As expected, his social stumbling eventually shifts to a day-saving triumph. It is inevitable, and yet, because of wise structuring of his confusion, never quite the obvious outcome.
Writing to Lloyd’s performance was enough of sure bet for Emmy attention that one of the four competing nominees “Elegant Iggy” bested to take the prize was another Jim-centric episode, “Jim the Psychic” (which, to be fair, was more of a comedic showcase for Danny DeVito, playing insidious dispatcher Louie De Palma with delirious heights of anxious paranoia in the face of Jim’s dire prognostications). That same year, Lloyd also won the first of his two Emmys for the role.
Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.