Flag Down The “Cash Cab”

cash-cab

You’re standing on a Manhattan street trying to hail a taxi. Dozens pass by; most are “off duty,” headed back to the barn. Finally one pulls over and you and your friend(s) get in. Suddenly an array of lights in the headliner goes off, flashing like a disco parlor; there’s a vapid music sting; the driver turns around and says, “You’re in the Cash Cab, a TV game show.”

The show’s tagline is: “There are 13,000 cabs in New York City but there’s only one that pays you.”

The driver is no sullen, flaky, linguistically or geographically challenged guy but your game show’s genial, buzz-cut, clearly Caucasian host, Ben Bailey (no relation as far as I know). As he drives you to your destination, he fires off a series of general knowledge questions. Correct answers win money at increasing levels. The complete rules are pretty simple. Here they are as stated on the official website:

The questions start out on the easy side, then get harder along the way—the harder the question, the more money it’s worth. The first four questions are worth $25 for each correct answer. The next four are worth $50 and then every question after that is worth $100.

A correct answer is awarded the cash; an incorrect answer means the contestant gets a strike. The contestants can earn cash all the way to their destination. But the second they miss their third question (i.e., earn their third strike), Ben pulls the Cash Cab over and ejects them onto the sidewalk, no matter where they are!

If they get stumped on a question, contestants can "shout out" for help, either by calling someone on our mobile phone (a "Mobile Shout-Out"), or by asking someone on the street for help (a "Street Shout-Out"). Each contestant only has one Mobile and one Street Shout-Out during the course of each game.

If the contestant has won at least $200 and the cab hits a red light, a "Red Light Challenge" is offered, which is a single question with multiple part answers. The passenger has 30 seconds to get all answers (e.g., name all seven of Snow White’s dwarfs). If the contestant gets each part of the answer correct, they win $200; if time expires, they move on without receiving any strikes against them.

Finally, if the contestant arrives at their destination having earned cash, they can opt to bet it all—double or nothing—on a "Video Bonus Question."

The show runs on Discovery Channel, half-hour multiple episodes back to back in late afternoon—at the same time as MSNBC’s “Countdown” and “Rachel Maddow Show.” It makes for great channel toggling during commercials.

To see the game in action here’s a clip of three girls, headed uptown to 45th and 3rd:

These girls are really excited, up for it. Some players are more blasé, some pretty clueless. Some players get kicked out of the cab with three wrong answers way before getting to their destination—double losers.

There is something incredibly infectious about this show as I found out when I started to track reactions online. For some, it’s addictive in a way that a normal TV quiz show isn’t. Maybe it’s because it’s on wheels. Maybe it’s the spontaneity and total informality of it. Maybe it’s the sense of a shared few moments in a stranger’s life. It does feel like life caught on the fly. Well, the truth (of course) is a little more complicated.

Here’s another clip of even bigger winners. These three players, a married couple and an obviously “professor” older gent wearing a red bow tie, are headed to the 42nd St. Public Library, probably to do some research. Unlike the girls in the previous clip they are risk takers and opt for the “video bonus,” double or nothing. Ben Bailey tells us they are from the Borough of Manhattan Community College. No wonder they’re big winners. Their combined IQ, if they had a longer trip, might have put Discovery Channel in “Jeopardy”:

But not everyone’s a winner. Here are four women who call themselves the “Lascivious Biddies.” They are a “girl band”—without a drummer. They get off to a slow start, look good midway, but turn greedy on the video bonus:

Here’s some background information on the show. Like many of these game shows it’s an American version of one created in England. There are also Canadian and Australian variants. Reading the rules on Wikipedia, it seems the American version is clearly the most engaging:

Wikipedia Cash Cab article link

There are, I think, five principal camera angles inside the cab: a wide shot of all passengers; a single on the most featured passenger; a raking shot of passengers from the driver side; a raking single on the driver, Ben Bailey, from the passenger side; an angle from the rear of the cab shooting past the passengers to the driver. These are small HD cameras, locked off. There is also an exterior camera on top, pointed up the street, and another that captures the players entering the cab. A follow vehicle contains an operator with a handheld camera that shoots the players exiting the cab at the end of the game. He also shoots follow shots and moving POVs of street life.

Bailey wears an earpiece in his left ear, visible only when he turns sharply to the right. This is how he is fed the questions and answers. Riding “shotgun” and always off camera and unheard is an assistant who cues the lights and music. He enters the cab only after the riders have agreed to play the game.

Riders are often randomly picked up off the streets. However, some are screened as potential contestants for a new game show. They are told that a taxi will pick them up and bring them to the set. The cab that picks them up, of course, is the Cash Cab. They do not know ahead of time that the “quiz show” will take place in a moving taxi. Each episode has multiple gamers and is tightly edited to keep the pace brisk and to avoid any sense of gridlocked traffic—a real NYC fantasy.

As in any game show there is pleasure in answering the questions along with the players. But one thing that distinguishes Cash Cab is its quick succession of so many players. There is a broad juggling of ages and social and ethnic types. These encounters often play topsy-turvy with your expectations. It’s a lot like having a random street conversation with any New Yorker. The intimacy of the game, a really ordinary setting, and a “host” who is in fact a licensed New York hack driver, all create the feeling that you, the viewer, is inside the cab, playing along.

There seem to be at least two actual NYC cabs used. The medallion numbers are 1G12 and, less frequently spotted, 7N78. If you are a New York resident, you have a chance of hailing Bailey’s cab. But you are more likely to be successful if you are a tourist. There is a penchant to recruit and pick up people at tourist venues where people are less likely to be savvy to the game. Several weeks ago walking on Central Park West I overheard a local couple talking about how much time they have spent looking for Bailey’s taxi. New Yorkers get hip to any gig really fast.

Here’s one catch. When Bailey makes the payoff, he waves a fistful of cash money in your face before handing it over. It’s prop money. Your actual “cash” is a check; and yes, the check’s in the mail …Now that’s real show business.

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