NEW YORK — Of the 13,000 cabs in New York City, only one pays you.
On “Cash Cab,” a Discovery Channel reality game show, people plop themselves into the back of a seemingly normal, yellow van taxi. But then lights on the ceiling begin flashing and the driver turns around to inform the passengers they’re on television.
En route to the contestant’s destination, comedian Ben Bailey asks general knowledge questions worth $25, $50 and $100. Get three questions wrong, though, and you’re out — on the street, even in the pouring rain, wherever you are.
Despite little promotion, viewers have responded to the charming simplicity of “Cash Cab.” Airing twice on weekdays (6 and 6:30 p.m. ET) it has built a loyal following.
Like many TV shows, “Cash Cab” is adapted from a British original. It’s been licensed to 25 countries, including France, Australia, Indonesia and Peru. And Discovery says the show will go back into production for new episodes to air later this spring.
To observe this TV show on wheels, The Associated Press recently hailed a ride in the “Cash Cab.”
In his familiar perch of the driver’s seat, the 35-year-old baritone Bailey suggests the ride could be a lucrative one.
“You can win a lot of money on this interview,” he jokes.
A marvel of multitasking
On “Cash Cab,” Bailey is a marvel of multitasking. Maneuvering New York City traffic can be arduous even for those not simultaneously hosting a TV show. (A producer feeds Bailey the questions through an earpiece while he drives.)
“I knew it was going to be a lot of work and I had to be careful,” says Bailey. “If I kill just one person, it’s all over.”
Fortunately that hasn’t happened yet — no doubt partially thanks to Bailey’s five years of driving a livery cab before devoting himself to comedy.
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“I thought about the job as a driver as good material for [standup] but I didn’t think it would actually come to be like this,” he says.
Bailey, previously a struggling comedian, successfully passed the test for a taxi driver’s license. The “Cash Cab” is actually a registered cab.
“Safety was an enormous concern,” says co-executive producer Tony Tackaberry. “Fortunately, he took the idea of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time to the nth degree.”
The show’s contestants are allowed two “shout-outs” if they’re stumped on a question. They can either make a cell phone call to a friend or pull over and ask a random passer-by.
One man desperately called his ex-wife when he couldn’t remember the pig’s name from “Charlotte’s Web.” (It’s Wilbur.)
The agent of New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, Mark Lepselter, called his star client when he didn’t know the title of the John Steinbeck novel about Tom Joad.
Tiki’s answer? “Lonesome Dove.” (It’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”)
“When he said ‘Lonesome Dove,’ I initially went, ‘Fumble!’ — which was awful because he had, like, the most fumbles in the NFL a few years ago,” Bailey, a Giants fan, says regretfully.
The action is captured by the various hidden cameras inside and atop the cab, or by a trailing van that stealthily shoots contestants as they get in and out.
The show also offers something of a slice of New York life, with city dwellers on their way to a favorite bar in Tribeca or to opera practice on the Upper West Side.
On Discovery, where documentaries on sharks or oil rigs are more the norm, “Cash Cab” can come off like a nature film about New Yorkers.
“And you see some fairly unique species,” Tackaberry says.
“The main thing I’ve learned is you can never tell who knows what by looking at them,” says Bailey. “It’s totally random.”
‘This guy is nuts’
The real joy of “Cash Cab,” though, is seeing the startled reactions of contestants at the moment they’re told their cab is a game show set.
“Are you serious?!” is the most frequent reply.
“Some people are suspicious,” says Bailey. “Some people just don’t believe me. And then other people think that it’s something I just set up myself as a joke, even after they see all the lights and everything. They look at me like, ‘This guy is nuts.”’
Of course, some people don’t want to play. If you’re hailing a cab, there’s a good chance you’re in a hurry and don’t have the 15 minutes it takes to sign the necessary waivers (which is done immediately after the passengers are told they’re on “Cash Cab”).
As with any reality show, a few fictions are involved. Though many contestants are randomly plucked off the sidewalks like any other fare, some are selected days earlier.
But even those contestants — like 29-year-old Becky Keptner — think they’re in for an entirely different reality show. Some are told the show will be about their favorite place in New York and that the cab is simply their ride to get there.
“We were completely surprised when it turned into what it was,” says Keptner. “Reality television, obviously they need to trick you into it now.”
She and a friend won $575 on “Cash Cab.” (They declined the double-or-nothing video bonus question.)
Though contestants are shown leaving with cash in hand, that’s just for the cameras; they later receive a check in the mail.
Stepping to the street, many winners shout, “Best cab ride ever!”
Bailey, who lives in New York, finds himself recognized more than ever. At a recent standup gig, someone repeatedly yelled the official taxi number of the “Cash Cab”: 1G12. And when the comedian rides in a regular taxi, wide-eyed cabbies sometimes turn around and pepper him with questions.
“Everywhere I go in the city now,” he says, “there’s a ‘Cash Cab’ memory.”
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