- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

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 into the back of a seemingly normal yellow van taxi. 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.” It has built a loyal following, airing twice on weekdays (6 and 6:30 p.m.).

Like many TV shows, “Cash Cab” is adapted from a British original. It has been licensed to 25 countries, including France, Australia, Indonesia and Peru. Discovery says the show will go back into production for new episodes to air later this spring.

Associated Press recently hailed a ride in the “Cash Cab” to observe this TV show on wheels. In his familiar perch on the driver’s seat, Mr. Bailey, a 35-year-old baritone, suggests the ride could be a lucrative one.

“You can win a lot of money on this interview,” he jokes.

On “Cash Cab,” Mr. Bailey is a marvel of multitasking. Maneuvering through New York City traffic can be arduous even for those not simultaneously hosting a TV show. (A producer feeds Mr. 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,” the host says. “If I kill just one person, it’s all over.”

Fortunately, that hasn’t happened — thanks, in part, to Mr. Bailey’s five years of driving a livery cab before devoting himself to comedy. Previously a struggling comedian, he 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.)

Mark Lepselter, the agent of New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, called his star client when he didn’t know the title of the John Steinbeck novel about Tom Joad. Mr. Barber’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,” Mr. Bailey, a Giants fan, says regretfully.

The action is captured by cameras hidden inside and atop the cab or by a trailing van that stealthily photographs contestants as they get in and out. “Cash Cab” 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, the show can come off like a nature film about New Yorkers. “And you see some fairly unique species,” Mr. Tackaberry says.

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.

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. Although many contestants are plucked randomly off the sidewalks like any other fare, some are selected days earlier.

Yet even those contestants — such as 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,” Miss Keptner says. She and a friend won $575 on “Cash Cab.” (They declined the double-or-nothing video bonus question.)

Although 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.”

Mr. Bailey, who lives in New York, finds himself recognized more than ever. At a recent stand-up gig, someone repeatedly yelled the official taxi number of the “Cash Cab”: 1G12. 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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