The backstory of how my friend of thirty years, Elisa Casas and I became contestants on the Discovery Channel’s Cash Cab, the wildly successful but completely gimmicky game show set in the back of a yellow cab pimped out like a pinball machine on speed is, I think, more interesting that the actual footage. The first thing you need to know is that Elisa and I don’t like gimmicks, especially when they also involve trickery. The second thing you need to know is that by the time we did the show, it had become so popular that contestants were no longer actual picked-up fares but instead, recruited under false pretenses by the production team. Here’s the kicker: the show we thought we going to be featured on would have been so much better than Cash Cab—at least for us.
It began one day when Elisa and I were in one of the vintage stores that she owned and I managed. Some guy came in and said he was looking for “real New York types”—whatever that means—to host a segment for a new travel show called When in Rome. He asked us to fill out some stupid questionnaire and we complied; the survey was really just a ruse to observe our personalities, just like how When in Rome was a ruse to get us into that over-caffeinated taxi cab.
Said person contacted us a few days later and gave us the good news: the producers of When in Rome wanted Elisa and I to host our very own segment walking through Barneys! This made us very happy, indeed. Barney’s has always been my favorite department store, but even more than that, the chance to host a segment where we just walk through the store and “do us” was a surefire recipe for what is commonly regarded in industry parlance as “good TV.” Elisa and I have great chemistry and are not entirely unfunny when we get in a zone. Barney’s generally put us squarely in the zone. Our natural dynamic is what had gotten us on World of Wonder’s Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys and would, I was certain, help us sell Rags to Bitches, the docu-soap which we were in the middle of developing. It all seemed charmed, except it was a lie.
Curiously, on the day of shoot we were told to meet the production van on the corner of 17th street and 6th avenue (like any “real New York-type,” I will never call it “Avenue of the Americas”). This made little sense but other than the fact that When in Rome wasn’t listed on IMDB, we had little reason to be suspicious. Besides, we were to focused on pulling first-tier outfits together and brainstorming about ideas for schtick we might use while hosting our segment.
A white production van pulled up and a PA got out and barked, “Get in that cab and tell them to take you to Barney’s—we’ll meet you there.” This also made no sense whatsoever, but it happened very fast. We complied and got into the cab. Suddenly the lights started flashing, the schizo arcade game music went off and the driver started speed-bellowing “blah, blah, blah you are on Cash Cab.” It was orchestrated like something wonderfully exciting was happening but it was actually quite awful and rather unpleasant. Any “real New Yorker” worth his salt would absolutely understand our response. Also, to add insult to injury, it’s not the version you saw because, as Elisa reminded me, we didn’t act excited enough and she very audibly said, “What the fuck?” I So the whole getting into the cab part had to be reshot, but not before I dealt with a major problem: my partner. Elisa was completely confused and disoriented and not in a isn’t-this-is-fun-let’s-roll-the-camera kind of way. She had no clue what Cash Cab was—had never even heard of it.
“David, what’s going on? What is all this?” she demanded as we got out of the cab and prepared to re-enter the taxi and act like this was an Absolutely Incredible turn of events. Though I vaguely knew what Cash Cab was, I was pissed off, which put me a step ahead of Elisa. I was already processing the instantaneous evaporation of a great opportunity—hosting our own TV segment at Barney’s that would really show off our chemistry and I thought it could be our “big break”—so we could play a game show neither of us gave a shit about in the back of a dark cab. And now I had to explain the whole thing to Elisa in the thirty-seconds before they started filming. (Elisa still laughs at my pronoun choice of “our,” as she never has and never would want a “big break” in the way I meant it. Her allegation has the ring of truth, though she wouldn’t have minded the money of a “big break,” be it mine or “ours.”)
“It’s a game show but it’s in a cab,” I said , looking directly at her with my arms firmly on her shoulders. “What do you mean? What about our show at Barney’s?” she asked, crestfallen, like she was fourteen and just found out she couldn’t go to Rockaway PlayLand with Peter and Gaby. I knew this was going to be challenging—after thirty years of friendship you just know what you’re up against. “Elisa, listen to me,” I said shaking her a bit and sort of whispering and yelling in her ear at the same time. “The Barney’s thing was a trick so we wouldn’t know about this stupid Cash Cab. We have to get in the cab now and pretend its the first time and maybe win some money in the forty-something blocks it takes to get to Barney’s. You have to focus, now. I can’t do this by myself.”
“So you mean there is no Barney’s segment and we just have to answer some questions in a cab?” she asked, her confusion now turning more to disappointment. “Yes! They’ll explain the game to us, but first we have to repeat getting into the cab and act like we don’t want to kill them.” But we weren’t happy. I was pissed and Elisa was sad. While the set-up might have worked for most people, this was a terribly shocking turn of events for us. By this time, we were mic’d and in another moment: “Action!” That’s about where the footage you see actually begins.
By the time the cameras were on, I had jettisoned my anger for my phony TV personality, which I have been practicing at least since I started doing commercials in 1973, but Elisa’s ability to do likewise seemed—well—somewhat less available to her. Her disappointment sort of curdled into annoyance during the duration of the segment, sometimes coming off as a bit hostile, other times, she just seems “not there,” staring out the window. Perhaps she was imagining the brilliant Barney’s segment feature that had been torn out of our life with a sudden ripping motion. In the mood we were in, we were both irritated by the amped up game show ebulliance of the host, stand-up comic Ben Bailey, whose charms got lost somewhere between the front and the back seat; or, to put it a different way, in the vast space between When in Rome, the show we were supposed to do and Cash Cab, the show we were literally trapped in.
Financially speaking, we did okay—$500 bucks, though we weren’t very funny. Showcasing our humor and improv skills in the world’s hippest department store with professional production values was worth far more to us at that point than $500. I did have one sort of cute bit with my street shout out. The question, which confounded us, was, “What’s the French term that refers to the swinging social scene that follows a day on the slopes?” Though I’ve been to France many times, the extent of my French is generally defined by whatever songs are on Je m’appelle Barbra, extensive familiarity with certain Catherine Deneuve films, and knowing how to ask for a bathroom and a price. Luckily, I found a European lady who after some “what’s in it for me?” bullshit, gave with the answer: “Aprés ski.”). Mostly though, it was just a great deal of hand-wringing and affected good cheer barely masking daggers.
Forty-three blocks later, with the cab just pulling to Barney’s, Ben tried to get us to go double or nothing, but we had already had enough. Thankfully, it was over. Ben Bailey handed us some big fake bills, we acted happy, and as we exited the cab and a young PA who looked like an extra from Girls said, “Okay, thanks. You guys were so great. Just sign these releases and you’ll get a check in a few weeks.” We complied and that’s when the Cash Cab cabal fucked with us for the very last time: she scurried into the van and drove off, leaving us on the curb. There was not even the slightest pretense of offering us a lift back to where the subterfuge began.
We were free now to contemplate the full measure of our disgust and manage the inconvenience of hailing a real cab to take us back downtown. In the end, our Cash Cab segment did not become anyone’s “big break,” just a footnote and a blog entry which is, I suppose, one and the same.
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More Elisa Casas in Stargayzing:
Visit Chelsea Girl, Elisa’s on-line vintage clothing store.