The second episode of Richard Hammond’s Crash Course packs two occupations into one hour – stand-up comedian and New York City taxi driver. Either of these jobs would be challenging enough for their own episode, but when you put them together and add in the fact that Richard is facing one of his biggest fears, this is one of the better ‘crash courses’ that he’s embarked upon.
The show neatly ties the two jobs together with the premise that most stand-up comedians work other jobs in order to support themselves, so Richard will have to earn his keep driving a city taxi while also preparing for his comedy act in the evenings. That would be a tall order for anyone to learn, but as Richard explains, stand-up comedy is a “recurring nightmare” of his.
His guide for the comedy portion of the show is comedian/writer Jim Mendrinos, who meets him at New York City’s famed Gotham Comedy Club. Gotham’s stage has been graced by the likes of Lenny Bruce, Lewis Black, Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K., just to name a few. Jim doesn’t quite understand how Richard can fear the stage and not fear death, but he sits him down and instructs him to write down things that he wants to talk about, and the two of them will work on making those things funnier. As Jim explains the preparatory process, Richard’s voiceover is hilariously, perfectly deadpan, remarking on how drunk New Yorkers are not known for being attentive and polite.
After being mortified by an empty notebook page needing him to fill it with material, Richard insists to Jim that he’s not funny, a statement that his legion of fans would respectfully disagree with (check out our recent interview and you’ll see his sense of humor), and Jim retorts that he’ll be on stage if Jim has to be up there with him – and put him on a leash to keep him from running away. Before there can be too much banter about that, however, Richard is off to Queens in order to get started at his other job.
You’d think being a cabbie would be easy for a man who’s spent the last decade on the world’s top motoring show, but this is New York traffic we’re talking about, and Richard also has to get the approval of cab fleet owner Stanley Wissak. Stanley, who doesn’t seem to be aware of the premise of the show, passes Richard off to veteran cabbie John McDonagh. With Richard riding shotgun in his cab, John explains that taking out the cab and paying for his gas costs him $170 before he picks up a single fare. Add that to the thousands of other cabs he’s competing against, and this is not an easy occupation.
Richard’s taxi career gets off to an even worse start than his comedy act: the cab gets stuck in traffic and promptly decides to overheat, ironically behind an ice cream truck. The car quickly stops functioning entirely, leaving Richard, John and the production crew to push it to a safe place where Richard can look under the hood and declare the patient deceased. As a handy pop-up meter informs us, this means John and Richard aren’t making any money whatsoever. John takes this fairly well, deciding that they’ll just walk over to the iconic Katz’s Deli for lunch instead.
When Richard gets back to Gotham, Jim has called in fellow comedian Eddie Brill to help him with his nonexistent act. Jim’s hope is that with two different philosophies of comedy in front of him, Richard will find something that works. Instead, when Jim tries to mock-introduce Richard to the empty room, he catches Richard trying to run away.
Jim and Eddie implore Richard to come up with material, and so Richard decides to start telling them about the time he participated in the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona (which, if you want to see it for yourself, someone has posted on YouTube – it’s at about the 13:00 mark). Realizing Richard’s just reiterating what happened, not making it funny, Jim tells Eddie that it’s probably best to start him off in a smaller group before they subject him to a full audience.
The next morning, John picks up Richard in a new cab and announces that not only are they going to the insanely busy Times Square, but that he also plans to pick up a few passengers with Richard driving. Richard soon picks up his first fare, but admits to John that he has no idea where to go. The skateboarder in the back seems pretty amused by John having to navigate for Richard and informing him that he ought to keep his doors locked so no irate drivers can try to drag him out of the cab. “Actually, I got hit by a cab two days ago,” the skateboarder admits, before getting out of the cab at his destination…and John decides he’s going to leave, too.
Richard is on his own, and it doesn’t go well. He forgets to run the meter for his next passenger, then proceeds to get lost, meaning that he’s still more than $150 in the hole by the time he returns the cab to Stanley’s shop at end of shift.
But the failed day at work gives him an idea for his comedy act, and he calls up Jim to discuss the kidney stone he had removed just days before coming to New York. That’s the material he takes in front of his test audience, which is comprised of other aspiring comics. Richard is still more telling what happened than making jokes out of it, and aside from an opening laugh or two, his act falls flat. There’s even a woman caught texting in the middle of it.
This sends a desperate Richard back to Jim, who reviews the tape with him and gives him constructive criticism on almost every facet of his act, from the jokes themselves to where to put the microphone stand. Richard’s big show is that evening, so he’s running out of time to get himself together.
Before he takes the main stage at Gotham, however, he’s got to work one more shift in his taxi. His first fare is a French tourist family, and although he gets a bit lost, he does manage to get them to their destination. The resulting montage shows us that he’s kind of gotten the hang of this cab driving thing. He meets John in Times Square having turned a profit of $57.50. However, since he owed money at the end of the first day, the overall bottom line is that Richard owes Stanley $92.70. Ouch.
Bidding John farewell, Richard meets Jim, Eddie and club MC Jimmy Failla outside Gotham for a last-minute pep talk before waiting for his turn during the club’s open-mic night. Once he gets on stage, he’s vastly improved from the Richard of the evening before, having taken Jim’s advice and made use of it. He leaves the stage to considerable applause, and backstage he admits something unexpected: that he wishes his ‘crash course’ was longer, because he knows that he could do better. For a first-timer, though, Jim gives Richard his seal of approval.
There’s some disappointment in the episode as it combines two different ‘crash courses’ – while thematically it’s easy to understand why, the back-and-forth between the two jobs shakes up the usual narrative flow and cuts down on the amount of things to be learned about each occupation. Judging from what did make the cut, there’s probably a lot more to be explored in both comedy and cab driving, so it’s a shame that the two gigs didn’t get their own individual episodes for the audience to truly sink their teeth into each one. Certainly after hearing how much stand-up comedy terrifies Richard, it would have been nice to see more than just a minute or two of the finished product.
That aside, what remains does paint an intriguing enough picture of both comedy and taxi driving so as to leave us wanting more. Both are jobs that seem like they should be easy, and particularly so for Richard Hammond, but the episode shows us that they are more difficult than they appear. The audience does learn a little bit about the minutiae that help make a stand-up act and more about how hard it can be to make it as a cab driver. Crash Course continues to be that show which sheds a little more light on the various careers in the American workplace.
There’s also something to be said for watching Richard conquer something that’s intimidating to him personally. Most folks who watch Crash Course are probably fans of Richard’s from Top Gear or any of the dozen other shows he’s hosted, and as fans, we want to see him do well. While he isn’t a resounding success at either comedy or cab driving, the fact that he tackled something that quite obviously scared him provides a sense of being along for something significant to the audience – even if we only saw it reduced down to twenty-odd minutes of footage.
This episode provides a nice slice of life for those who aren’t living in New York City, and furnishes the audience with a certain degree of appreciation when it comes to both stand-up comedians and taxi drivers, as well as for Richard Hammond for even trying both those careers. While he might not have been superb at either, the combination makes for an episode that certainly is.
For more on Richard Hammond’s Crash Course, you can also read my interview with Richard Hammond about what’s ahead in season two.
For more from Brittany Frederick, visit Digital Airwaves and follow me on Twitter (@tvbrittanyf).
(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Examiner with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.