Arms raised, Geoff Renaud and Brooke Cainkar stood on West Broadway near Canal Street in SoHo on a recent afternoon trying to flag a cab for the trip uptown. Ah, there was one now.
In they climbed, settling back with relief and announcing their destination: Broadway between 19th and 20th Street. Then the orange, purple and blue disco lights began flashing overhead, and Mr. Renaud, the head of a marketing firm, realized that his date with a prospective client would have to wait; he had a date with destiny. "Hey," he delightedly hollered. "I'm in the cash cab!"
Ben Bailey, host of Discovery Channel's 'Cash Cab,' begins a three-night stand-up gig at New York's Gotham Comedy Club on June 27th.
"You're in the cash cab," agreed Ben Bailey, the man behind the wheel and behind the success of the Discovery Channel's game show on wheels. The recent winner of a Daytime Emmy Award, "Cash Cab" gives passengers the chance to answer trivia questions and win money while being ferried around town.
For 2½ years, Mr. Bailey, 37, an actor, comic and the show's multitasking host, has folded his 6-foot-6 frame into the driver's seat of a Toyota Sienna and cruised the mean streets of Manhattan, trawling for contestants and uttering the words that have become catch phrases to loyal "Cash Cab" viewers. These include "Red light challenge," a video multiple-choice bonus question, and "Street shout-out," a kind of roadside assistance for players who are stuck on puzzlers like "In contrast to 'et al,' what Latin phrase meaning 'and so on' usually refers to things, not people?"
In fact, Mr. Renaud and Ms. Cainkar were clueless about "et cetera" and two other matters pertaining to biology and computer software. Three strikes, and Mr. Bailey good-naturedly ordered them out of the cab at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue, almost half a mile from their goal. Such is the way of the game. No fair, perhaps, but at least there was no fare and, in fact, no hard feelings.
"I'm a huge fan of the show and have always wanted to be on," said Mr. Renaud. "We get in taxis every day, and to get in one and have that much of an unexpected experience is pretty exciting. It's fine that I didn't win," he added. "The questions were a little tougher than I imagined."
The prize money on "Cash Cab" may be chump change compared with what's available on, say, "Jeopardy!" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- Mr. Bailey ponies up $50, $100 or $200 per question depending on the degree of difficulty, with $6,200 the biggest payout so far. Regardless, in ever-increasing numbers, audiences are coming along for the ride. Viewership has increased 37% since "Cash Cab" debuted in December 2005.
"I think the show has a combination of things people want," said Mr. Bailey, whose TV credits include appearances on "Law & Order SVU," "Hope & Faith" and "Star Search" (he was a semifinalist in 2003), and a recurring role on the soap "One Life to Live." "I'm giving away money. There are flashy lights in the ceiling that people love, and it also has that voyeuristic quality you get from reality TV.
"But it doesn't exploit the worst in human nature and it's not degrading to anyone. Initially, the producers wanted me to be mean and ridicule passengers if they got the answer wrong, and I wouldn't do it. It's one thing to be mean to people you know," he added with a grin. "But I didn't want to be mean to strangers."
That reluctance may go some distance in explaining the show's appeal. "Ben can relate to everybody. He makes people feel comfortable with him right away," said John Ford, president and general manager of the Discovery Channel. "Viewers write in and tell us their kids want to come to New York so they can ride in the cash cab."
The genial Mr. Bailey was fueling up for an afternoon in the cab -- a pot of coffee, a large bottle of sparkling water, a club sandwich and french fries -- and fretting just a little. He's got a three-night stand-up gig at the Gotham Comedy Club starting tomorrow -- and was eager to steer the conversation in that direction: "I want people to know I'm not just the 'Cash Cab' guy."
But he's aware that his fame, such as it is, derives from the TV show. And so he gamely revealed that quite a few people bail when they learn they've hailed the cash cab, because as harried New Yorkers they have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with signing releases and submitting to retakes; that he hates driving; that his most peculiar passenger was a 6-foot-8 fellow wearing a purple velour rabbit suit and giant plastic high heels who kept referring to him as "baby" (no, the Velveteen Rabbit didn't pass muster as a contestant); and that when he's a taxi passenger he often goes unrecognized. "But when they do notice they get very excited and try to take pictures of me through the partition while they're driving, and I'm like 'please watch the road. You're scaring the hell out of me.'"
The younger of two children, Mr. Bailey was born in Bowling Green, Ky., and raised in Chatham, N.J., where he was routinely tossed out of class for his wiseacre comments. "I was told by everyone that I should be a comedian," he said.
As a teenager Mr. Bailey earned extra money delivering pizza, sandwiches, flowers and prescriptions, gradually working his way up to delivering people; he spent a few years on the payroll of a car service, a job history that helped him land an audition for "Cash Cab."
Mr. Bailey's nimble wit, sharpened by years of playing comedy clubs in New York and Los Angeles, won over the show's executives. There was just one little requirement before contracts could be signed: the acquisition of a taxi license -- no walk in the park. "One of the questions on the practice test," recalled Mr. Bailey, "was 'if you have to go from Broadway and 163rd Street to Yankee Stadium, what bridge do you take?' It was multiple choice and I had never heard of any of the bridges. There are 11 bridges between Manhattan and the Bronx alone and 53 tunnels and bridges around Manhattan. I knew I had a lot to learn."
He learned. When, a year and a half ago, Mr. Bailey's wife went into labor with their first child, the couple hailed a cab. "We went from Battery Park City to St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, and the driver was going to stay on the West Side Highway," Mr. Bailey reported. "But I made him take 10th Avenue. Tenth Avenue," he confided, "is the best kept secret on the West Side."