Cash Cab Chicago to premier Feb. 14

By HermineBloom

A number of cars zip past one another before a yellow cab screeches to a halt next to the young lady who hailed it mere seconds earlier on a Chicago street corner. Looking forward to morning coffee and dreading a long workday, she climbs in the car exhausted, shoes untied and hair mussed.

But just as she plants herself on the seat and opens her mouth to give the driver her destination, jazzy game show music erupts and bright lights blink, illuminating a newer than average cab interior. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed cab driver turns around and exclaims, “You’re on Cash Cab!” Bewildered, the woman refuses to believe she unknowingly hailed a mobile game show.

“The contestants would be like, ‘Shut up!’ And I’d say, ‘No, this is really the Cash Cab,’ and they’d be like, ‘No, you’re lying,’ over and over again,” said host of “Cash Cab Chicago” Beth Melewski.

As it turns out, the taxi trivia TV show has caused a lot of people on the go to forfeit their morning coffee in NYC as the Discovery Channel’s hugely popular game show “Cash Cab” was filmed in New York for six seasons. It went on to win six Emmys, beating shows like “Jeopardy.” But in early December, Chicago became the new destination for the nondescript, shiny yellow cab with a host whose every intention is to reward everyday people with money for correct trivia answers. The former host of the NYC version, comedian Ben Bailey, was replaced with Second City e.t.c. writer and cast member Melewski, Times Square with the Magnificent Mile and thick New York accents with Midwestern mannerisms. Now production has wrapped and the show is due to debut on Feb. 14.

One of the executive producers and director of “Cash Cab Chicago,” Tom Cohen, openly and enthusiastically attests to the fact that Chicagoans are smart.

“People are smart in Chicago, which is crucial for the show because it’s not easy,” Cohen said. “You initially judge people on how you think they’re going to do, but I’m constantly surprised by how well people do.”

Chicago’s first season, with more than 50,000 questions in its database left over from the past six seasons, was a success because of Chicago’s diversity and vibrant cab culture, according to Cohen.

But to dismiss the amount of backlash the show has received in regards to whether those smart Chicagoans were indeed randomly selected on the street would be doing its fans a disservice.

However, those who have worked on the show do claim the element of surprise is completely genuine.

“We love to talk about ‘Cash Cab’ as the only TV show on television that has such a large pool of contestants,” said Cohen, who has worked on over 400 TV shows and specifically on “Cash Cab” since its creation in 2005. “Pretty much anybody walking around the streets of New York or Chicago is eligible to play and might end up on the air. It’s really the only game show where any unsuspecting person can end up winning money on a game show.”

But when Time Out Chicago editor Jake Malooley spotted the Cash Cab in Wicker Park on Dec. 3, he asked to play, was quickly denied and told to keep a look out for the cab around town. Discouraged, Malooley blogged about what happened and implied that there must be some sort of audition process.

In response to Malooley’s incident, Cohen said, “You can’t just walk up and get in. It defeats the purpose of the surprise. We try to drive around the city and pick people up. A large part of the show is that element of surprise so to be able to play you have to hail the cab. It also opens up a whole thing where people might try to find where we’ve just dropped people off and get in. It doesn’t have the same magic moment.”

Melewski said people frequently recognized the cab and begged to participate. They were denied, however, because –agreeing with Cohen–there was no element of surprise, she said.

“A lot of people know about the show already so it was a really good position to be in because if they got in the cab they were really excited,”

Melewski said.

Her custom ride meets all the specifications of an ordinary yellow cab but has camera decks and lights. It’s been spotted in areas with high cab

densities, such as the Loop, Lincoln Park and River North. Melewski, who just learned she will return to Second City e.t.c. to work on “The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life” show, said earning her cab driving license to become the host was the hardest thing she’s ever had to do.

“That’s always one of the things the contestants ask: ‘Are you a real cabbie?’” Melewski said. “It was definitely harder than any ACT or SAT or anything I had to do for college.”

But the fact that she didn’t receive any special treatment speaks to the realness of the show, Melewski added.

Kevin McCaffrey, writer for “Cash Cab Chicago” and “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Smoking Gun Presents” and “Silent Library,” to name a few, points to anecdotal evidence in regards to whether the show is staged.

“As writers, we’re not privy to a whole lot of stuff besides writing the questions and then going away,” McCaffrey joked. “But I at least overheard production people talking about how it was a slower day driving around Chicago. Like, people weren’t looking for cabs. So I don’t know why people would be talking about that otherwise.”

McCaffrey said his job as a writer wasn’t easy because the show has been around for six years.

“Basically you’re responsible for writing 20 new questions a day,” McCaffrey said. “The show’s been around for a while—enough that when I got there there were 50,000 questions in the database. You’ll just think of [a] seemingly specific [question] and then you’ll look it up [in the database] and eight people will have written about it in 2006 or something like that.”

Unable to share the most obscure question he’s written because of a contractual agreement with the network, McCaffrey said if he or one of his four fellow writers got at least two questions out of 20 approved, it was considered a productive day. An example of a question is as follows: In Cajun cuisine, what crustaceans are playfully referred to as “mudbugs?” A) Crawfish B) Crabs C) Shrimp D) Lobster.

In order to write trivia for “Cash Cab,” McCaffrey said he forces himself to be more curious.

“Usually if you’re walking around and you’re asking yourself, ‘Oh why is that that way? Or why is that like this?,’ instead of being like, ‘I don’t care. I’ll just go home and play video games,’ I’d be like, ‘OK, well let’s find out why that is,’” McCaffrey said. “And why things are the way they are is a big part of the mission statement of what Discovery [Channel] is.”

McCaffrey also admits anyone can find an obscure fact and write a really difficult question, but writing a question people might know that’s still original and interesting in some way, or “an easy question” as he puts it, is exceedingly difficult.

“I’ve had to catch myself in bar situations trying not to sound like a cartoon science teacher: like, ‘Little did you know,’” McCaffrey said in a goofy, pseudo-intellectual voice.

Cash Cab Chicago will premiere on Feb. 14 at 6:30 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.