Ben Bailey is a stand-up comedian who drives a New York City taxicab. That in itself is not unusual. But unlike other artists who double as hacks, Bailey is on camera and performing when he’s doing his day job. His cab is full of cameras and flashing lights, and he gives away money to passengers who can answer his trivia questions before they reach their destinations.
Sound strange? Not if you’re a regular viewer of Cash Cab, which started its third season on the Discovery Channel in March. Bailey, a Chatham native, has been behind the wheel since day one.
On the show, Bailey asks his passengers increasingly hard questions on topics from pop culture to science to history while he negotiates Manhattan traffic. If they get three questions wrong before reaching their destinations, he pulls over and out they go. If they keep racking up correct answers (they’re allowed one “shout out” by mobile phone or to passersby) they can win hundreds of dollars, which Bailey doles out in cash. A production van tails the taxi, shooting additional footage.
The producers sometimes recruit trivia whizzes to play, but most of the contestants are actual fares who climb aboard unawares. Their reactions when Bailey informs them they’re on TV and explains the rules are part of the fun. (Off camera, they sign a release before the cab shoves off.) Bailey is often surprised at what they know or don’t know.
“I asked these people a Star Wars question. ‘What peacekeeping organization has the ranks of Padawan and Knight?’ I assumed that everyone would just go ‘Jedi!’ These people had no idea. I thought, Wow! Okay, not everybody learns the same things.”
Early experience as a limo driver helped Bailey, now 37, land the gig, but mostly he was hired for his camera presence and many years of performing stand-up comedy. His Cash Cab shifts can last ten hours. “Studies show game show hosts are ornery after ten hours of stop-and-go traffic,” he jokes.
“Memorizing nineteen questions per game, by the end of the week I’ve crammed hundreds of questions in my head, and I can’t always speak properly.”
However fried he may be, he never loses his cool. He’s had to throw someone out of the cab just once.
“We had these two kids and all they were talking about was how stupid and lame the game was. So I just pulled over and said, ‘You guys can get out right here.’ ”
Bailey recently moved with his wife and eighteen-month old daughter from New York City to Morris Township. He’s training for a triathlon in October and working on new stand-up material. Even he is surprised at how much he is enjoying suburban life. “I was cleaning up the garage on Saturday night and I’m like, I don’t have any work, I’m sweeping out the garage, and I’m totally content. What happened to me?”