In 2017, in-car entertainment isn't exactly a novelty.
There's the viral favorite "Carpool Karaoke," from "Late Late Show" host James Corden, in which musical celebrities including Adele, Stevie Wonder, Sia, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez (as well as Michelle Obama) have buckled in to sing along to all of their hits. And Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" is a classic-car romp starring famous faces not limited to comedians, including President Barack Obama.
But predating all of this is "Cash Cab," the mobile game show from the Discovery Channel that debuted in 2005 and bowed in 2012. Players would hail what they thought to be a typical New York City cab, only to find driver and host Ben Bailey inside, ready to test their trivia chops.
"You guys are in the Cash Cab!" he'd proclaim, as rainbow lights flashed inside the car. "It's a TV game show that takes place right here in my taxi." Get three questions wrong and you'd be ejected from the cab. Ace the game and you could win thousands in the course of a single ride, a fact that had locals and tourists alike hopeful that one day, they, too, might stumble upon Bailey's vehicle.
A "Cash Cab" revival premieres with back-to-back episodes at 10 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4, promising a new celebrity-infused format and the return of Bailey's yellow van.
The stand-up comedian-turned-game show host, who grew up in Chatham (borough) and lives in Morristown, acknowledges the current trendiness of car-set programming.
"I like to think that I played some part in that," Bailey, 47, tells NJ Advance Media. "There's something that works with this voyeuristic aspect. It makes you feel like it can happen to you."
Bailey had won three Daytime Emmys for hosting the show and served as an executive producer, but when word got out that a new "Cash Cab" was in the works -- one in a sea of television revivals -- he was not attached to the project.
"When you hear they might do your show without you. #WTF !?!?" he tweeted in March. "Retweet if you think I should host the new episodes of Cash Cab on @Discovery."
Fans rallied to Bailey's side. His message, which has been retweeted 11,000 times, had its intended effect (though Bailey isn't quite sure that's why producers asked him back).
"There was this whole big thing on social media where people were like, outraged," Bailey says. "I was really moved by it."
Soon, the 6-foot-6 host was back in the driver's seat at the show, which has implemented a few updates, including a lineup of Hollywood favorites who join some players for the ride.
"Everyone thought there was the possibility but didn't really think it was going to happen," he says of the revival. "We're super psyched now."
Recognizing the appeal of celebrities in cars, the show enlisted actors including Scott Bakula of "Quantum Leap," former Bergen County resident Brooke Shields, Dave Foley ("NewsRadio," "The Kids in the Hall") and Jeff Garlin and Susie Essman from "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to join the players as they attempt to make a net profit on their cab ride. (The players, not the actors, still get all the money.)
From 2009: 'Cash Cabbie' is a Jersey driver
Along with Bakula, who can be seen in the premiere, "Friends" actor Matthew Perry proves especially adept at the game, showing he really knows his Pennsylvania football teams, magazines and cowboy hat makers. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried (who appears in the second episode)? Not so much, Bailey says.
Other new bells and whistles on the show include a "social media shoutout," like a "street shoutout" (which is still allowed), where the players survey someone on the street to help them out with a question, except the ask is conducted via Facebook Live through Bailey's phone. The tool is much more effective than the show's previous "mobile shoutout" phone-a-friend option. Also returning is the show's "Red Light Challenge," which promises more money than the average question. All told, players can grab upwards of $1,250 in a single ride (players have won as much as $6,200).
Bailey, who was born in Kentucky, left his family home in Chatham for Los Angeles when he was 22 to try to make it as an actor.
"I just sort of (started) randomly working at a comedy club, so that's how I ended up doing stand-up," he says. From there, he thought he'd try his act in New York.
"Jersey definitely played a role," he says. "I lived in my parents' basement and drove into the city to do stand-up for a lot of years before 'Cash Cab' came along."
Yet he almost didn't make the audition. Bailey, who had also worked as a bouncer and limo driver, had a stand-up show outside San Diego the night before. He took a redeye flight home to try out for the gig, but considered ditching the appointment.
"It seemed ridiculous," he says of the concept -- a game show in a cab. But producers seemed to like the fact that Bailey was already working as a driver. And the show ended up being so successful it spawned the late-night "Cash Cab After Dark," for which Bailey often tended to tipsy bar customers, and a short-lived "Cash Cab Chicago." Other "Cash Cab" offshoots popped up in Canada and France.
"It got to the point where everybody knew what it was," he says. "They'd open the door and say hello to me." To preserve an element of surprise, Bailey began driving with the lights off inside the cab, which the production used to leave on to make sure he was visible to cameras.
Bailey sees reports about how the game isn't the suprise it appears to be for players -- they say producers scout for contestants without letting them know it's for "Cash Cab" -- but he doesn't want to reveal too much about what goes on behind the scenes.
"It's absolutely not rigged. We go to great lengths to get people in there that will have a chance," he says, as much as it is possible to do so without telling the exactly what's going on.
Bailey will be performing stand-up at Caroline's on Broadway in New York from Dec. 14 to 16. He also has a Comedy Central special on Netflix called "Road Rage and Accidental Ornithology," a production company that produces short films and webisodes at therealbenbailey.com and a podcast called "Tall But True."
"I would love to do more acting if I had my druthers right now," he says.
For now, the cab-famous comedian is waiting to hear if he'll be filming more episodes of the show. If he does, he'd love to take some favorites for a ride -- President Obama and Jerry Seinfeld would top of his list, he says, along with karaoke master James Corden.
Another option: pull a Sean Connery and "turn the tables on Trebek," Bailey says.
Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKup or on Facebook.