NEW YORK - "Cash Cab" is spreading the wealth.
The Discovery Network show that turns a New York City cab ride into an instant game show is launching a spin-off version based in Chicago next spring. Comic Beth Melewski, a "Second City" cast member, will be behind the wheel.
The expansion comes after a triumphant year for "Cash Cab." The series, itself a remake of a British TV's similar game based in London, won its second Daytime Emmy award for best game show. Ben Bailey won his first Emmy as best host.
The idea for the Chicago version came when Bailey did a handful of tapings in Las Vegas, some that included entertainers such as Carrot Top playing for charity, and Discovery recognized how a new city with new people and new sites could give "Cash Cab" an entirely different feel, said Clark Bunting, Discovery's CEO.
Bunting is from Michigan, and he wanted to get the Midwest involved. Chicago, a city similar to New York with many cabs, seemed like it could work in a way that Los Angeles, for example, couldn't since there's relatively little cab use.
Melewski had the combination of smarts and knowledge of her city to work well in the cab, he said.
"Beth feels real-deal Chicago," he said. "You've got to have, for these shows at least, a feel for the city."
He doesn't expect expansion beyond these two cities in the United States, Bunting said. Other "Cash Cab" versions air in Canada, Japan and Australia.
The Chicago shows will begin airing within the two-hour block of four "Cash Cab" episodes that Discovery airs from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., probably after the broadcast networks end their season in May. Bailey has been taping fresh New York episodes that will begin airing earlier. He's already made more than 200 since the game began in 2005.
The double Emmy win, a cameo taking Tracy Morgan for a ride on "30 Rock," and a taping of Oprah Winfrey-themed questions that will air Dec. 28 on the daytime queen's program illustrate how "Cash Cab" has made a dent in popular culture. A game show on four wheels is able to compete creatively with longtime studio favorites "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune."
"It was pretty awesome," Bailey said, sitting in his taxi during a recent break in taping. "It's everything that people thought it would be. It's validation and credit for hard work. But at the same time, it's a trophy."
Every game begins with customers seeking a cab ride, only to get in the car and be greeted by flashing lights and Bailey's pronouncement that they're on "Cash Cab."
Contestants are asked a series of trivia questions that get increasingly harder as the ride goes on, and can win $25, $50 and $100 increments. Bailey often prompts players to go double-or-nothing, and one rider walked out with $6,200. There is no limit, but the game ends when a player either reaches the destination or gets three answers wrong.
Audience members can relate to the visceral thrill of being suddenly thrust into the game and, like the best game shows, it's easy to play along at home.
Bailey's cab looks like any other as he snakes through New York City traffic. A van trails him, filled with production staff, and equipped with monitors that have visual and audio connections to what's happening in the taxi.
Tom Cohen, the show's producer, watches from the van and occasionally offers instructions.
"He's very likable and he drives the game very well," Cohen said. "He's very much in control of the game, which is important in making these people feel comfortable."
Bailey, he said, "fits in with the city. He's got a very New York City cabdriver's edge."
His cab started one evening of taping near New York's Penn Station, looking for someone to signal for a ride.
The first rider gets in and is excited by the lights. He wants to play, but he's from Brazil, and the show's rules say contestants have to be from the U.S. Another rider is German. He wonders if Bailey would take him to his destination.
Sorry. He's got the wrong cab.
Bailey switches his sign to "off duty" and starts moving away from Penn Station. Finally, at 56th Street and 8th Avenue, and on the fifth try, he finds a willing contestant.
Maybe it looks smooth on TV, but in real life, the van and cab pull over for 10 minutes. The player, Marissa Garcia, is asked to sign production papers and is briefed on how the game is played.
Bailey, a standup comic who took roles in sitcoms before "Cash Cab" changed his life, has a Comedy Central special set for next year. He appreciates what "Cash Cab" has meant to him, including the chance to live a fairly regular suburban life in New Jersey.