The TikTok Travelogues That Remind Everyone of Anthony Bourdain

Kareem Rahma, a New York–based comedian, hops in the back of a cab with two camerapersons. One lens is focused on him, the other on the taxi driver. “Take me to your favorite place,” Rahma instructs the man behind the wheel as a percussive score strikes up, “and keep the meter running.”

This is the tagline and premise of Rahma’s viral new TikTok series, Keep the Meter Running. In it, the Egyptian American comic hails drivers who end up taking him to restaurants like Papaye, a West African and Caribbean stalwart in the Bronx; Dera, a Pakistani family spot in Queens; and, on a more exotic note, Buffalo Wild Wings, the chain with 32 locations across New York state. (Rahma’s driver, Vinnie, insists the one in College Point, Queens, is the best.)

As they break bread, Rahma peppers the cabbies with questions about how long they’ve been driving and where they’re from, quickly forming a congenial bond and culling pearls of casual profundity. There is an Anthony Bourdain–like quality to his presence. Rahma, who has a thick mustache, rogue curls, and a Nolita Dirtbag–lite aesthetic, is always curious, never pretentious, and often funny. At the end of each episode, he takes out a wad of cash and doles out hundreds of dollars to each driver—a welcome sight to taxi drivers after the siege of Uber and Lyft—topped off with a generous tip. In a year overripe with shows top-lined by stars and big-budget fantasy spectacles, Keep the Meter Running, with its warmth, zany flourishes, and humanistic humor, quickly became one of my favorite new shows of 2022.

The idea was born right before the pandemic, on a night when Rahma was taking a long cab ride home from Manhattan to Brooklyn, he tells Vanity Fair. He was in a rough patch in his relationship at the time, and began chatting with his driver, who advised and consoled him. The driver also spoke in an encouraging, philosophical way that reminded Rahma of his late father, who immigrated to the US from Egypt and worked as a cab driver for five years.

“I had a visceral connection with his cab driver,” Rahma recalls, talking to me over Zoom. “He really, really helped me. I was like, This dude knows everything. He knows the secret to the universe.”

At the end of the ride, he asked if they could actually drive around a bit longer. “He was like, ‘I have to charge you,’” Rahma recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Well, have a nice day!’” But the idea stuck, and Rahma found himself typing the phrase “keep the meter running” in his Notes app. He mentioned the idea to a producer friend Adam Faze of the entertainment platform Mad Realities, who looped in filmmaker and editor Ari Cagan. They immediately took to it, gathering camera equipment and cash for the meters.

The idea was promising, but the execution needed work. Rahma had no prepared spiel and was repeatedly declined by drivers. He realized he kept asking if they’d be willing to go on his “TV show,” which made them balk. When he transitioned to saying “TikTok show,” they opened up. “They all have TikTok,” he says. Initially, he assumed that asking them to go to their “favorite place” would yield all kinds of spontaneity, but they often just wanted to grab some food. Rahma’s not a gourmand by any means, but “I’m always hungry,” he says. “I’m not a foodie, because I’m not eating at any cool new restaurants. For me, it’s more about understanding culture.”

In just seven episodes, he’s met a wealth of drivers who comprise the city’s immigrant diaspora. There was Abdur, the genial Pakistani geologist and devout Muslim who points out different types of rocks on the sidewalk and gently chides Rahma, who is also Muslim, about his lacking knowledge of the Quran. There was Ali, a Moroccan wildcard who orders enough food for an army, then takes Rahma on a helicopter ride. (It was the closest he could get to his original favorite place suggestion: the moon.) Then there was George, an introspective Ghanian who cheered up as he taught Rahma how to eat traditional peanut stew properly. After a TikTok commenter joked (threatened) that if Rahma didn’t bring the show to London, they would do it themselves, the comedian and his team flew across the pond for the show’s season finale. They filmed a driver named Tony, a Cockney geezer who opened up to Rahma about his daughter’s rare medical condition and then took him to a Lebanese restaurant.

Commenters frequently compare Rahma to Bourdain, the beloved late chef and TV host who traveled the world and brought everyone along for the ride. “It’s the highest compliment I could receive,” Rahma says. “The reason he was so cool is because he was vulnerable and open and actually interested.”

It’s a rare feat on a platform where serialized content is rife with posturing do-gooders and endless tiny mic interviews. My own fondness for the show is partly due to the fact that my dad is a longtime cab driver. I watched the first episode of Keep the Meter Running through that lens, assessing Rahma’s intentions and grading his every move. Was he overidealizing the worker behind the wheel? Was he dehumanizing them? (No and no; he passed the test.)

“I’ve always paid attention to my cab drivers,” Rahma says enthusiastically. “I’m sure your dad is fuckin’ sick. They know something that I don’t know.” Cab drivers, who spend hours behind the wheel meeting dozens of people from all walks of life day in and day out, are anthropologists of a kind, Rahma reasons. “You have to know something. And that’s what the show ultimately is about. I’ve spent all my life trying to figure out who I am. Like, what is the secret? How do I become happy?”

Rahma’s journey to the back seat of a million cabs has been surprisingly nonlinear. The 36-year-old began his career in New York more than a decade ago. He worked in media, positioning verticals for Vice and helping to launch the video department for The New York Times. He then pivoted to his own company, the Nameless Network, which he describes as “NowThis News meets Vice meets Vox.” He was comfortable and fairly successful and entirely dissatisfied. “I got really burnt out,” he says. He also felt like an imposter. “I was like, what am I doing? I’m just playing the role of a CEO. I’m faking it ’til I make it—and it’s working, but it doesn’t feel like me.”

He tried pivoting again. First, to poetry. Soon, he realized that what he liked most about his poetry readings were the moments in between when the audience laughed at his little self-deprecating bits. That laughter was what he really wanted. So he pivoted again, dedicating everything to becoming a full-time comic. “I need to jam 10 years of work into four years,” he remembers thinking.

He wiped his Instagram clean and started recording front-facing jokes and sketches, amassing a following that now stands at 80,000 users. (I first heard of Rahma when he went viral for going all screwball Liam Neeson on his neighbors for allegedly stealing his latest issue of New York magazine.) Along the way, he wrote and starred in Out of Order, a short film directed by Nicolas Heller, a.k.a. New York Nico, a city native whose wildly popular Instagram page is a tribute to lovable kooks across the five boroughs. He launched a comedic history podcast, First!, featuring guests like Ramy Youssef. And now he’s got Keep the Meter Running, his most popular offering to date. He wants to keep making it for “as long as possible.”

“I’m 36, and this is the first time in my life that I’m like, Oh, I know what I’m supposed to do,” he says. “This is what I love. I finally have arrived where I’ve always wanted to go.”

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