Jerry Seinfeld’s New Show Almost Cancels Out Seinfeld
Everyone was puzzled upon learning that Jerry Seinfeld’s triumphant return would be as the producer of a reality/game show called The Marriage Ref. After seeing the first episode, we are still puzzled. The Marriage Ref is a mess.
The Marriage Ref is about married couples getting in absurd arguments and the panel of celebrities who riff on them. Seinfeld told The New York Times that the marriage refs do not themselves need to be experts at marriage. This is good because judging from his screamy phone calls and rage-related divorce from Kim Bassinger, we could not imagine Alec Baldwin would handle a fight with his wife with the same wit and charm as he did the problems of other couples. Plus, if all celebrities who sucked at marriage were ruled out of the show, it would basically just be the Michelle Obama and Kevin Bacon up there wisecracking every episode. (although Wikipedia tells us that Seinfeld and Kelly Ripa, the third ref, have improbably functional marriages.)
Many things are bad about The Marriage Ref. The worst is that the married couples never actually appear in the studio, except in a short docudrama introducing their problems, and via satellite to hear the refs’ judgment. So limited, The Marriage Ref falls into the reality show trap of making real relationships seem more contrived than anything even the hackiest comedy writer could come up with. The first marriage our panel referees is being torn apart by the husband’s desire to have his dead dog taxidermied. The dog’s name is The Fonz. The wife hated The Fonz. If this is an actual argument two real humans had (the excruciatingly edited video suggests not) there is something strange going on in this man’s head worth exploring: Is he an insane person? Is he dangerous? On what obscure message board did he meet his wife? This could have been funny!
Instead, the conflict is boiled down in the video basically to: Husband = lovable, bumbling schlub; Wife = no-fun harpy. There is a funny dark moment when the wife reveals that the day The Fonz died was the best day of her life, but it is spoken with such a practiced sneer that it obscures the real sadism that is a necessary component of love. It’s just way too fake, and you have to pity the panel of legitimately funny people (well, Kelly Ripa is funny, sort of) who have to dredge jokes out of relationships that are so poorly caricatured without making fun of the caricaturing itself. It’s like if the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 guys could only make jokes the characters of the terrible sci-fi movies riffed on would find funny.
Even with this sparse material, Alec Baldwin got a few good one-liners off (“I think if you’re going to stuff your dog, you should stuff it in either a useful or an attractive position.”). Seinfeld was OK and Kelly Ripa told it like it was, in that way she does. The host, comedian Tom Papa, was generally agreeable but laughed too much at the panels’ jokes. But the humor behind many of those jokes came from way too similar a place as The Jay Leno Show, which, in a nightmare world, would be The Marriage Ref‘s lead-in, and NBC would feature an hour-and-a-half of an audience laughing at the fact someone said the word “thong”—just the word itself! Not even a joke about it! It would be as if there never was a wildly popular sit-com called Seinfeld that showed how the funniest parts of any relationship are often the least obvious. A show that changed comedy in such a way that it is possible to imagine an actually funny version of The Marriage Ref, where all of the show’s guests (Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais and Larry David will all be on future episodes) get together at a nondescript diner after taping the show and kvetch about how hard it is to say no to something you know is a really terrible idea.