This Saturday (18 June) sees the UK debut of The Marriage Ref on ITV1. Dermot O’Leary is your host for an entertainment show that sounds like hundreds of others: a panel of rent-a-quip celebs adjudicate on something, in this case the ongoing disputes of real married couples.
But The Marriage Ref has pedigree, because the format is the invention of Jerry Seinfeld, master of observational comedy and titular star of one of the great American sitcoms.
Recalling the genesis of the original US Marriage Ref – which, after a rocky start, has survived to a second series, starting soon on NBC – it doesn’t take long for Seinfeld to click into the comic mode that made him a legend.
The Marriage Ref, it seems, was just another way to comment on everyday foibles that have great humour and human drama at their core.
“I just wanted to make a funny show about marriage: people arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong,” the 57-year-old says. “When my wife and I go out with another couple and they tell us about a fight they’ve had, I love that conversation. I’m immediately interested. I love the morality, the comedy, the stupidity. Every marriage fight has those three elements.”
These things could, of course, have been fuel for a sitcom. “Oh, sure. But real things are funnier and more interesting to me. They’re more interesting even if they’re not funny. Even if they’re not funny, they’re funny. And I certainly did the sitcom thing…”
This casually fleeting mention of his sitcom reflects Seinfeld’s understandable view that there would be no point in doing another. Asked whether he could ever conceivably top a show that ran for 180 episodes and still earns him tens of millions of dollars a year, he gives a one-word answer: “Nnn-no,” drawn out dismissively just as Jerry used to when George put forward a bad plan.
Back to The Marriage Ref. When it started in 2010, US critics panned it. “It got caught in this cultural moment. The Tonight Show was going through the whole thing with Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. They debuted the show at this weird moment during the Olympics [NBC interrupted the closing ceremony to premiere Marriage Ref]. Everyone felt this was a good moment to hate the network, and this was a good show to use to hate it.
“But the fact was, people liked it. I wanted to take some of those negative reviews and make them into promos for the second season, but the network didn’t have the nerve to do it.”
Seinfeld admits his grasp of British culture is weak – “I don’t keep up with American culture either. There’s so much now, so many people” – so how does he know British couples are ready to air their sad, filthy laundry in public?
He says the comedy is universal. “It’s laughing and having fun with it. There’s not enough reality television that’s comedy-focused: ‘This is ridiculous! This is hilarious!’ To me, marriage is the funniest thing humans have invented.”
Has the US show successfully changed couples’ lives? “Oh, we don’t know what happens to them after they leave the show,” he deadpans. “There could be crimes committed and physical harm. We don’t know anything about it. I would imagine some very bad things have happened.
“What’s interesting is how comfortable couples can be talking about their problems. That’s a more normal thing now on television: you go on and you tell the whole world how you’re a mess.”
But is there hope for the relationship at all if you’ve reached a point where you’ve arranged to argue on national television? “It’s interesting: you find that these people, when they’re in front of other people and they make their case, and the panel responds to it, they’re open to saying, ‘Oh, I see how I was wrong.’
“That never happens in a real relationship! You’re caught in a capsule. That’s what marriage is, a two-man space capsule. We’re letting them out of their cage.”
So really, The Marriage Ref embarrasses people into improving their own lives? “Yes! It’s got a wonderful relatability about it. And I love to laugh at other people’s problems. Who doesn’t?”