"This is the weirdest show I've ever been on," said actor/comedian Ricky Gervais last week when he appeared with fellow panelists Larry David and Madonna on NBC's new series, "The Marriage Ref." The series, executive produced by, among others, Jerry Seinfeld, has a group of celebrities making humorous and sometimes useful observations, suggestions and, let's be honest here, judgments on married couples that open up to the show about what drives one spouse crazy about the other. While the jury is out whether the show is going to sustain life in the ratings long enough to warrant a second season, host/comedian Tom Papa and commentator Natalie Morales talked with the press recently about how the show looks at marriage and our Jim Halterman was there to throw some questions their way.
"The Marriage Ref" could easily find a lot to be critical about with the couples that come on the show but Papa explained that the goal of the show in terms of tone is anything but negative. "It's a celebration of marriage and it's a fun comedy show. The couples that come on aren't victims. We're not attacking anybody. There's not a mean tone to the show, and we want the panelists to feel that way also. It's just about having a good time. And you can talk about your personal life if you want. If you don't, we're not going to press you. We just want it to be a fun, safe environment for the panelists and for the couples that come on."
Papa revealed that finding couples that are willing to talk about their issues in front of television cameras hasn't been difficult at all. "There's an endless number of people out there. They are just everywhere." The process, he added, can at times be unconventional but one thing for sure is that the couples are rarely shy. "We meet them in shopping malls and other places all around America [and] then we interview them. Then we go to their homes with a video camera and we try and capture it. And what we've really found is you have to capture that first fight right off the bat because they've had these fights their entire relationship. They don't care who is watching. They don't care if it's family, they don't care if they are out in the middle of the street, they are going to go. So we show up with our cameras ready to catch it."
Morales chimed in and said she thinks the show is very relatable to married couples across the board and offered up an example. "We all have what we consider our territory in the house and we mark our territory whether you're a man or a woman. For the men, it's the man-cave. And for the women we have our way in the kitchen or other areas of the house - our office, whatever it may be. But I think there's always a little issue of controversy when it comes to the husband and wife. Like my husband for example, when he works out, he throws his dirty, sweaty, smelly workout clothes in the bathtub, and it just sits there for days smelling. And I'm like, 'Why didn't you throw it in the washing machine?'"
Morales, being a television personality, is the perfect example of what Papa explains with celebrities not being immune to common marital issues. "Everybody has the same problems," he said. "That's the most hilarious thing. When we were coming up with the idea for the show and Jerry and I would hang out, we couldn't be further apart from a comedian on his way up and a guy coming off one of the greatest TV shows of all time. And we got married around the same time. And when we would go on the road together and do standup gigs, we would just start complaining about things that were happening in our relationships, and we just started realizing they are exactly, exactly the same. It doesn't matter what level you are at. If you are married, you are dealing with the same stuff."
With all this talk about marriage, what's in "The Marriage Ref" for single people? Papa said he learned from his stand-up experience that singles aren't excluded at all from the subject of marriage. "As a standup comedian, these are the jokes that I tell all the time. It's all family based, relationships, marriage and all of the insanity that goes with it. And I used to think when I was starting out that maybe I would have to change it if I was in front of younger people, but my act works. Those jokes work when I'm at the Laugh Factory at midnight in Hollywood or if I'm doing a corporate gig with all 60 year olds. Because it's really family more than it is just marriage."
In fact, Papa added, even single people have family members close to them that help them relate to the situations presented on the show. "We all came from parents, we've all been humiliated by things that our parents have done. It's a universal thing. It's really just family and people living together. And from that, there's so much tension that people of every age really kind of latch into."
Tonight's episode of the series features the threesome of Cedric The Entertainer, Seinfeld's former co-star Jason Alexander and Martha Stewart. While that may seem like an interesting collection of personalities, Papa says that that's exactly the goal with the revolving collection of celebrity guests. "We're really trying to put together a combination of people that we think is number one going to be hilarious, and number two is going to give us some good perspective and some opinions that you are not used to hearing from. I mean, to hear from Madonna and Larry David on the same panel with Ricky Gervais, you know you're in funny territory right off the bat."
Another benefit of using celebrities is that audiences aren't appearing on the show to hype some new project they're involved in. "You're going to see these people in ways that you've never seen them on regular talk shows," Papa explained. "There's like this thing when you go on 'The Tonight Show' or something like that where it's fun, but you're kind of on your own, you're talking about your projects. But here, you get to actually get into issues that people never see you talk about."
For Natalie Morales, who is usually seen discussing more serious topics on "The Today Show," this prime time outing for her is a welcome change of pace. How did she get involved? Morales said the producers "were looking for somebody who could provide a little bit of a different perspective, actually coming from a news and information background as their just the facts ma'am�to kind of be this (frank) person. But at the same time, I think a lot of times when people fight you know as a couple, when you are fighting you become so entrenched in your fight and the issues that you tend to lose sight of the facts."
Morales is clearly enjoying both jobs. "Obviously working on 'The Today Show,' we do have a very hard news format to start out the show," she said. "But then the nice thing is that I think we all get to show a little personality and let loose a bit, and we just came back from three weeks in Vancouver covering the Olympics. So you know I think we're allowed to have a little more variety on a show like 'The Today Show.' It's just great now to be able to kind of take that one step further and you know enjoy myself and laugh alongside. I'm working with brilliant people. Jerry and Tom and the writers on the show are amazing, and so it's been a real learning experience for me also to see how hard they all work to make this a number one show."
"The Marriage Ref" airs Thursdays at 10:00/9:00c on NBC.