When you put on a white dress and say "I do," it's hard to imagine that you'll ever bicker and fight with your beloved like a TV sitcom couple. Then, one day, you find yourself arguing about putting the cap back on the toothpaste or folding laundry the right way. It's almost inevitable.
Shortly after comedian Jerry Seinfeld ended his hit television show Seinfeld in 1998, he got married and started a family. And, like any average couple, Jerry says he and his wife, Jessica, occasionally disagree. But, while other couples' arguments may end in tears or broken china, one of Jerry and Jessica's disagreements sparked an idea for a funny new reality series—The Marriage Ref.
One day, Jerry says he and his wife started to argue about a long-forgotten topic in front of one of Jessica's friends. "The friend got uncomfortable because they could see something's happening, and this person said, 'Well, maybe I should just go,'" he says. "That's when I said: 'No, you stay. You stay, and you sort this out because I don't want to talk about it all night.'"
Jerry made his case, and Jessica made hers. Then, they asked their friend to call it and tell them who was right and who was wrong. "In five minutes, it was over," he says. "I said: 'That's what you need in marriage. You need a ref.' … And Jess said, 'That should be a TV show.'"
And that's exactly what it's become. As a co-producer and occasional guest judge, Jerry is taking America inside intimate battles between husbands and wives. Each week, couples state their cases to a panel of celebrities—which includes everyone from Alec Baldwin to Madonna—and they weigh in on who's right. But, the final call is made by the marriage ref himself, stand-up comedian Tom Papa.
Tom was handpicked by his friend Jerry to host The Marriage Ref, which airs on NBC. "We have both been married for 10 years, and whenever we go on the road together, we sit on the plane, we sit in the hotel, and we trade stories about our marriages," Jerry says. "We just laugh and laugh and laugh. … The more I suffer, the more he laughs."
Sure, Tom is hilarious, but Jerry says he also has a special quality that's hard to come by. "You can't not like him. He's very likable, and the more you watch him, the more you need of this guy," Jerry says. "I said: 'I've got to put this guy on TV. People want this guy in their house.'"
But, if you and your spouse are struggling with serious issues, save them for Dr. Phil. The Marriage Ref helps couples find humor in their frivolous arguments. "I think laughing about your marriage is the best thing you can do," Jerry says.
What do Tom and his wife fight about? "Lately, I have the Kindle, and I love reading. Whenever I start to read, my wife thinks that's a neon sign saying, 'Let's talk,'" he says. "She doesn't want to talk any other time, but when I start reading, [she says], 'You know what I was thinking…'"
At any given minute, there's a couple bickering about something, somewhere. For Greg and Dianah, one of the first couples to state their cases to the marriage ref, the argument revolves around an unusual item—a stripper pole.
On the show, Greg tells the celebrity judges—Jerry, Alec Baldwin and Kelly Ripa—that he wants to install a pole in their master bedroom. "I think it would be interesting to see my wife dancing on a pole for me," he says. "I don't want to go out there in the streets, to the strip clubs."
Dianah, however, is not interested. "We will never, never with capital letters, have a stripper pole in this house," she says.
Even when Greg tries to spin it as an "exercise pole," his wife doesn't budge.
"Baby, this is something that I've always wanted," Greg says.
"Well, people in hell want ice water, but they don't get it," Dianah says.
After Greg and Dianah make their cases, the celebrity panel weighs in. Alec and Kelly say no to the pole, but Jerry agrees with Greg. What was the marriage ref's final verdict?
"It's not so cut and dry, because he really is saying to his wife: 'I find you attractive. I want to spice things up with you. I'm not looking for anything else. Let's do this,'" Tom says. "So I felt for him that way, but the bottom line is, she doesn't want it. There's nothing more unattractive than someone on a pole who doesn't want to be on a pole."
Though he lost this battle, Greg isn't giving up. He says he still wants to install a pole.
"This is why this show is great," Tom says. "We make the call, and now she knows, in this argument, for the rest of their lives, all of America agrees with her. That's powerful."
Couples on The Marriage Ref aren't the only ones who need someone to step in and settle long-standing disagreements. Plenty of Oprah Show viewers have problems of their own, and Jerry and Tom are stepping in to give their verdicts on a few tiffs.
Wisconsin couple Teri and Jim have a problem that just keeps growing—Jim has five tortoises, two of which are almost 70 pounds apiece. "I can tell you we never, ever, ever had the premarital tortoise talk," Teri says. "Sometimes it feels a little bit like giving up my career to become a zookeeper." Teri says she maintains an entire refrigerator of tortoise food and spends plenty of time cleaning up and masking the odor of tortoise poop.
Jim says tortoises hold a special place in his heart. "When I was a little boy, I had the pleasure of riding on the back of Jalopy the tortoise at the Staten Island Zoo. He had a sarcoma and had to have surgery and radiation therapy, and that was a life-changing experience for me," he says. "I wound up becoming a physician who specializes in radiation therapy in large part because of Jalopy the tortoise."
Jerry and Tom say issues like a burgeoning tortoise collection should be dealt with before getting married. "When you get married, you think you are marrying this person," Tom says. "But that's not it. You're marrying in-laws. You're marrying weird uncles. You're marrying the new paperboy. [You're marrying] turtle guy and all of his little turtle friends. Marriage is a big, sloppy mess, and this is your sloppy mess."
That said, Tom says the home Teri and Jim have set up includes the tortoises, for better or worse. "As bizarre as it is, you have created a family, which includes the two of you and these creatures, and you can't break up the family."
Jerry disagrees. "You have to have a face to be a pet," he says. "You have to have a face that makes an expression, or you can't be a pet!"
Emily and Will, a couple from North Carolina, have a problem Emily says she's been losing sleep over—for the past two years, Will has slept outside every night, of his own choosing. "There he is sleeping on the screened-in porch in 17-degree weather," she says.
Will says he loves sleeping surrounded by the sounds of nature and the sounds of a babbling brook. "I had dreams of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and that's not going to happen anytime soon, so I brought the trail to my backyard," he says. Will even goes to the bathroom in a bucket outside every night.
Jerry says this one is a no-brainer. "He's in a porch with a roof on it. There's no stars," he says. "You hear the creek for four seconds. You're asleep—you can't hear a creek when you're asleep. He's out of his mind. He needs to go to camp in the summer with the other kids. I mean, this is ridiculous." This is a time for compromise, Jerry says. "Maybe some of the time sleep in the bed? If you miss a night out there, is it that bad?"
Will says sleeping outside is actually a favor to Emily. "When I get up in the middle of the night, the bed creeks, [and] she gets upset if I miss the toilet or don't put the toilet lid down, so now I can sleep outside and pee in the bucket and don't have to worry about putting the lid down."
This time, Tom is on Jerry's side. "Kings and queens used to sleep in separate quarters, and then they would meet in the common room. But the fact is, when you pee in a bucket, you're not king," he says. "Think about your son, what you're doing to his little mind. ... You've got to get back in the bed."
London couple Sonia and Rob have on ongoing spat all the way across the pond. "My husband seems to have issues with opening things, not finishing them, and then opening more things," Sonia says. "I don't know why he just won't finish it or throw it away." Sonia says Rob's adopted this habit with everything from milk and juice to peanut butter and toilet paper.
Rob says he likes to use things that are good as new. "If there's a fresh one that I can have or there's one that's been there for a month, I'm going for the fresh one all the time."
Both Jerry and Tom sympathize with Rob. "I hate that moment [with the peanut butter jar] when you're going in deep. The spoon is not long enough, your fingers are getting in it...I understand that," Tom says. "If he was doing it like at half full and throwing it out..."
Jerry says Sonia shouldn't be such a good accountant. "You know: 'I called you three times and you called me back twice. That means you owe me.' Don't count everything. She's accounting," he says. "She can eat the peanut butter. She can go in deep and get that last little piece of nugget in the bottom."
Tom sees both sides but calls this one in Rob's favor. "It's just so aggravating for me just getting tips of my fingers all peanut buttered up or drinking that last part of the orange juice where for some reason it turns into some space-age syrup," he says. "So I'm saying if it really bothers you, miss, you can finish up all those extra morsels and the little bit on the toilet roll. But you win, sir."