Photo: Martin Schoeller
Slouching over coffee in a booth at a New York diner, Jerry Seinfeld looks so...Seinfeldian, you might think he was shooting a scene from the old sitcom. But this is a different Jerry: a husband and father of three, who, at 55, finds himself comfortably bemused by the strange intricacies of marriage. It's his current obsession and the subject of the new show he's coproducing, The Marriage Ref (which premiered on March 4 on NBC)—a stand-up/reality-TV hybrid that features clips of real couples in real tussles, plus a panel of celebrity "experts" and a referee (comedian Tom Papa) who ultimately declares the husband or wife in each standoff the winner. If you've seen the show, you already know that the niggling mundanity of other people's lives provides its share of laughs, yet Seinfeld is expecting even more. "I hope it's not grandiose to say, but maybe it'll save a marriage here and there," he explains. "I gotta believe that somewhere, someone out there is going to go, 'I'm not the only one!'"

Lucy Kaylin: This is a pretty big topic you're taking on.

Jerry Seinfeld: I feel like Jacques Cousteau, frankly. I feel like the first person to explore the ocean. And we're just gonna go out and search and—

LK: Spelunk.

JS: Spelunking is for caves. I'm talking about oceanography. Caves are small; the ocean is vast. In the comedy business, you deal with scarcity all the time. You never have enough funny things. But in this show, it's the exact opposite. You talk about, What's a great sitcom? What's a great romantic comedy premise? Well, here it is: Here's a man and here's a woman, and they have decided to shackle themselves together. Let's see how that works out.

LK: Tell me about the spat between you and your wife, Jessica, that prompted the idea for The Marriage Ref.

JS: A friend of hers was over. I don't even know what it was about, but we got into something. And the friend started to get uncomfortable and said, "Maybe I should go." And I hit upon the idea of, "No, you have to stay. You have to solve this for me." And we each pleaded our case.

LK: Who won?

JS: Well, it wasn't me. But the simplicity of it was exciting.

"I've really studied wife-ology, and I know you've got to figure out the feelings. Deal with the feelings."