The following things were written following the “sneak peek” of The Marriage Ref—the new show from Jerry Seinfeld that has been promoted like it was the boss’ son—that aired after Sunday’s Closing Ceremonies on NBC:
“And then, just as the ceremonies were reaching a brilliant crescendo of Canadian self-satire, NBC cut away… to the premiere/preview of Jerry Seinfeld’s The Marriage Ref, the most God-awful mishmash of a comedy-variety show to lead into local news on NBC since immediately before the Olympics.”
“Painful, pointless, obnoxious… I would almost rather have The Jay Leno Show back.”
“I had just watched 30 minutes of the goofy Olympic Closing Ceremony which was — and I say this with all due respect to my second favorite country on earth — the sort of thing you would see if you gave a third grade teacher $30 million to put on a school play. And that 30 minutes at the Olympics was like heaven, like sheer bliss, like a show co-written by William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Mel Brooks and the author of the 23rd Psalm compared to The Marriage Ref.”
“The only good thing I could find about this was the fact that I only had to watch half an episode. When the show comes back on Thursday, it’ll be a full hour long. And that’s probably the worst thing about it.”
“Would you rather watch dolphins get slaughtered, or would you rather sit through a second episode of The Marriage Ref?”
It’s worth noting that all of these statements came from writers who have made a point of highlighting their appreciation of Jerry Seinfeld and his classic sitcom (the first quote came from James Poniewozik of Time, the second from TV critic Alan Sepinwall, the third from sportswriter Joe Posnanski’s blog, the fourth from Todd VanDerWerff at The AV Club, and the last form Bill Simmons’ Twitter). I cannot remember the last time, if ever, a show with such a prominent and well-regarded name attached to it has failed so spectacularly.
I’m not here to heap more criticism onto the pile that has already been dumped on The Marriage Ref (although I will say that it deserves every ounce of criticism it got), but I am concerned with what this says about Jerry Seinfeld. It probably does not come as a shock that I’ve always been a huge fan of Seinfeld, and his stand-up act has always been one of my favorites. So watching him be the primary creative force behind such a debacle is incredibly depressing.
Just last week I talked about how hard it is to recapture the greatness of shows like Seinfeld, Arrested Development, and The Simpsons, so I understand that expecting this show to be as good as Seinfeld is unreasonable. But is it too much to ask for the show to be as good as I Love New York 2? The most disconcerting thing about The Marriage Ref isn’t simply that it is colossally unfunny, but that Jerry Seinfeld sits up there (with fellow guest judges Alec Baldwin and Kelly Ripa) and laughs at every hokey, bland joke, and even some things that don’t seem like jokes at all.
Which raises the question: Has Jerry Seinfeld lost his gauge for what is funny? It’s worth pointing out that Seinfeld has now been off the air for almost a dozen years, and in that time Jerry Seinfeld’s main achievements have been Bee Movie (51% on Rotten Tomatoes) and a series of expensive Microsoft ads that were so perplexing they were almost immediately pulled from the air. Meanwhile, his co-creator has turned in another classic, groundbreaking series.
Seinfeld has done other things since his show ended, most notably returned to stand-up. The 2002 documentary, Comedian, is a great look at his return to the format he loves the most, but it offers one moment that seems particularly relevant now. There is a scene in the film where Jerry is talking to his friend and fellow comic Colin Quinn about doing stand-up in the wake of his fame. The fact that he is so famous, he insists, is of no real benefit when he is on stage.
The root causes of something like The Marriage Ref are 1) that Jerry Seinfeld believes this, and 2) that it is decidedly untrue. Being a famous comic absolutely makes people more inclined to laugh at you, out of sheer habit and expectation, than they would otherwise. As a result, you can get away with worse material. Patton Oswalt appeared on a Bill Simmons podcast last year and discussed Steven Martin. Martin, Oswalt said, had to quit stand-up comedy, because he got so famous that he couldn’t tell if the laughs he got on stage were because he was actually being funny, or because he had turned into a movie star. Whereas Martin was self-aware enough to realize the influence of fame, it seems like Seinfeld doesn’t get it.
So when Jerry Seinfeld brings a terrible idea for a show to NBC, they approve it, since it’s Jerry Seinfeld. When he asks Alec Baldwin and Kelly Ripa (and, on upcoming shows, Larry David and Ricky Gervais) to appear on his show, they say yes, since it’s Jerry Seinfeld. When he and the rest of the judges make terrible jokes and lame comments, the live studio audience laughs, since it’s Jerry Seinfeld. But none of this occurs because the product is any good, but at every point, Jerry Seinfeld gets approval and positive reinforcement, since he’s Jerry Seinfeld.
The result is that Jerry Seinfeld, like other “living legends of comedy” (there are a lot of rumors, for example, about Chevy Chase’s inability to be funny on his own anymore—several people have indicated that his character on Community is actually not much different than himself), loses his sense of what is actually funny. I was willing to discount Bee Movie as a kids movie, and say that Seinfeld only supported Leno because they were old friends, but at a certain point I just have to admit that Jerry Seinfeld has probably lost it. He’s resting on his laurels, and the result is The Marriage Ref. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch dolphins get slaughtered.