Jerry Seinfeld: 'Emotion And Conflict Is The Essence Of Comedy'
Leave it to Jerry Seinfeld to take his observations on common marital problems and base a whole television series on it. He knows couples fight. If only an objective party could referee those arguments.
That is The Marriage Ref. Tom Papa hears both sides of the story and decides once and for all who is right. That's it. No more fighting. Seinfeld created the show and appears on the show's celebrity panel, along with other episodic guests like Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and Larry David.
Interviewing Seinfeld is like a free workshop on comedy. You get to hear his insights on funny topics, and practice banter with the master. The Marriage Ref premieres in a sneak preview Februray 28, after the closing ceremonies of The Olympics on NBC.
Q: What do you and your wife fight about?
Jerry Seinfeld: There's only one thing. I don't think it's a good enough issue for the show but whenever we go to the theatre I get very nervous about being late because I'm a well-known person I hate to go into the theatre late. I get very anxious about getting out of the house on time.
Is she habitually late?
No, she's not, but I get anxious and if she's just a couple of minutes late, I always go, "It's the theatre. Why do we have to do this?"
You seem to have a healthy, funny perspective on the way that marriage goes and fighting.
It's normal to fight. What we want to do on this show is show it's even funny. I look forward to that point and I hear about people that have been married a long time, that they start to fight and then they start laughing at each other. That's the ultimate point.
Have any of these couples given you any material for stand up acts?
Oh, all of them, but mostly I like to get it from my own marriage.
How did you celebrate your tenth wedding anniversary, and what helped you get to 10 years?
We really just love to be together. I think all couples have to learn that you don't know when you get married that you're going to have these fights. You think it's going to be perfect and it comes as a huge shock. One of the things, I think both of us talking with friends and finding out, "Oh, we all kind of do this," tis is the thing of the show. Especially men. Men do not know because men do not share with other men about what's going on in their marriage. They think, "My marriage is a mess." That is another mission that I feel, not to sound lofty, but I feel a little sense of mission with this show. I want to tell everybody, "You're marriage is fine. We're all doing this."
What do you think of things like Twitter and Facebook? They seem like they could be material for Seinfeld episodes.
They could. We did a funny thing I thought about the App Store on Larry David's show where George came up with the killer App of the nearest acceptable toilet.
But in real life are you using these new social media?
I don't even want to know the people I know.
Right, if you tweeted, wouldn't that be like giving away material? You want people to pay to see it in your act.
Yeah. This is my agent, ladies and gentleman.
Are you doing any standup?
I am. I was just working this weekend.
How do you keep the bickering of couples from just getting annoying in this show?
We pick out the ones, you've never seen a couple fight over "The dog's dead. Should we stuff it or not?" I want to see how that works. I think there's an unlimited supply of this. Well, here's the most interesting thing about the show to me. Maybe not to anybody else. Couples in fights perform. Regular people that are so boring you'd never want to spend ten seconds with them. When they are fighting, they are hilarious. They say funny things in funny ways like the way you want, you would want an actor to do it. That's what's been the most discovery of the show is these couples are funny.
Why do you think that is?
Because emotion drives comedy. Emotion and conflict is the essence of comedy.
Don't you think that some couples won't want to watch this show because they can see people fighting at home? Like it's a little too close to the bone?
No. It's a relief. It really is a relief. It's a relief to go, "Well, at least we don't have that one." Or, "We do have that one. Let's see who's right and who's wrong." So either way it kind of pulls you in.
How many celebrity judges are on the panel at a time?
Three. They're not judges. They're just advisors.
Almost like lawyers in a way, making a case for either side?
Yeah. We just really want to get some conversation going. That's why to me it's really a talk show. I really want to create interesting conversation. I am one of those comedians who is hopelessly stuck on the old Johnny Carson Tonight Show where the guests would stay on the couch and would interact with each other. I'm trying to create that here because I want people to engage with each other, not just with Tom and not just through some boring monologue about how their basement flooded and they couldn't find a plumber.
Have you disagreed with the outcomes at all?
Yeah, sometimes. Yeah.
How are you conducting the searches for couples?
I am not really involved. Shed Media is doing that for us. They're doing an amazing job. That's what they have done for years and they are the best in the business at finding real people that are interesting to watch.
Is it a gut level from a committee on who makes the cut?
No, It's who's funny.
Do you think this show is going to bust that old trope that the wife is always right?
That the wife is always right? Where did you get that? I tell you what, it's so even. And in the beginning, most of the couples we found, we found a lot of crazier husbands than crazy wives.
Where do you think that whole stereotype came from? Is it from sitcoms?
I think it came from you because I never heard of it.
If Good Housekeeping were to give you a seal of approval for being a good husband why would you earn that seal?
I just love my wife. I just love her. That's all. I can't not get angry sometimes. I do. I'm not easy. I am not easy to live with. I try not to say that thing that you wish didn't say. I'm a pretty good fighter, though I am incredibly edgy and cranky and difficult, but I will not say a hostile thing. I will not get personal.
Do you think you could get celebrity couples to solve their feuds on The Marriage Ref, like maybe Conan and Leno?
I definitely want to get people from business, from art, from sports. It's not just those kind of celebrities that you see on these shows. It'll start out that way because it's a good way for us to build an audience but I definitely want to go beyond. I want Bill Gates.
When you did Curb Your Enthusiasm, it seemed like you were happy to let the other co-stars have the joke and sort of prompt them to sort of find their joke.
That's my style. Yes, that is my style. I learned it from Jack Benny.
Were you happy with the way that all resolved on Curb?
Yes, very very happy. I thought it was a great way to kind of put one more extra little bow on the story of those four characters. Yeah, I loved it.
What's the incentive for couples to come on this show other than ending a fight?
That's the incentive. They're not going to win any valuable prizes. They will get a prize. Marv Albert is our announcer, and he will give out the prize. What they want is to end their fight. Couples get into these situations and they want out. The person who wins has to say, "Okay, you're right."
Why do you have a panel of celebrities instead of experts?
Because experts are helpful and that's not our thing. This is a comedy show. We really feel laughing at yourself, laughing at your marriage, seeing other marriages that are also in absurd situations is a wonderful medicine. We don't believe that there are experts anyway, even if we wanted them.
Will we see you as one of the celebrity guests?
I was thinking of possibly doing that, yes.
What fight subjects are off limits that you won't touch?
Anything to do with kids, anything that makes you uncomfortable, that seems like the marriage might be in any real trouble. You know what the fights are? You ever go out with another couple for dinner and before the appetizers get there, one starts talking about, "You know what he did the other day?" And you talk about the things that annoy you about your husband, and they start doing the same? All of those subjects at dinner that you would feel comfortable talking to your friend, your couple friends with, that's what we deal with. That's really 85 percent of marital difficulties is ridiculous problems.
What about gay marriages?
Oh, yeah, they're in.
Can we get your opinion on the Jay Leno situation?
I can't believe you held it in that long. What willpower you have.
You were on the first show. Do you have any thoughts about why it didn't work and whether putting him back on The Tonight Show is the right choice?
I'm sure it was my fault. I'm sure the tuxedo was way over the top for the situation. I have lots of thoughts on it. What's your theory? I think there's a lot of things that happen there. I was saying this earlier, but the AOL/Time Warner deal. Everybody goes, "Oh, what a horrible, horrible deal that was for Time Warner. What a screw-up that was." It really wasn't. It was just bad timing. If that deal happened today, and you replace AOL with Google, it's a great deal and they go on to great success. But that deal was the right idea at the wrong time. I think this was also the right idea at the wrong time, and it was not a bad idea. I'm proud of NBC that they had the guts to try something so different and original. Now you go on and do something else. That's show business. You just got to try things.
What do you think of how the network treated Conan?
What did the network do to him? He got The Tonight Show. I don't think anyone is preventing people from watching Conan. He is there. It's like I'm in my business. I'm a standup comic. It's like there's no rules. Once they give you the cameras, it's on you. So I can't blame NBC for having to move things around. I mean, Conan has a chance to destroy everybody. Go ahead. You are out there. I don't think anyone has done anything to Conan.
But what if NBC hadn't given Seinfeld a chance to grow its audience?
Well, I have a lot of you people to thank, to tell you the truth. It was a lot of the critics that kept us on the air. But then we had good demographics. I mean, you've got to hit the ball. They can't hit the ball for you. They can only give you the bat. There are no rules in show business. There are no refs.
Way to bring it back to The Marriage Ref. So what were your role models growing up? Did you have grandparents and uncles and aunts who stayed married forever no matter how much they'd fight?
Pretty much as you described it. Everyone stayed married, and everybody was kind of cranky and funny. I had the uncle that would pull me aside at Thanksgiving and go, "Jerry, don't ever get married." When you are 8 years old and you are wondering what is he talking about? "Believe me, don't ever get married." I do think it was being married and, to be honest, those dinners that we would have, Jess and I would have with other couples. The conversation was so funny, and people would tell such funny stories. I would think this is funny. This is all funny stuff. Then the ref idea, really it was not my idea to do it as a TV show. It was my wife's.
What was the fight about that inspired this?
Jess, do you remember? No, she doesn't remember.
Oh, come on. They always remember.
Yes, she might. She's pretty savvy with the press herself. You know, the only point I would really like to emphasize with you is we do try to take some sort of side with the husband or the wife, but our entire drive in putting this show together is to make you laugh. Otherwise, I would not be sitting here. I'm not really interested in anything else. The show makes you laugh, and that's what we are excited about. And very pro-marriage, I also want to say. The show does end in a way where you kind of see how we feel about these couples and how we are rooting for them and want them to hang in there, and you see that the fight was really just a passing moment in their life.
Story/Interview by Fred Topel
Starpulse contributing writer
Follow more of Fred Topel's Hollywood observations on Twitter
Kanye West's $750,000 Lamborghini Crushed By Gate At Kim Kardashian's Home General Zod Demands Superman's Surrender In New 'Man Of Steel' Trailer