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The Marriage Ref’s Tom Papa on Why People Had It Out for the Show Last Year

A mash-up of talk show, reality TV, and game show, Jerry Seinfeld's comedy experiment The Marriage Ref premiered last year on NBC to dismal reviews. It returns this Sunday at 10 p.m. for a second season, and host Tom Papa hopes that changes made to the show will help its reception: For example, instead of the bickering couples appearing via satellite, now they will be able to plead their cases to the celebrity panel live on the set. Given that we think of ourselves as impartial judges ourselves, we spoke with Papa ahead of the premiere and asked him why he thinks the show was met with such harsh criticism, and why things should be different this season.

Let's be honest: You guys were kind of slaughtered by the critics last year.
Yeah, I think it was all the hype, all the weird expectations created for it. We were supposed to be this little Sunday comedy show on at eight o'clock. And then the whole Leno thing happened. And then all of a sudden we were thrown into Panic Box Thursday, then the Leno spot, then all the Olympic promotions. By the time we hit the air people were like, “This better be the greatest thing on earth or you just tortured us for a month and a half."

It’s like at a comedy club, when the audience defiantly looks up at you and says, “Eff you, try and make me laugh.”
Oh yeah, exactly. You know, Jerry talked on this HBO [comedy roundtable Talking Funny] with Ricky Gervais, and he brought up this one time he got onstage and he was introduced as the “Greatest Comedian Working Today!” And he said, “You just can't introduce someone that way.” The audience is going, “Oh, really. We'll see about that." You can't ever set the bar that high.

Did you feel the reviews were unfairly harsh last season?
Reviews just cover that first glimpse of a show and not later. It was also kind of a weird show. People were like, "Are they being serious? Are they trying to help? Are celebrities really going to advise people?" Some people really couldn't wrap their heads around it. TV is like music. Not everyone is going to like everything. I mean, there are people who really like In It to Win It. People are watching Ice Road Truckers. Every show finds its own army.

What’s new about your show this season?
At the end of each episode the studio audience votes on who is the rightest of the right. They win $25,000 and a billboard in their hometown declaring that they were right.

Was there a moment that was underappreciated from last season that was truly funny to you and you wish more people saw?
One of my favorite lines from last season was when Larry David and Madonna were really fighting. They were fighting so much that we had to go to a commercial break and they were still making noise behind me, and at one point I turned around and said, "I never thought I'd say this in my life but, ‘Not now, Madonna.’" She just laughed.

I think what is so surprising about the show is that all these A-list stars are willing to be on it, even though it’s reality TV.
I think it's because it's not purely a reality show. It's part reality show — it shows the couples in their home — but then it's also a talk show. You get three celebrities together who just riff; there's nothing scripted. They just come on and talk about real-life stuff. We had Ellen Pompeo on this year. She actually contacted us to come on because she really loved the show. Mary J. Blige came on for this one show about throw pillows. This woman had so many throw pillows that every time the husband would get up at night to go to the bathroom he'd hurt himself. Mary J. Blige ended up coming forward and admitting, “I have that many throw pillows too. I have acid reflux and I have to prop myself up.” We really got to hear that about her on TV.

Who has been surprisingly funny considering we may only know them for their straight acting?
Ellen Pompeo was one of those. Actually, Bill Maher was interesting. Obviously we know he is pretty funny, but he is also pretty famous for not being into marriage. He was really into it. He was like, “I wouldn't enter this for my life, but you're in it and this is how you need to conduct yourself.” He related everything back to what was wrong with the country. There was one husband who had a childlike hobby of playing Dungeons and Dragons. Bill was like, “See, it's because men don't want to grow up and act like adults — that's why we're in the mess we're in today.”

What is most shocking about the couples?
I find it so shocking how comfortable they are. I can't believe that regular people from Anytown, USA just walk onto a stage across from three people who they've seen on movies and in television and they're not nervous. I don't think there was one moment where we had to stop and get anyone to calm down. They just walk out there like they're supposed to be on TV. I think that's where we are in society. They're like, “Yeah, eh. I'm on TV.”

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images