By Lacey Colby
Making a career in entertainment is tough, but Rider alum Tom Papa has seen success as a comedian since graduating in 1990. Now, Papa is making the calls that couples can’t as the host the new NBC reality show The Marriage Ref.
On the show, Papa serves as a referee for marital problems. With his panel of three celebrities, he watches clips of different married couples, each with an issue that needs to be settled. The celebrity panel argues each issue and mocks the couples in question before advising Papa on the solution.
Panelists have included celebrities Alec Baldwin, producer Jerry Seinfeld, Eva Longoria-Parker, Martha Stewart, Madonna and Cedric the Entertainer.
The Marriage Ref seems like a middle-class twist on The Jerry Springer Show — just substitute overbearing mothers-in-law for strange fetishes and remove the possibility of the guests attacking the audience. It is undoubtedly geared toward the same middle-aged married couples and divorcees who enjoy shows like Two and a Half Men.
The married couples featured on the show seem like caricatures. Their stories are severely overacted and their issues aren’t quite as amusing on screen as they might sound. One husband puts his tanning, manicuring and other grooming habits before his wife. Another wife won’t let her husband use her formal dining room any day other than Thanksgiving. Their issues may be very different, but the loud, stuttering voices and big hand movements never change from one couple to the next.
The celebrities relate their own experiences and opinions to the issues presented, but this adds little humor to the show. The discussion of these issues actually makes them less funny.
Despite its humor being targeted to such a specific audience, The Marriage Ref does turn out some generally funny moments. An episode guest starring Larry David, Madonna and Ricky Gervais proved to be a battle of the sexes between David and Madonna. Of course, the conflict might be entertaining because they seem to hide a real tension while the bickering couples are laying it on thick with superficiality.
Madonna does have a point, though, when she accuses David of being biased against the wives. The format of the show regularly leads to patronizing conversation. The women in the couples are often portrayed as short-tempered naggers or lunatics, and the sympathy leans toward the men. One wife wins an argument only because Jason Alexander points out that “she’ll make [her husband’s] life a living hell” if she doesn’t.
Though feedback about the show has been generally negative, Papa enjoys the experience and regrets that its critics are “missing out on the fun.”
“It’s been great,” Papa said. “It’s what I always wanted the late night shows to be: interesting celebrities getting together just to have a good time.”
He pinpoints “working with some of the funniest people on the planet” as a favorite part of the show.
“They’ve all been great, but Alec Baldwin really blew me away,” he said.
Papa is also currently working on his stand-up comedy, preparing a special for Comedy Central and enjoying his career. In the past, Papa has been seen in I Love the ’80s and other VH1 nostalgia series. He acted in the 2009 film The Informant! with Matt Damon. As a student at Rider, Papa starred in many mainstage productions, including Equus, Dracula and Little Shop of Horrors.
“I never thought telling jokes for a living would last,” Papa said.
The Marriage Ref airs on NBC on Thursdays at 10 p.m.