‘Marriage Ref’: Having a tiff? Let Sarah Silverman or Larry David help you

Television Critic

Having been promoted heavily by NBC throughout the Olympics -- “promoted senseless,” I almost wrote -- “The Marriage Ref” premiered, or was sneak-previewed, Sunday night in what on the West Coast was the middle of the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. (The show officially bows Thursday, at its regular time and full-hour length, plugging one of the holes vacated by “The Jay Leno Show.”) Its most notable feature, both as a tease and in fact, is the participation, as creator, executive producer and panelist, of Jerry Seinfeld, Comedy God.

The big idea here is that a neutral party adjudicates -- in a supposedly binding and hopefully hilarious way -- minor marital disagreements. Host and titular ref Tom Papa, who has toured for years as Seinfeld’s opening act, makes his decisions based on the advice of a rotating panel of big-name celebrities whose qualifications he described as thus: “In the opinion of our show, if you are, been, just got or getting out of marriage, we consider you an expert” (sic) -- a standard loose enough to include Alec Baldwin and Madonna as marital mediators.

Their counsel is, of course, For Entertainment Purposes Only. (Papa’s own advice to singles still searching for their soul mates: “Find someone you can sleep next to without throwing up and marry them.” Wocka wocka wocka.) This is not “Dr. Phil,” nor is it, strictly speaking, a game, but there are winners and losers and prizes for everyone. It’s no accident or surprise that Seinfeld’s fellow executive producers are veterans not of comedy but of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Supernanny” or that the show’s international distribution is being handled by Endemol, home of “Big Brother” and “Deal or No Deal.”

The arguments Sunday were over Husband No. 1’s desire to stuff and prominently display his deceased Boston terrier and Husband No. 2’s yen to install a stripper pole in the bedroom. Everyone thought the dog was a bad idea, but there was some disagreement over the pole; Kelly Ripa, who joined Seinfeld and Baldwin on Sunday, thought it could be “freaky-deaky,” while Seinfeld, speaking from the soul of a nightclub comic, noted, “It’s still one guy in the dark, clapping.”

Theoretically, any show that can put Seinfeld, Larry David, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Martin Short, Ricky Gervais and Cedric the Entertainer onstage in any combination should be good for a few laughs, but Sunday night I mostly felt I was watching funny people being less funny than they are in their day jobs.

What should have appeared spontaneous came off, even when it clearly was spontaneous, as worked-over, the fun seemed insisted upon. (I have some hope it may get looser at full length.) Perhaps it had something to do with a recent diet of Vancouver Olympics, but I found I was rooting for the panelists to do well in the same way that I’d been anxious for the athletes to stay up on their skis or their skates.

That is not really the way you want to watch comedy, however, with your fingers crossed.