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New rounds of 'Marriage Ref' on tap

Somewhere between "The Newlywed Game" and "Divorce Court," a show was aching to cover the trove of material that is marriage.

"The Marriage Ref," Jerry Seinfeld's return to NBC last season, fell short, but the revamped version, returning Sunday, is more fun.

Three couples mired in ongoing battles are filmed at home, then they visit the show's New York set. Three celebrity judges, who vary each of the 10 episodes, decide who is right. The audience picks among them the episode's winner of the ultimate "I told you so" -- a giant billboard near the couple's home with a photo and the message that he or she is indeed right.

In the season opener -- in which Seinfeld, Julianne Moore and Ricky Gervais serve as the judges -- one man complains his mother-in-law visits for long spells and breaks objects in his home. Of course, she was visiting from 5,000 miles away and cooked and cleaned for the couple.

Another is fixated on growing giant pumpkins, and his wife resents the time he spends with the gourds. He also wears a pumpkin hat and names them. The third couple has him constantly making harmless bets with his friends, but she bristles at his frat-boy antics, which include running around the neighborhood in her sports bra and workout pants when he loses a bet.

Relaxing in the Olive Tree Cafe, a Greenwich Village comedy club where he regularly performs, host Tom Papa says, "I always felt the show should be like my comedy: a celebration of marriage and of everyday life."

Married for 11 years and the father of two girls, Papa knows how wonderful and difficult marriage can be, especially once kids arrive.

"You end up being partners in a thankless nonprofit organization, and you need to bring in other employees to make decisions," Papa says.

He mines his marriage for material but says he always prefaces his routines with how much he loves his wife. There's a sweetness to his approach, which comes across on the show. Neither Papa nor the judges are making fun of the couples. Any nastiness is from the couples and directed at the spouses.

Drinking water on a muggy afternoon in the cool quiet of the club, Papa reflects on some basic tenets of marriage.

>At what point does a couple need a marriage ref?

When you're both digging your heels in so deep and you can see the footprints in the linoleum.

>When should a man know he's in trouble?

On the first date.

>What are the best reasons to stay single?

Some people are too selfish to get married, if you are too set in your ways.

>What is the best reason to get married?

There are two. Life is long and hard and lonely, and in my opinion it takes at least two people to get through it. And if you are going to make other people, it's a really good reason.

>Just how long can a fight last?


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