Nothing beats nothing

Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais return
By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  March 2, 2010

1003_gervais_mian
CLOSE YOUR EYES The hilarity of the original Gervais podcasts is somewhat diminished by the animated visuals.

Jerry Seinfeld held out on a Seinfeld reunion till last year, when he finally found a way to do a comeback that wasn't really a comeback. He and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David resurrected the greatest sit-com of the '90s as a show-within-a-show on David's Curb YourEnthusiasm. The reunion made Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer — those icons of the Clinton era — hilariously relevant again. Note that Jerry Seinfeld boldly took his reunion to HBO, not the show's original home, NBC. He can't be accused of doing the same thing twice.

And nobody will confuse his new NBC show, The MarriageRef (Thursdays at 10 pm), with Seinfeld. Seinfeld is the executive producer and (very) occasional star of this lighthearted talk/reality/freak show, in which a rotating panel of celebrities (Tina Fey, Larry David, Madonna, and whatever other A-listers Seinfeld can pull from his Blackberry) watch videos of married couples arguing over a contrived, "wacky" marital conflict, then vote on whether the wife or husband should prevail. In the first episode, which interrupted NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics' closing ceremony, Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa, and Seinfeld heard disputes about a stuffed dead dog and a stripper pole. Then host Tom Papa, the title Marriage Ref, made his call. Although the panelists worked hard to convey hilarity (Seinfeld doubled over so many times, he looked like a parody of Sammy Davis Jr. on the Tonight Show couch), their jokes had no real juice. And doesn't Seinfeld realize that canned stand-up buddy Papa is the second coming of Kenny Bania?

With upcoming guests like Ricky Gervais and Sarah Silverman, The Marriage Ref might get funnier, or at least hipper. But there's a cheesy vibe about the whole thing. It feels like something you should be watching in the middle of the night on VH1.

While Seinfeld tries to graft old-school comedic sensibilities onto a new programming format, Ricky Gervais takes the opposite approach in HBO's The Ricky Gervais Show (Fridays at 9 pm). Gervais turns material that was originally created for a new entertainment medium — his massively successful podcasts — into a retro TV cartoon.

Using the old podcasts as the audio track, the HBO version presents an animated Gervais (he's drawn like Fred Flintstone) and his pals, The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant and radio producer Karl Pilkington, sitting in a cartoon radio studio and spewing forth their (in Gervais's words) "pointless conversations." Sex, monkeys, and time travel are recurring topics. Their observations are depicted in thought-bubble sequences, with Gervais and Merchant baiting the "little round-headed buffoon" Pilkington into earnest, dim-witted declarations. As Gervais says, Pilkington's ramblings are the work of "someone you'd find in a hospital, eating flies."

It's all scatologically, brilliantly funny, but the shift from an aural to a visual medium isn't completely successful. In the podcasts, hearing Gervais and Merchant set up a faceless Pilkington was fun. But the cartoon Pilkington is such an adorably childlike idiot, with his Charlie Brown head and befuddled pout, that it makes the cackling Gervais and the know-it-all Merchant (his avatar evokes Sherman from Rocky and Bullwinkle) look like big bullies.

Still, the conversations blend philosophical discourse with rank British silliness better than anyone since Monty Python. And the addictiveness of this show about nothing proves that the old Seinfeld formula is still viable. Two words, Jerry: Seinfeld podcasts.

  Topics: Television , Madonna (Entertainer), Celebrity News, Charlie Brown,  More more >
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