Day 353: The Contest

originally published December 18, 2012

Fans of the show Seinfeld are the perfect demographic to mesh up with fans of my site. Both are really about nothing, and both (hopefully) leave their viewers with some little bit of meaninglessness they can carry through the day. For Seinfeld viewers, it might be a new term, like “low-talker” or “mimbo”. For my readers, it might be the knowledge that a book with 24 gas station photos could be worth $35,000, or that causation law could be applied to Sharktopus attacks.

And while only the true fans of Seinfeld will know each episode by name (almost all of them are named “The (something)”, everyone who watched the show during its original 1989-1998 run will remember “The Contest.”

In November of 1992, the landscape of television was very different. Seven of the top ten shows were sitcoms, all of them three-camera style, with a live studio audience that had been beefed up for our enjoyment with a thick laugh track. Seinfeld wasn’t even in the top 20. Sex was common fodder for subject matter, particularly when it came to Sam Malone on Cheers or that skanky character from Designing Women (I want to say… all of them?), but it had to be handled delicately in order to sneak past the censors. There was no AMC, nothing worth raving about on Showtime, and HBO had just begun to demonstrate how much more daring and innovative a standard-format show could be on cable six months earlier with The Larry Sanders Show.

For a network sitcom, running an episode about four friends who hold a contest to see who can go the longest without masturbating simply wouldn’t fly. Most writing staffs would have fumbled the script, either by cramming in gags and word choices that would have irked the censors, or by relying solely on the premise for humor, and leaving the dialog and/or story twists unpolished.

The episode was penned by co-creator (and arguably the funniest guy on cable television right now) Larry David. He had held off bringing the idea forward, as he feared that it would simply be an impossible story to pull off. A number of Seinfeld premises stemmed from real-life incidents, and allegedly this was one of them. According to Kenny Kramer, the wacky next-door inspiration for Cosmo Kramer, who actually lived next door to Larry David for a while during the 80s, there was a real contest. And Larry won.

As it happened, Jerry Seinfeld thought the premise was brilliant, the perfect way for this mid-level ratings show to get a little attention. His primary contribution to the script was to remove any and all references to masturbation.

And that’s what makes this episode so superlative. When George Costanza’s mother catches him in the act whilst enjoying an issue of Glamour magazine (the incident that prompts the episode’s events), he explains it to his friends using just enough innuendo and ‘You-Know-What-I-Mean’ gestures to get the point across. Jason Alexander – praised as he was – was the most under-rated actor on television in the 1990s. So many episodes of Seinfeld are elevated to legendary because of the nuances of his performance.

Larry David worked around the topic by creating entirely new euphemisms for the act: remaining chaste with oneself meant that one was “master of their domain”, “king of the county”, or “lord of the manor.” The effects of the act are demonstrated by the characters’ restlessness and inability to sleep cross-cut with the relaxed peace of slumber for those characters who had succumbed and exited the contest. It was the most effective demonstration of writing in a tight circle around a subject without ever stepping foot inside.

The episode is also a Seinfeld landmark, as it features the first ever appearance of Estelle Harris as George’s mother, a role that would land her a tremendous amount of future work, including the coveted role of Mrs. Potato Head in the Toy Story franchise. Harris was apparently cast because of a sufficient physical resemblance to Jason Alexander, but she wound up being perfect for the part. The scene with her in the hospital (she had fallen faint after catching her son in the vulgar act of self-entertainment), in which a mid-contest George has his patience tested by a sexy girl-on-girl sponge-bath on the other side of a room-dividing curtain, is probably the high point of television in 1992.

On November 18, when the show was broadcast, it picked up a 19-share, meaning 19% of all households were tuned in. This sounds impressive in today’s thousand-channel universe, but back then it was a ‘good’ showing, not a ratings monster. But word spread, and non-fans were suddenly interested in a show that was gutsy enough to try a subject like this. The first time the episode was re-run, it scored a 30-share – the highest ratings by any Seinfeld episode up to that point.

Most TV experts would pinpoint “The Contest” as the moment that Seinfeld broke from having a secure but modest following into becoming a super-hit. I don’t consider myself a true TV hipster; I jumped into most great TV shows a little after episode 1. But having been a fan of his stand-up, I had been a devoted viewer of Seinfeld since its first broadcast. I was still in high school when “The Contest” aired, and it became the topic of much discussion for weeks afterward.

This all happened around another shift in culture, at least in my little insulated world. Prior to “The Contest”, masturbation was an act that nobody talked about, except as a punch-line, or to suggest that one of our classmates was unlikely to be spending their evening in the company of a girl. The irony, of course, is that most of the time, we were in the same boat.

After this episode aired, self-deprecating humor about one’s own prolific self-spankery was suddenly in fashion. It changed public perception on a topic that no one really ever talked about, which is pretty rare in the annals of sitcom history.

TV Guide ranked “The Contest” at #1 on their “Top 100 Episodes of All Time” list. It garnered Tom Cherones a Director’s Guild of America Award, and earned him an Emmy nomination. Larry David won his first (and somehow, still his only) Emmy for his writing. It was the episode that made the show a hit, and it still holds up twenty years later as 30 of the funniest minutes I’ve ever spent in front of my TV.

“Too bad you can’t do that for a living. You’d be very successful at it. You could sell out Madison Square Garden! Thousands of people could watch you! You could be a big star!”

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