It’s 30 years later, and Seinfeld fans still consider “The Contest” to be among the funniest and best episodes of the classic comedy series, a complete stroke of genius. At the time, however, in 1992, there was some controversy. Much was made of the fact that NBC banned Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and the cast from using the word “masturbation” in the script. But, by not allowing this word to come out of anyone’s mouth, the result was even more hilarious. On November 18, 1992, “The Contest” aired on NBC, and nothing was the same since. Here’s what happened and we can’t get over it to this day. Spoilers from 1992 ahead.
Following a brief snippet of Jerry’s standup routine, George (Jason Alexander) arrives at Monk’s looking unusually deflated. Jerry (Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) ask what’s going on, only for George to grouse that, “My mother caught me.” Doing what, they wonder? “You know… I was alone.” The group collectively snickers and smirks. Elaine asks, “You mean…?” Yup, no one was home at his parents’ house and an issue of Glamour magazine beckoned. A shocked Estelle Constanza (Estelle Harris), upon witnessing her son in flagrante, fell and injured her back, forcing George to take her to the hospital. “I am never doing that again,” he declares to the gang. When they realize he doesn’t mean not masturbating again to Glamour, but rather that he’s swearing off masturbating ever again, it leads to… the contest.
George, Jerry, and Kramer each throw in $100, and Elaine contributes $150, so $450 will go to the person who is the last to give in to the urge to service oneself. Of course, it’s a hard task, especially when Kramer gets the hots for the woman parading naked around her apartment across the street; George can’t help but be aroused by the gorgeous nurse giving a sponge bath to a woman in the bed next to his mother’s at the hospital; Jerry is frustrated by dating a virgin, Marla (a pre-Frasier Jane Leeves); and Elaine clicks with John F. Kennedy Jr. during an aerobics class.
And so it goes, with George, Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer trying desperately to remain the masters of their respective domains. The cast pulls out all the stops and their smiles and laughs throughout feel unscripted. One of the funniest bits occurs when Kramer ogles the naked lady from Jerry’s apartment window, while Jerry tries to placate himself by watching Nickelodeon shows and singing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round.” It’s also laugh-out-loud funny when the four leads get cranky with each other, only for the lightbulb to go off as to what’s causing such friction.
Most importantly, like all the best Seinfeld episodes, “The Contest” sticks the landing. We won’t ruin it, in case there are any “Contest” virgins out there, but the Seinfeld formula demands that an episode’s various separate story threads merge at the very end into an interconnected OMG moment. The denouement of “The Contest” is immensely...satisfying.
Part of the reason it holds up is that it takes raunchy humor, and makes that raunchiness just as commonplace as other everyday conundrums on Seinfeld. The show about “noting” wasn’t always a show about sex, and when it was, it was the furthest thing from glamourous. “The Contest” isn’t remotely underrated in terms of its popularity, but it might be underrated in how much restraint the episode has, despite its subject matter.
Proof of this subtle quality is the fact that to this day, we don’t actually know who won the contest. “The Contest” isn’t about the contest, which is the real reason why it's so brilliant.
Seinfeld streams on Netflix. (“The Contest” is Season 4, Episode 10)