In celebration of New York Magazine’s 50th anniversary, this weekly series, which will continue through October 2018, tells the stories behind key moments that shaped the city’s culture.
Twenty-five years ago, on November 18, 1992, the quintessential episode of the quintessential New York sitcom, Seinfeld, aired on NBC for the first time. That episode was called “The Contest,” and pitted its four principal characters, Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Kramer (Michael Richards), against each other in a battle of wills to see who could abstain from masturbating for the longest period of time. Famously, the bet and its ramifications were discussed extensively throughout the half hour, without the word masturbation ever being uttered.
It is a significant episode in the show’s history for numerous reasons, including the fact that it won an Emmy Award for its writing, by Larry David; a Directors Guild of America award for its directing, by Tom Cherones; and was the buzziest episode in the only season of Seinfeld that ever received an Emmy for outstanding comedy series. It’s also the first episode to feature Estelle Harris as Estelle Costanza, George’s mother, a role that would become more prominent in subsequent episodes and prompt Jerry Stiller to join the cast as George’s father, Frank.
More importantly, it was the episode that got people really talking about Seinfeld. Suddenly, this was becoming a show you had to see if you wanted to get the jokes your co-workers were repeating in the break room the next morning. The first time “The Contest” aired, it was viewed by 18.5 million people, according to Nielsen. When it was rerun on April 29, 1993, with the series having moved to its new post-Cheers Thursday night time slot, 28.8 million people tuned in, making it the third-most-watched program in America that week.
And it all started with George Costanza’s ill-advised decision to pick up a Glamour magazine while he was at his parents’ house. Actually, no: Technically it all started when Larry David made a bet while living in New York in the 1980s and proved he was master of his domain.
Larry David, writer of “The Contest”: I can’t believe I have to discuss this at my ripe age. I would say there was only one other person involved [in the actual contest]. Should I mention his name? I don’t even know — my friend Frank Piazza. I don’t remember what the bet was. There must have been some money involved. I think it was a small amount. [The contest lasted] two days. Maybe three. I just remember it didn’t last very long. I was surprised at how quickly it ended. I won handily, yes.
Kenny Kramer, friend of Larry David, a.k.a. the real Kramer: I wasn’t in [the contest] because I knew I would never win it.
David: By the way, [the idea] was in my notebook for some time and I never even mentioned it to Jerry [Seinfeld] because I didn’t think there was any way that he would want to do it, and I didn’t think there was any way the show actually could get done on the network. So it took me a couple years, you know, to even mention it to Jerry because it didn’t even occur to me that it was a possibility. But he was all for it.
Warren Littlefield, former president of NBC: The series always was completely unpredictable, and Jerry and Larry never followed rules, right? They made up their own rules.
When it came time to do the table read for “The Contest,” no one knew about the subject matter ahead of time. Rick Ludwin, the program executive on the show, he didn’t know what was coming.
David: I remember being nervous because the NBC executives were there. I really had this thing going on in my head where, well, if they don’t like it, I’m just going to quit the show. I really had this built up in my head where, there’s no way they’re going to do it and I’m just going to quit if they don’t do it.
Michael Richards (Kramer): Larry was going to put his whole job on the line. I’ve known Larry since we did Fridays together, and that’s Larry David. If he believes in something, he’s just going to fight for it.
David: As soon as the read-through started, the laughs were huge. Big, satisfying laughs. I would glance at [the executives’] faces and they seemed to be enjoying it. You could sense it was a very special show. Then we all walked back to our office afterwards and I think one or two NBC executives were there and they had nothing. They just said, “Very funny.” And I was shocked.
Littlefield: They read it and it was hilarious. And Rick, as an executive for NBC, knew, “Uh-oh, shit’s going to hit the fan.” The broadcast standards executive who was there, was like, “What the fuck?” And Rick was like, “I didn’t know!”
Then, of course, it came to my desk, where I was like, “Okay, just show me the script.” I read it quickly, I laughed out loud and said, “This is kind of brilliant.” I got on the phone with the head of broadcast standards, Dr. Roz Weinman, who worked in New York. And broadcast standards doesn’t report to programming, so I’m dealing with another arm of the corporation who doesn’t answer to me. First of all, she was like, “What are you guys doing? Who’s flying the plane? How come we didn’t know?” And I just said, “Roz, don’t take it personally. It’s Seinfeld. We never know, it’s just wildly unpredictable. It’s part of what it is, it’s their culture. Do we think they may have been hiding this story line? It’s possible, but it’s also their own brilliant chaos.”
Kramer: I’d been out there [to L.A.] several times and saw the whiteboard. Although “The Contest” was never on the whiteboard. Did he tell you that?
David: We had this dry-erase board in the office where we would always put upcoming shows on the board. When the executives would come into our office, they’d go, “Oh, what’s that one about? What’s that one about?” For “The Contest,” I didn’t even put it up on the board because I didn’t want them to ask me about it.
Littlefield: [Weinman] said, “Look, we’re a little crazed about how this all went down, but I just read it and I have to say there’s kind of a pact that Seinfeld has made with their audience, and they do outrageous and unpredictable things. Their characters, their stories, it’s who they are.” And the script, as I remember it, never had the word masturbation in it. It had “master of my domain.” It had all these euphemisms that were brilliant, but it never said masturbation.
David: That was Jerry’s idea from the get-go. He said let’s not mention the word. It turned out to be a great idea. I had it in the first draft and he took it out.
Tom Cherones, director of “The Contest”: In the first draft, George had a line about “there was some tugging,” but that was eventually dropped. It was obvious it wasn’t needed.
David: There may have been a couple of things [I had to cut out]. But nothing I couldn’t live with.
Littlefield: [Weinman] said, “Look, we’re going to watch this episode and the rewrites, and we’re going to watch this very carefully. But fundamentally, we think this is not a violation of the pact that this show has established with its audience, as a 9 p.m. comedy.” Once she said those words, I knew we were making the episode.
Richards: “The Contest,” when we were at the table, we knew that was a winner. None of us were like, “Gee, I hope this hits,” or “I hope this was as good as our last show.” No way. We knew that show was swinging. It’s not a matter of conceit that I say that I knew when I put the money down on the table and go, “I’m out,” that that was going to get a laugh, particularly because it’s so quick. And who’s the first [one out]? Kramer, you know? It made me laugh!
David: That got a roar. That was a huge moment when Kramer came in. That was one of the biggest laughs we ever got, I think.
Cherones: We did not enhance laughs as a comedy usually does in the editing room or the finished mix of the show. We ended up, over the years, taking out more laughs that covered lines, than we did adding laughs. So it was all real. It just happened.
Pete Holmes, producer, writer, and star of HBO’s Crashing: Nothing like that had been done on TV before and, honestly, I think at the time I questioned the legality of the episode. When I watched it, I remember feeling strange that grown men still masturbate.
Jessi Klein, comedian and writer for Inside Amy Schumer: I don’t remember the first time I saw that specific episode. But I also feel like it’s possible I missed it [the first time] because I was masturbating.
Holmes: I also remember the episode feeling strangely familiar. As a serious Christian teenager, I was constantly trying to not masturbate. In fact, that was the major issue of my life. So much so that I would place bets with friends to see how long you could go without doing it. Not for money. For holiness. So it was weird to see George doing it. Oh, and Elaine! I had NO IDEA WOMEN DID THAT.
Andrew Goldberg, co-creator of Big Mouth and co-executive producer and writer for Family Guy: When Elaine was out and they were like, “I thought you’d go into the spring,” that was maybe an early “girls are horny, too” moment for me. Like: Oh. Elaine. Okay.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of the book Seinfeldia: One of the breakthrough moments for [Elaine] is “The Contest” because she’s in the contest, and she honestly has the best story line of the four. The John F. Kennedy Jr. thing is hilarious. There’s something about it to me where I think, that would actually happen in New York City. It’s entirely possible that John F. Kennedy Jr. would be in your aerobics class.
Seinfeld ended in 1998, and Sex and the City started that year, also in New York. I still have this weird fantasy where I want Elaine to meet the Sex and the City girls. I think she’d have a better time. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but I think it would be a better life choice for her than hanging out with these guys.
David: It was so taboo for network television to do a premise like that. When you hear something for the first time that hasn’t been done before, it strikes a chord, I guess.
Littlefield: Sales was like, “What are you guys smoking? This is going to be a sales disaster!” And I was like, “Are you kidding me?” They said, “Well, we’re going to have pull-outs from the show.” I said, “Look, if there is a couple of spots that become available for Seinfeld because of this content, I want to raise the price by 30 percent and go out to the people. The advertisers who have supported the show are desperate to have spots in Seinfeld. You go, guess what? I have a couple avails for this week in Seinfeld. Come on, we’re not taking a bath on this. It’s just not going to happen. You will find someone who’s desperate to be in Seinfeld and they don’t give a shit about this content. They’ll love it.” And yeah, in fact, that happened. Sales was not beaten down and ultimately it went on the air as a brilliant, outrageous, wonderful, classic episode of that show.
From a Washington Post TV column by John Carmody, dated November 23, 1992: “A spokesman for NBC said Friday the network switchboard in New York had recorded only 62 viewer complaints following a Seinfeld episode Wednesday about masturbation. Another 32 callers said the episode was ‘great,’ according to NBC vice president Curt Block, who pointed out the program had been okayed by the network’s standards and practices unit.”
David: [The show] was always popular, but I think it hit another level after that. There were some other episodes that we did that year — “The Outing” was one of them. Those two, they ran fairly close together and they created a bit of a stir, I think.
Holmes: What makes this episode so special is its restraint and even its elegance in dealing with something so … carnal? It’s about jerking off, but it’s so much more fun in the confines of network television because it forced the writers to play a very interesting game of censorship versus a real story — and the episode is better for it.
Littlefield: It starts with George’s embarrassing moment with his family. An adult male has been caught by his mom, right? By introducing parents into the series and expanding that and doing this kind of an episode, we went outside of a niche base.
Now you’re into a much larger playing field for audiences. Yes, we were an addiction for adults ages 18 to 49, but we were [now] going younger and far older. We were inviting everyone into the tent. So on every level, on every demographic, it became a mainstream hit, because there was something for everyone. Ironic, because early on, it was thought to be too Jewish, too New York.
Klein: I think there is something New York-ish [about the episode]. There’s like a competitive spirit to who’s having the worst time.
There is this kind of upside-down pride in how incredibly difficult getting from A to B physically and metaphorically is in that city. Like if you were on the subway and you stepped in barf on a day, like for sure all my friends are going to know about it. Because I had the worst day. And by the way I did step in barf on the subway and I need you guys to know that, and please publish it.
Goldberg: It is that kind of East Coast competitiveness as opposed to that West Coast kind of passive-aggressive competition.
David: I’m grateful to NBC for airing the show when I never thought they would. That was the most surprising thing about it.
Keishin Armstrong: This is like peak Seinfeld to me. That’s what I always say. If you’re going to watch one episode and understand everything that it does, this is it.
*This article appears in the October 30, 2017 issue of New York Magazine.
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