“The Contest” won Larry David an Emmy Award for writing, and was named the best TV episode of all time by TV Guide in 2009. It’s considered, by many, if not most, to be one of the greatest Seinfeld episodes of all time. For the time that it aired, it was an incredibly edgy half-hour of television. It pushed the envelope, even though it never mentioned the topic at hand. That topic?
This was in 1992, of course. Way back then, they had to talk around the subject on a network show. That can’t help but date “The Contest” to some degree. So, here in 2016, over 20 years later, where does “The Contest” fit into our modern world?
For those who do not recall, and given how often Seinfeld airs in syndication this may be an exercise in futility, here’s a brief synopsis of the plot. George’s mother stumbles upon him masturbating in her house, and, in her shock, winds up in the hospital. As such, George vows to never masturbate again. Jerry is dubious, and thus the titular contest begins. Jerry, George, and Kramer put in 100 bucks in a competition to see who can go the longest without engaging in a bit of self-gratification, and Elaine chips in $150 to get in, given the presumption among the contestants not masturbating will be easier for her.
Naturally, a series of logistical issues begin to unveil themselves for our main quartet. There’s a beautiful nude woman in an apartment across the street from Jerry, which leads to Kramer being knocked out of the contest very quickly, in the episode’s biggest laugh moment. Jerry’s also dating a virgin, played by Jane Leeves (who went on to play Daphne on Frasier), so he’s still sexually frustrated. Elaine has the chance to get romantically involved with John F. Kennedy Jr., AKA John-John, which builds up her anxiety. George’s mom is in the hospital next to a beautiful woman getting sponge baths from a beautiful nurse. Also, he’s George—a man with little to no self-restraint anyway.
Throughout the episode, we see everybody in bed—those still in the contest tossing and turning, and the others sleeping soundly. Elaine ends up the second character out, much to everybody’s surprise. We don’t find out the winner during the episode, but Jerry’s girlfriend is horrified when she finds out about the contest, and ends up dating JFK Jr. herself. It is alluded to, later, that George won, but then it becomes known that he cheated to win the contest. In the end, there are simply no winners when you try to see how long you and your friends can go without masturbating, or so “The Contest” posits.
Now, not only is masturbation never directly mentioned, but no real euphemisms are used, either. Phrases were invented to dance around the issue at hand (ahem)—“master of your domain” and things of that ilk. This is what people primarily remember “The Contest” for. (Well, that and the fact it’s about jacking it.)
But the nature of edginess, by and large, is that eventually, the edge dulls. Today, people talk about masturbation on network television with impunity. You can joke about it without a single layer of euphemism. You can joke about teenagers doing it. This article has used the word “masturbation” a dozen times already, and you probably didn’t even blink at it. So it’s not surprising that “The Contest” no longer feels edgy, or dangerous, or iconoclastic. It feels like an episode of a sitcom. It happens to be about masturbation, but it could just as easily be about dating a woman with man hands, or a giant ball of oil being dropped out of a window. It’s banal.
However, the true thrill of “The Contest” wasn’t a result of the then-unmentionable subject. Sure, that’s what made it stick out, but the concept of sexual self-satisfaction is not the reason it earned an Emmy, or laudations from the likes of TV Guide. The cleverness of the episode lies in that fact that it was really another vehicle through which to explore the extreme awfulness and shallowness of the Seinfeld gang. It’s about George’s inability to control his urges until he gets out of his mom’s house. It’s about all of them having the self-confidence to agree to bet all of this money on this particularly shallow subject, and the havoc it wreaks on their lives. In the end, this seemingly ridiculous contest blows up in their faces—unsurprisingly so. It’s an excellent episode for George’s mom, and Jerry has a great outburst, and, yes, Kramer’s “I’m out!” is hilarious. It’s a well-crafted half-hour of television, like most episodes of Seinfeld.
On the other hand, it’s not that unbelievably great. The plot isn’t as clever as other episodes from the series, and it doesn’t build to as delightful a conclusion. People may love “master of your domain,” but it’s not as quotable or as iconic as other episodes of the show. If this wasn’t “the masturbation episode,” and if that wasn’t considered so salacious, it probably wouldn’t be considered as legendary. There are better episodes of Seinfeld. Several, in fact, and to call it the greatest sitcom episode of all-time, a la TV Guide, feels like a stretch. People who might happen to watch it now for the first time would probably agree. As Green Day once sang, masturbation has lost its fun.
Seinfeld was about sex all the time, and that didn’t really cause people to turn their heads askance, but “The Contest” stuck out to audiences simply because it removed one person from the sexual equation. Time has removed the harsh edges from what is, actually, a relatively sexually soft (ahem) episode of TV by modern standards. Yes, it’s still funny, and it’s still classic Seinfeld, but the world is a different place now. You can be the master of your own domain in a more frank matter. But it’s important to note that the changing tide of sexual exploration on TV hasn’t completely defanged “The Contest.” It’s just worn those fangs down a bit.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.