Remembering the Edgy ‘Seinfeld’ Episode ‘The Contest,’ 30 Years Later

Seinfeld - Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander
NBC

Being the “master of one’s domain” took on a different meaning 30 years ago, when the Seinfeld episode “The Contest” first aired on NBC. In that immortal episode, which hit airwaves on November 18, 1992, George (Jason Alexander) reveals that his mother walked in on him in a compromised position, shall we say. And that embarrassing experience leads George, Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) to ante up for a chastity contest.

NSFW plot details below!

Yes, George tells the gang his mom caught him pleasuring himself, and after that galling run-in, he’s vowing to keep his hands above his waistline for the rest of his life. Jerry doesn’t think George can do it, so George bets $100 that he can go longer without flying solo than Jerry can. Elaine and Kramer get in on the contest, too — though Kramer loses almost immediately when he sees a naked woman across the street from Jerry’s apartment.

In Vulture’s 2017 oral history of “The Contest,” Seinfeld co-creator Larry David said the fourth-season installment was based on a real-life wager. “I would say there was only one other person involved [in the actual contest] … my friend Frank Piazza,” David said. “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.”

David thought the contest would make a good Seinfeld episode, but he wasn’t sure Seinfeld, the NBC sitcom’s star and co-creator, would go for it. Seinfeld was “all for” the idea, though, so David wrote the episode — and he and Seinfeld kept the subject matter a secret until the episode’s table read. “I remember being nervous because the NBC executives were there,” David said. “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.”

But the future Curb Your Enthusiasm star didn’t have to resign his post: NBC executives loved the episode. The network’s standards and practices unit, however, was horrified. But the saving grace of the episode was that the characters never uttered the word “masturbation.”

“That was Jerry’s idea from the get-go,” David said. “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.”

Dr. Roz Weinman, the head of the standards department at the time, eventually came around. “[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,’” former NBC president Warren Littlefield told Vulture. “Once she said those words, I knew we were making the episode.”

Getting the all-clear from the BS&P department was one thing, but how would viewers react? A reported 18.5 million people tuned in to the episode, and NBC later stated that its network switchboard logged 62 complaints about the episode — and 32 calls from viewers who loved the episode. Richards told the Los Angeles Times in 1995 that some viewers complained about “The Contest” in writing. “The masturbation show, we got letters; people said, ‘We’re not watching Seinfeld anymore,’” he recalled.

But “The Contest” has become one of the most beloved episodes of Seinfeld. That fourth season won Seinfeld its one and only Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, and “The Contest” earned David an Emmy of his own for his script. Tom Cherones won a Directors Guild of America Award for directing the episode. In 2009, “The Contest” topped TV Guide Magazine’s list of TV’s top 1000 episodes of all time. And the episode is currently the highest-rated Seinfeld half-hour on IMDb, with a score of 9.6/10.

Three decades later, “The Contest” is still making a mark on TV, too. Dating show fans can thank that episode for Too Hot to Handle, for example. In that Netflix dating competition, contestants are forbidden from any kind of sexual activity, even the solo type. And as in “The Contest,” they lose money if they give in to their carnal desires. “One of my favorite shows is Seinfeld, and my favorite episode is ‘The Contest,’” Laura Gibson, creative director of production company Talkback told Deadline in 2020. “I thought, there’s a show in this.”

The episode also inspired the “No Nut November” episode of the animated Netflix comedy Big Mouth, in which Jay and his friends try to be the masters of their domains in the titular contest. “I was 14 when Seinfeld’s ‘The Contest’ brought masturbation comedy to the mainstream,” Big Mouth co-creator Nick Kroll tweeted last year. “We’re lucky to be creating during a streaming era when you can get away with almost anything, and few things are more fun than nodding to the great shows that came before us.”

“[‘The Contest’] gave people this sudden sense that there was a different kind of show on TV,” Seinfeld told TV Guide Magazine in 2009, commending the coyness of the episode. “There’s nothing easier than being shocking. The sexuality wasn’t what made the show so memorable, but the way that we did it.”