HOW many sitcom episodes with an A-plot about masturbation can you name?
Sure, streaming sitcoms like Broad City go where network shows don't dare, seemingly more so this year than ever before, but network comedies tend to steer clear of such bawdy matters to this day. That's why it is downright bananas that Seinfeld, a prime time sitcom, did a whole episode about masturbation 25 years ago - and got awards for it.
The Season 4 episode of Seinfeld titled "The Contest" aired a quarter century ago today, on November 18, 1992. Written by series co-creator and current Bernie Sanders lookalike Larry David, the episode is all about self pleasure, arousal and stimulation. And I mean the entire episode is all about sexual solitaire, not just a stray joke or one plot.
This laser-focused episode kicks off when a mortified George (Jason Alexander) tells his friends a tale of horrific embarrassment.
While stopping off at his parents' house, a Glamour magazine caught George's eye and since his folks weren't home, he decided to (as his mother Estelle later says) "treat his body like an amusement park." Unfortunately for George, his mom caught him in the act, the shock so overwhelming that she fell and hurt her back. After that, George swears off pleasuring himself, which all of his friends immediately call out as impossible. That leads to a contest between the show's four leads to see who can go the longest without doing the deed.
And that's how we get a sitcom episode from 1992 that is 100% about masturbation. To put this in context, here's what also aired the same week as this Seinfeld episode:
Brad and Randy built a human catapult while Tim and Jill fretted about their will on Home Improvement,
Doogie Howser tried to get a guy waiting for a heart transplant to give up smoking,
Darlene stayed out way too late after going to a rock concert on Roseanne.
Seinfeld strove to be different from the get-go. While it's often called "a show about nothing," it was really always about something - it's just that Seinfeld's "something" was usually a life experience deemed inconsequential by other sitcoms. Like, how entertaining is trying to find your car in a parking garage or waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant when compared to heart transplants and human catapults? Of course masturbation, a ritual that's done alone and in private (which shouldn't have to be clarified, but apparently it needs to be in 2017!), is too mundane for other sitcoms to handle.
It was also too taboo. Larry David, who actually won the IRL contest that inspired this episode, was actually too embarrassed to pitch this idea for the first few seasons.
He eventually brought it up to Jerry Seinfeld, who was on board, and the show went for it. Of course NBC told them they couldn't actually use the word "masturbation" in this episode.
Did that deter the Seinfeld cast and crew? No! They instead came up with euphemisms ("Master of my domain," "King of the county," "Lord of the manor," "Queen of the castle") that have entered the pop culture lexicon.
"The Contest" is masterful in how singularly focused it is, and it's even more remarkable that they stuck with this all-encompassing self-pleasure plot after NBC told them they couldn't even use the one word they needed to use. All four characters encounter temptation: neighbours Jerry and Kramer (Michael Richards) are tormented from afar by a nudist in the apartment building across the street, George schedules visits to his mother's hospital room so he can watch the girl-on-girl sponge-bath action going on next to her, and Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is put in proximity to a sweaty John F. Kennedy Jr., quite possibly the sexiest man of the early '90s. They're tempted throughout, and Kramer - after getting one look at the nudist neighbour - is the first to cave.
Think about how insane this is: this might be the first time in TV history that a show asked viewers to picture one of the lead characters masturbating off-camera! Kramer leaves Jerry's apartment in a skittish hurry and returns a minute later, slapping money down on the counter. He just did it, and it's essential to the show's plot and this fantastic joke that you know that he just did it.
It's also wild (and progressive) that the show comes down firmly on the pro-masturbation side. Whatever hang-ups there are about self stimulation, these four don't have them. The self-love drought causes Jerry, George, and Elaine to lose their minds (George accuses Jerry of stealing socks) and plenty of sleep. The episode includes montages of the cast trying to sleep, with only those that have lost the contest getting any rest.
The show doesn't just skate by on it's risqué subject matter, although it easily could have. Any show doing an entire episode devoted to masturbating would have easily been the talk around ever water-cooler on November 19, 1992. This episode is a classic because it's a tour de force for all four cast members, as the pressure of the contest gets to them. The way Jason Alexander chokes on the air the instant the sponge-bath starts, the way Michael Richards' totally liberated energy clashes with a hilariously tense Jerry ("I can't sleep. I can't leave the house. I'm here, I'm climbing the walls! Meanwhile, I'm dating a virgin, I'm in this contest. Something's gotta give!").
Louis-Dreyfus is, of course, a joy in this episode, as Elaine descends into manic aggression the instant she hears that John-John asked about her. The embarrassment on her face when she sheepishly places her money on the counter and names her sexual kryptonite, it's fantastic.
This gutsy, fearless episode won Larry David an Emmy, and also earned David and director Tom Cherones WGA and DGA awards, respectively. TV guide also named "The Contest" the greatest TV episode ever in 2009. The episode is still great 25 years later, an example of boundary-pushing comedy writing that feels fresh and more in line with the shows of today than those from 1992. This is an episode all about delayed pleasure that is pleasing from beginning to end.
This story originally appeared on Decider and is republished here with permission.