Original Airdate: November 18, 1992
Writer: Larry David
Director: Tom Cherones
Executive Producers: Larry David, Andrew Scheinman, George Shapiro, Howard West
Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander
“The Contest” is famously about it, and also famous because the word is never spoken during its 23-minute running time. The episode is smart enough to be subtle about the subject and its writer, Larry David, understands that the lack of overt references is often funnier than screaming obscenities at the top of your lungs. We live in an era where it’s in vogue to blatantly state everything about our lives in detail with no filter, but the very best comedy remains the type which is subtle and has a slow build. In an era where so much is being made of cable’s apparent overthrow of network television and the freedom creators now feel without Standards and Practices breathing down their necks, it’s important to note that the majority of quality comedy shows are still being produced for networks, not cable. Yes, “Girls” is getting a bunch of buzz and “Louie” is breaking all the conventional rules of television storytelling, but on the networks you can find shows like “Community,” “NewGirl,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23,” “Happy Endings,” and new classics like “Parks & Recreation,” “30 Rock” and “Modern Family.” Part of this is certainly that subtlety goes hand-in-hand with the very best comedy, and always will, and network comedies can more easily embrace that than cable, which comes with the pressure of being edgy and cutting edge.
But I digress, and digressing in your first paragraph is never a good thing. Back to “Seinfeld,” which by its fourth season was expert on turning the everyday machinations of human nature into fodder for humor, probably never more so than in this episode. It begins with a gut-bustingly funny story related by George (Jason Alexander) where he is walked in on by his mother while masturbating to Glamour Magazine (yes, you read that right) and inadvertently caused her to throw her back out and be hospitalized. The story is funny because it’s relatable and yet taken to an extreme, and this segues perfectly into a bet between the friends to see who can abstain from masturbation the longest. Everyone throws in a hundred bucks, except for Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who must bet $150 because it will be more difficult for the guys.
How will they ensure that the contest is honest? The honor system, of course, though considering how well these dirtbags knew one another it probably wasn’t the best version of checks-and-balances. In fact George, the eventual winner of the contest, reveals later in the series that he cheated, which renders some of the comedy in the episode less funny because George isn’t really suffering as much as we assume, but you just have to put that revelation out of your head for now.
The lowbrow version of this lowbrow storyline (and I mean that in the best way possible) would involve jokes about the penis and bodily fluids, but David is more interested in bypassing the potty humor and turning the bet into a psychological torture session for our characters, which was exactly the right decision. Kramer (Michael Richards) doesn’t last past seeing a hot naked woman wandering through her apartment across the street from Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld). Jerry is dealing with the fact that his current girlfriend, the Virgin (Jane Leeves), will stop proceedings before it gets too hot and heavy.
Both those are funny, but the trials for Elaine and George are brilliantly over-the-top. George goes to visit his mother (Estelle Harris) in the hospital and finds that the gorgeous female in the next bed is getting a sponge-bath from an even-hotter nurse. It’s one of the ultimate male fantasies come true only inches away from George, and he has to watch it while unable to release his frustrations and while sitting next to his mother, who is lying in what appears to be a butt sling.
|THAT John F. Kennedy Jr.|
And then there’s Elaine. She finds herself in an exercise class directly behind John F. Kennedy Jr. and his assets. Yes, THAT John F. Kennedy Jr. More than that, he actually is interested in her (!), hits on her (!!) and they share a cab ride home together (!!!). Because masturbation is essentially about fantasy, David gleefully takes the episode over the top and parodies some of our most fantastical daydreams.
Because of the subject matter and nature of the episode, the humor can’t help but be very frontloaded (no pun intended). And while the teaser and first act of the episode are damn near perfect because we are quickly amused by the storyline and the introductions to the various character trials, the sense of discovery ebbs away by the second act. A small misstep is a second scene where George returns to the hospital to watch the sponge-bath again that covers the same territory. Luckily, David gives the viewers a genuinely funny pay-off by having the virgin break up with Jerry and fall into the arms of JFK Jr., who just happens to be outside Jerry’s apartment to meet Elaine.
And as for the winner of the contest? David never blatantly states it in the episode, but doesn’t have to. Jerry walks over to the window, defeated after losing the Virgin, and spies the naked neighbor strutting her stuff. Enough said, and sometimes the best climaxes (only a little pun intended) come without being underlined and given a huge punchline.
“The Contest” is available in the fourth season DVD of “Seinfeld” and is probably being rerun right now on television.