11. "The Contest," Seinfeld (1992)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Sitcom characters have been making outrageous bets since I Love Lucy (the candy-factory episode is such a challenge, even if no money is at stake), but "The Contest" is the definitive example of pointless competition among friends. In "The Two Mrs. Cranes," at No. 13, we vicariously play an adult version of make-believe; "The Contest" lets us speculate how we would fare in a self-denial marathon.
How does this kind of bet even happen? In "The Contest" (see the complete script here), it's the result of George's mother discovering him in her living room masturbating to Glamour magazine — the shock of which sends her to the hospital with a back injury.
George: First she screams, "George, what are you doing?! My
God!" And it looked like she was gonna faint. She started
clutching the wall, trying to hang onto it.
George: I didn't know whether to try and keep her from falling, or zip up.
Jerry: What did you do?
George: I zipped up!
Makes all those sitcom episodes in which someone is accidentally seen coming out of the shower look pretty tame.
"I am never doing that again," George (Jason Alexander) declares to Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer. This ridiculous vow — George would surely give up the habit only so he remind everyone about his sacrifice, loudly and often — leads to the foursome devising a contest to see who can hold out the longest. No one cites any benefit to abstaining, which distinguishes this episode from all the sitcom bets about losing weight, quitting smoking, or learning new skills. Not doing something is just something to do.
It aired early in the show's run (51st out of 180 episodes), when Seinfeld was running second to Home Improvement in its Wednesday time slot, but the notoriety of "The Contest" helped to make the sitcom a water-cooler show, and it was moved to Thursdays a few months later.
The characters were still mostly sympathetic at this point, but "The Contest" foreshadows the more narcissistic qualities that would drive later episodes. Here are a bunch of emotionally stunted, single adults getting aroused by a nameless, naked woman seen though an apartment window; another woman getting a sponge bath behind a screen in a hospital; and, in Elaine's case, the thought of starfucking John F. Kennedy Jr. It's a Republican nightmare that confirms New York as a sleeper cell Sodom and Gomorrah. Even liberal scolds might fret over another example of Americans Bowling Alone.
Marla the Virgin: I don't want to have anything to do with you or your perverted friends. (Elaine moves to comfort her) Ooohh, get away from me! You're horrible. Horrible! All of you!
It's striking that sex with another person doesn't seem to be against the rules of the contest, but no one even mentions this option. (Jerry is, conveniently for the plot, dating the not-open-for-business Marla.) Ex-lovers Jerry and Elaine have meaningless sex 14 episodes later — in "The Mango," where Jerry just wants to prove he's capable of giving Elaine an orgasm — but they don't help each other out here.
If Friends or How I Met Your Mother used this storyline, it would lead to greater intimacy among its characters. It's easy to imagine all the characters sleeping in the same room to guard against cheating, then sharing secrets in the dark. (Bottle episode!) The Seinfeld characters instead go with the "honor system," ostensibly because they all trust each other but more likely because they just don't want to get too close. This is, after, all, the "no hugs" sitcom, and Seinfeld and series co-creator Larry David aren't out to reassure us that we'll all get by with a little stroke from our friends.
David won an Emmy for writing this episode (directed by Tom Cherones), and he avoids the word "masturbate," or any well-known synonym. "Master of My Domain" becomes the code phrase for self-denial, with "Queen of the Castle" added by Elaine. "Fortress of Solitude" is never mentioned, despite Jerry's fondness for Superman allusions — maybe because it applies to his entire life.
Despite the subject matter matching up perfectly to Jerry's anti-social personality, "The Contest" works as a top-notch sitcom episode because it also underscores the differences between the characters. (In contrast, the much-derided series finale was built around a clever idea, but its implausibility was that all four principals acted the same.)
Kramer (Michael Richards) falls quickly, marching back to his apartment after seeing the naked woman through Jerry's window and returning less than a minute later to declare, "I'm out!" The hedonistic Kramer, resident alien of Seinfeld, had to go first, since the shame of having less self-control than the hipster doofus would have been too much for any other character.
It's easier for a woman not to do it than a man, we have to do it, it's part of our lifestyle. It's like shaving.
Elaine: Oh, that is such baloney! I shave my legs.
Kramer: (while eating) Not every day.
Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has to go next. She horns her way into the bet (putting extra cash in the pot), but she wouldn't really want to win a contest on the basis of having a weaker sex drive than Jerry. And despite hanging out with the boys, she likes to think that she's the only one in the group capable of genuine emotion (which is why she's drawn to Kevin and his entourage in "The Bizarro Jerry"). Even if her infatuation with "John-John," who's positioned directly in front of her in fitness class, seems like naked social climbing, Elaine is just romantic enough to think they could have a connection. Her admission of some solo passion ("It was... uh... John-John") seems like one more way to put herself above the loveless Jerry and George.
That leaves Jerry and George, who get more and more testy with each sleepless night. ("I've been yelling at strangers on the street," exclaims George, who yells at strangers in practically every episode.) Jerry tries to suppress his urges by reverting to childhood (a short trip), watching Tiny Toons on Nickelodon and loudly singing along, "the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round," as Kramer describes the naked woman across the street. Meanwhile, George masochistically keeps visiting his mother in the hospital and drooling over the "gorgeous" woman behind a screen getting sponge baths from an even more gorgeous nurse.
The breaking point comes when Marla (Jane Leeves) announces that she's ready to give it up for Jerry, who stupidly tells her about the bet. She splits, and Jerry heads to the window to watch the naked woman. I always took this to mean that Jerry caves next, leaving George the winner. But lots of viewers remained confused until a later episode, "The Puffy Shirt," in which George becomes a hand model — thanks to his "milky white skin" — and brags about being Master of His Domain ("I won a contest!"). In the series finale, George confesses to have cheated to win the contest, but that too-obvious joke is just another mark against the series finale.
• This is the first appearance of Estelle Harris as George's mother, and she's never more sympathetic in the entire series than when she groans, "George, I'm hungry!" as her son refuses to get her a deli sandwich so he can watch the sponge-bath show. After we see her a few more times, we understand why he just tunes her out.
• Also from Mrs. Constanza: "Too bad you can't do that for a living. You'd be very successful at it. You could sell out Madison Square Garden. Thousands of people could watch you! You could be a big star!" If she only knew all of George's exhibitionist fantasies. From "The Nose Job":
Jerry: I'll tell you, the sex... I mean, I was like an animal. I mean it was just completely uninhibited.
George: It's like going to the bathroom in front of a lot of people and not caring.
Jerry: It's not like that at all.
•The A.V. Club's David Sims reviews "The Contest" here.
“All she said on the way over [to the hospital] in the car was ‘Why, George, why?’” George recounts miserably. “I said, ‘Because it’s there!’” More truthful a line has never been uttered, certainly not by the pathological liar George Costanza. In her first episode, Estelle is in traction in the hospital, berating George and demanding he see a psychiatrist. But George keeps coming back to see her, not out of guilt but because in the next curtain over, a beautiful nurse is sponge-bathing an even more beautiful patient and he can’t get enough of it. That George chooses to go back and back just exemplifies what’s so twisted about his character. God knows he wants to win that $450, and he can barely stand his mother screaming at him, but he just can’t help torturing himself anyway. For George, most sex is usually ungettable, but to deny even sex with himself while continuing to drink in the porn-y fantasy situation at the hospital ... well, it’s just delightfully sick.
• Other notable episodes about wagering and deprivation include All in the Family's "No Smoking" (Archie gives up cigars, Mike gives up eating); I Love Lucy's "Lucy Tells the Truth" (she can't tell a fib for one day); and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air's "72 Hours" (spoiled Carlton has to last the weekend in a dangerous neighborhood). It doesn't involve a wager, but if you want the tonal opposite of "The Contest," there's the "Nightcrawlers" episode of The Adventures of Pete and Pete, in which the neighborhood kids try to see who can stay awake the longest. No euphemisms needed in that one.
• Seinfeld is probably airing five times a day somewhere on your cable box, so it won't take long to come across "The Contest," but the entire series is on DVD, and an abbreviated version of the episode is on YouTube here.