Golden Words — Seinfeld, “The Contest”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

the contest

“The Contest” completely changed my priorities — and those of my cohorts — regarding use of the exceedingly limited time available for television watching. When this episode of Seinfeld aired, in November of the show’s fourth season, the co-creation of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David had already earned the esteem of discerning comedy fans. Described fondly as a “show about nothing,” because of the creators’ willingness to hinge entire half-hours around such mundane endeavors as the search for a car in a parking garage or a frustratingly long wait for a table in a Chinese restaurant, Seinfeld had even begun to generate mainstream entertainment interest, receiving its first Emmy wins and nomination in the category for outstanding comedy series in its third season. Even so, Seinfeld felt like cult hit more than burgeoning classic. It was worth catching when the opportunity handily arose, but there were plenty other distractions beckoning on Thursday nights. Missing an episode was no big deal.

In “The Contest,” the central quartet enter into a wager over which of them can go the longest without masturbating. Of course, the premise is never stated as bluntly as that. the standards and practices department of NBC would never allow such a thing. Instead, the teleplay, credited to Larry David, circles around self-pleasuring activity, creating enough euphemisms to humble Peter Mark Roget himself. The episode manages to be lewd and innocent at the same time, ultimately about the cheerfully competitive camaraderie of devoted friends more than anything else. The complications are simple yet devilish — a woman strolling around nude in the apartment across the street, John F. Kennedy, Jr. dreamily flexing nearby — and every small twist is executed with crack timing and ideal understatement.

“The Contest” aired when I was in college, and most of my cohort simply didn’t have time to watch a lot of television. And yet, in my memory — which can admittedly be highly faulty when straining to draw up specific details of interactions that occurred well over twenty-five years ago — most of my crew was talking about the episode the next day, recycling the most memorable terminology (“master of my domain,” “queen of the castle,” the simple declaration “I’m out” as money is slapped soundly onto the counter) as a constant source of rippling amusement. Expert, knowing deployment of lines from “The Contest” was declaration of membership in a somewhat secret club of comedy aficionados.

The club got significantly less exclusive in short order, and “The Contest” was clearly the impetus for the change. Immediately notorious, the episode was invoked like a grand myth in an entertainment era without the ability to catch-up on missed material through on-demand streaming options. An episode of television was either viewed as it aired or recorded on the VCR. Without that, the whims of the programmers dictated when the opportunity to see it would arise again. When NBC did air “The Contest” again, it became the highest-rating Seinfeld episode to that point, an exceedingly rare accomplishment for a rerun.

“The Contest” also prevailed at the Emmys, giving Seinfeld a win in the comedy writing category for the second straight year. The episode was undoubtedly pivotal in Seinfeld claiming the prize for outstanding comedy series. It was the sole instance of the landmark series taking that pinnacle honor for television comedy.


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