"The Contest" is the 51st episode of the NBC sitcom Seinfeld. The 11th episode of the fourth season, it aired on November 18, 1992. In the episode, George tells Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer that his mother caught him masturbating. The conversation results in George, Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer entering into a contest to determine who can go for the longest period of time without masturbating.
The episode was controversial when broadcast because NBC thought that masturbation was not a topic suitable for prime time television. As a result, the word "masturbation" is never used in the episode. Instead, the subject is described using a series of euphemisms, while the meaning of the subject is still made clear to the audience. The writer of the episode, Larry David, won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Comedy Series for his work on the episode. One of the euphemisms used in the episode is "master of my domain," said by a character when still in the contest. It has since become a catchphrase in popular culture, although it is not always used in reference to masturbation.
The episode was ranked #1 on TV Guide's 2009 list of "100 Greatest Episodes of All-Time".
The fourth season of Seinfeld has a continuous story arc, in which Jerry and George are writing a television pilot for NBC. In the previous episode, "The Virgin", Jerry had started dating Marla (played by Jane Leeves), a woman who is a virgin.
The episode begins with Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine dining at Monk's Café. George enters and says, "My mother caught me." When asked what he was caught doing, he says, "I was alone", and he goes on to imply that his mother caught him masturbating in her house while reading "a Glamour magazine", resulting in her falling over in shock and ending up in the hospital. George says he'll never do "that" again, and when the others express skepticism, Jerry and George make a $100 bet over who can go the longest without masturbating. Kramer then joins the bet, as does Elaine. However, Elaine is persuaded to bet $150, because the men claim that it is harder for men not to masturbate, as it is part of a man's "lifestyle".
Kramer is almost immediately out, due to the presence of a beautiful exhibitionist woman in the apartment across the street who walks around with the curtains open. The others are distracted by various temptations: George is distracted in the hospital his mother is staying at by an attractive nurse giving an even more attractive woman a daily sponge bath; Elaine visits a fitness club which is also patronized by John F. Kennedy, Jr.; Jerry is tempted by the naked woman across the street and frustrated because the woman he's dating won't have sex with him since she wants to remain a virgin. One method he uses to distract himself is by watching wholesome shows like Tiny Toons on Nickelodeon.
The contest affects their sleep, and the remaining contestants suffer insomnia. Only the eliminated Kramer can sleep peacefully. Elaine shares a cab ride with Kennedy, and she tells him that she lives Uptown near Jerry in order to extend the ride. She then learns that Kennedy wants to see her, and says he'll drop by Jerry's apartment. Eventually, the pressure becomes too much for her and she is the second person to be knocked out of the contest.
While making out on the couch, Marla asks Jerry if they can have sex, claiming that she is ready. However, Jerry then tells Marla about the contest, prompting Marla to leave in disgust. Jerry immediately goes to his window to watch the naked woman across the street, implying that he gives in to his temptation. Elaine believes that Kennedy has changed his mind and not bothered to see her. George then tells Elaine that Kennedy did come, but missed her and went with Marla. They then see Kramer with the naked woman across the street. That night, everyone sleeps well—especially Kramer, who is sleeping with the naked woman—but it is not explicitly stated who won. (In the fifth-season episode "The Puffy Shirt", George mentions that he "won a contest" when discussing refraining from masturbation with a hand modeling agent. However, in the series finale, he confesses that he cheated.) Meanwhile, Marla is shown in bed with Kennedy, apparently having finally lost her virginity to him.
The episode was written by Larry David. Kenny Kramer claimed that there actually was a "Contest" in which David and some friends of his took part, although he did not initially want to take part because he thought he could not win it. David won the contest. When David came up with using the idea for an episode of Seinfeld, he did not talk about it with Seinfeld for a considerable time, because he thought the episode was impossible for him to pitch. However, Seinfeld thought it was not offensive. The original script was not revealed until the night before the cast read-through. The first version written by David was not as clean as the one later broadcast. The note from the censor claimed that David should not use the word "Masturbate". Julia Louis-Dreyfus thought that the episode would never go ahead due to the subject matter. Seinfeld decided it would be better to remove any references to what George actually did. Seinfeld claimed that what was noteworthy about "The Contest" was the "Dovetailing" of the stories. He claimed that it probably would have been possible to have used the word "masturbation" in the episode (it is notable that in "The Ticket"—an earlier episode in the same season—George says "you must have a good story otherwise it's just masturbation") although it would have probably ended up not being as funny. Part of the opening scene of the episode contains some of the script that was originally meant to be used in "The Seinfeld Chronicles", the original pilot episode.
"The Contest" is the first episode to feature Estelle Costanza as an on-screen character. Estelle Harris, who played the character, had not seen Seinfeld before she auditioned for the role. The cast and crew commented positively on the similarity in appearance between Harris and Jason Alexander, as it made it more believable that their characters could be related. Alexander's real-life mother looks similar to Harris.
Rachel Sweet has a cameo role in this episode as George's cousin Shelly. She appears in the scene with George and his mother in the hospital.
There are two deleted scenes in "The Contest". One features Joyce—the teacher of Elaine's fitness class—in the opening scene talking to Elaine, Jerry, and Kramer. The second features George and Estelle Costanza in the hospital, where the female patient has been moved to the room next-door after Estelle complained about her nakedness.
"The Contest" is considered to be one of the best Seinfeld episodes, winning several awards and positive reviews from the critics. David won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Comedy Series for the episode. He also won a Writers Guild of America Award for his work on the episode. Director Tom Cherones won a Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy Series for this episode. He was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Directing. TV Guide ranked the episode #1 on its list of "TV's Top 100 Episodes of All Time".
"The Contest" received a Nielsen rating of 13/19, meaning that the episode was watched by an average of 13% of households and 19% of all televisions were tuned to the episode when it was broadcast. Approximately 18.5 million people watched the episode then. The first repeat of the episode gave Seinfeld its highest ratings up till that point, with a 20.1/30 Nielsen Rating. It also received only 31 complaints from viewers, despite the subject matter. There were worries from advertisers who did not want to advertise during the episode due to the topics that were being discussed. Most regular advertisers did not broadcast adverts during the show, because the series did not have good ratings at the time.
The episode is considered by most reviewers as a success for being able to cover a controversial subject in an inoffensive manner. Jonathan Boudreaux for tvdvdreviews.com said, "The Emmy-winning script by Larry David introduced the brilliant euphemism 'master of my domain' to our lexicon and helped the series to truly become must-see TV. We know what the episode is about, but the script never explicitly says it. 'The Contest' effortlessly takes a potentially incendiary subject and renders it utterly inoffensive yet hilarious." He also said that "The Contest" was "one of the series' most infamous" episodes. Donna Dorsett from audaud.com commented on the refusal to use the word "masturbation," saying, "If the word had been used, even once, the show would not have been nearly as hilarious. The episode was totally inoffensive."
James Plath from DVD Town said, "Estelle Harris, as George's mother, is hilarious." Although he himself did not appear in the episode, John F. Kennedy Jr. appeared to have had no problem with appearing as a character in the episode, with his role being played by an uncredited actor.