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It's hard to go wrong when it comes to picking the "Best Episode" of Seinfeld. Sure, the first season is an exercise in the show finding its footing, but even those episodes are very funny, and everything else is iconic television. Because of this, there's a lot of variety possible when it comes to answering the subjective question, but for series co-creator Larry David, there is one chapter that stands out: "The Contest."
Back in the 1990s the idea of having an entire episode of a network sitcom dedicated to the act of masturbation was beyond taboo, and it seems that the episode's backstory plays a big part in why it's David's favorite, in addition to its Emmy-winning quality (it won that year's "Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Comedy Series" prize). It was during a virtual fundraiser for the Democratic Party of Texas this weekend that the Seinfeld co-showrunner/producer/occasional cameo-maker named it his favorite (via The Hollywood Reporter).
Larry David was joined by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander for the event, and together they reminisced about challenges and maneuvers that were required to make "The Contest" happen. For starters, David did what he could to try and hide the idea from executives as NBC, specifically by not keeping it on an idea board in the writers room that was used to keep track of plots for upcoming episodes. This allowed the writers to work on the script surreptitiously and not get the whole thing preemptively shut down. Said the co-creator,
This one, I didn’t even put on the board because I didn't want them asking. I just wanted them to come and see the read-through. [When they did,] I had worked myself up into a lather because the read-through really went great. I was watching [the network executives] and I couldn’t tell how much they liked it. But I was ready to pack the whole thing in if they didn’t let us do this show: 'I'm quitting. I'm quitting. I'm gonna quit.'
That last sentiment probably put a smile on the faces of those of you who know a bit about Seinfeld's history, as Larry David was known behind-the-scenes for regularly threatening to quit. It was even turned into a meta joke in the series' fourth season a.k.a. the same season as "The Contest" when Jason Alexander'sGeorge (widely recognized as the show's version of David) rages against executives at NBC for threatening his "artistic integrity" when he is working with Jerry Seinfeld to pitch "a show about nothing."
For those who don't remember or aren't familiar with the episode, "The Contest" begins when George tells Jerry, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) that his mother took a hard fall as a result of catching him masturbating in her house. He proclaims that he will never do "that" again, to which all of his friends scoff. This leads to them setting up a bet to see who among them can go the longest without fondling their own nethers.
As it turned out, Larry David's caution was a bit unnecessary. When the executives attended the table read for the thought-to-be controversial episode, they didn't protest the idea at all, and it went to air as envisioned. It almost certainly helped that while the plot of "The Contest" was about self-pleasure, the word "masturbation" isn't used a single time.
The episode was a massive hit that caused a spike in the ratings, and Larry David credits it with changing public perception about what Seinfeld was as a show. To paraphrase the co-creator, the show became much more than Cheers' little brother in the Must See TV lineup, and revealed the sitcom to be different than anything else on television. Said David during the mini-reunion:
That show changed something about how we were perceived in television land. It really catapulted us to another place. It moved us to another level, I think. And the show got much more popular after that episode.
The ratings reports definitely support that timeline. A few months after "The Contest" aired, the show was moved from Wednesday night to Thursday night and had its first 20 million-plus audience, and then it became a pop culture staple.