'Seinfeld' director looks back as 'The Contest' turns 25

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Estelle Harris and Jason Alexander in “The Contest” episode of Seinfeld. (Photo: Columbia TriStar Television/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

It is a TV truth universally acknowledged that the classic comedy series Seinfeld mastered its domain on Nov. 18, 1992, midway through its fourth season on the air. That’s the night that unsuspecting viewers sat down to watch “The Contest,” an innocuous title for an episode that turned sexual innuendo into an art form. The titular contest pitted Seinfeld’s core four characters — Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) — against one another in a fiercely fought battle for bragging rights about which of them would be the longest to go without indulging in any self-pleasure. It’s an idea that emerged from the notebook of Larry David, who made a similar bet in the ’80s and, of course, emerged as the King of the County.

Twenty-five years later, “The Contest” remains a masterclass in how to talk about masturbation while never actually dropping the M word, a feat that has elevated the episode to the ranks of the all-time great sitcom half-hours. But longtime Seinfeld director Tom Cherones tells Yahoo Entertainment that, back in 1992, it was just another day at the office for the cast and crew. “We didn’t know about [the content] ahead of time,” he says. “Like any other week, we got the script and read it. We had been doing the show a while at that point, so nothing Larry would come up with would surprise me anymore.”

According to Cherones, if NBC’s Standards and Practices department had been surprised by “The Contest,” they didn’t show it. Nor did they insist on any major changes in early read-throughs or on set. In fact, the episode that ended up onscreen is more or less the episode that David wrote, minus a few lines that made the premise more explicit — though not in a graphic way — than it needed to be. “In the table read, there was a line in the opening scene in the coffee shop where George is describing what happened with the Glamour magazine,” Cherones remembers. “He said, ‘There was tugging.’ That was obviously not needed, so Larry cut it.”

The studio audience certainly had little difficulty figuring out what George was referring to when he complained about being caught by his mother while flipping through Glamour. The laughter started early and only grew as the taping went on. “In postproduction, we’d have a guy who would smooth out the laughs. For that episode, we ended up taking out more laughter than we put in, because it was covering the words,” Cherones says. To keep the jokes sounding spontaneous, Cherones and the cast avoided doing too much rehearsal ahead of time. “Our feeling was that we didn’t want to overdo rehearsal, because it gets stale after a while,” he says. “We also didn’t work late nights; on shoot day, we’d be finished at 10 p.m. when a lot of shows would rewrite or reshoot scenes into the early morning sometimes. We never had to do that.”

Asked why he thinks “The Contest” has endured for a quarter century, Cherones chalks it up first and foremost to being a “really funny episode.” “Michael did his best work in that episode in terms of the physical stuff; just the way he moved was funny,” he says. Emmy voters agreed: at the 1993 ceremony, Richards won his first of three statues — albeit for “The Watch” and “The Junior Mint” rather than “The Contest” — while David won the Outstanding Writing Emmy for “The Contest” and the show itself was named Outstanding Comedy Series. (Cherones was also nominated for helming “The Contest” but lost to Dream On‘s Betty Thomas.)

After serving as Seinfeld‘s house director for one more season, Cherones moved on to shows like Ellen and NewsRadio, eventually returning to his former stomping grounds as an extra in the series finale. “I’m sitting in the coffee shop with [then-NBC president] Warren Littlefield, and we had a fake chat on camera,” he says. “He told me that he had offered Jerry $2 million a week to continue for another year, but he kept saying, ‘No, we’ve done it; we don’t think we can do it better.'” You might say that they left the airwaves as the Lords of their Manor.

Seinfeld is currently streaming on Hulu.

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