Choking the chicken. Never Never Land tourism. Flogging the dolphin. Beating the meat. Rubbing one out. Rubbing one in. Polishing the pearl. Ménage à moi. Visiting the Bat Cave. Debugging the hard drive. Boxing the Jesuit. Looking for clues with Fred and Daphne. Calling yourself collect and accepting the charges.
I will admit that I made one of those up. Hopefully, you are familiar with at least one of the other ones, and therefore you know what these are euphemisms for. Here’s a hint: It rhymes with “faster nation.”
It’s masturbation, something that this entire episode is about, and yet they manage to never say the word, nor even use a direct euphemism for it. That’s half of the fun, honestly; finding out exactly how far these people will go to avoid saying the word, even if it’s really just to avoid the censors. Hell, that first paragraph was fun to write just because I had to look up a list of euphemisms. I really had two options in writing this: try to avoid any further references to “praising Lord Palmerston” (or, for the ladies, “Pitt the Younger”), or to make as many bad euphemisms up as I could. Any guesses which I picked?
Seinfeld is supposed to be the “show about nothing,” but people, including Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, point out that that statement isn’t exactly true. It’s a show about where comedians get their material, which, while that’s usually just exaggerated everyday occurrences, is still something. But, whether it’s about something or nothing, it’s still hilarious.
The cast of the show: Jerry Seinfeld (himself), the comedian who usually tries to be the voice of reason; George Costanza (Jason Alexander), the lying, pathetic, cheating, whining best friend; Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the friendly, somewhat vain at times, impulsive, and often short-tempered ex-girlfriend and friend; and Cosmo Kramer (Michael “Watch Racism Tank My Career” Richards), the wacky neighbor with frequent get-rich-quick schemes.
The episode begins with George telling the gang that his mother caught him “popping the palm puppet” to Glamour magazine, and is now hospitalized from the fall when she fainted. George promptly swears off “taking the dachshund to the vet.” The rest of the cast, who are beyond amused at the incident, immediately state that he won’t be able to stop “mangling the meat monkey.” They end up making a bet between the four of them. Everyone puts in $100 (Elaine has to put in $150, because they believe a woman is less likely to have to “tiptoe through her tulips” than a man), and the last one to “play Liszt’s Sonata in B minor on violin” wins the pot.
Each of the four has something that makes this challenge a lot harder. Kramer is being tempted by an attractive, nudist, exhibitionist woman who lives across from his window. Jerry is dating an attractive virgin named Marla (Jane Leeves), who won’t even “play downstairs badminton” (hint: requires two people and 5 of you just checked to see if I spelled badminton right) with him, and also keeps seeing the exhibitionist out of his windows. George, while visiting his mother in the hospital, witnesses a hot nurse sponge bathing another beautiful woman, daily. Elaine, despite the assertion that she would have greater restraint and win easily, finds herself at the gym with the late John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Kramer folds almost immediately. In fact, Kramer comes into Jerry’s apartment, shows Jerry the nudist, leaves, and then returns 4 minutes later to say that he is out. With only three left, the audience is shown that the remaining participants are having trouble sleeping. Kramer, meanwhile, dozes peacefully.
Jerry tries to distract himself from “punching big Papa Smurf” by watching Tiny Toons after reconfirming that his girlfriend still wants to keep her virginity. Kramer keeps trying to tempt Jerry with the nudist, but Jerry firmly remains “master of his domain.” Despite how that sounds, this actually means he didn’t “bang the drum quickly.” George keeps visiting his mother, Estelle (Estelle Harris), but ends up being more intrigued with the sponge baths across from her. Elaine keeps trying to find ways to be closer to JFK, Jr., and ends up getting his attention. After being told that he’s going to come by Jerry’s apartment building, Elaine ends up “practicing stenography,” costing her the contest.
Jerry and George are now becoming increasingly irritable. Jerry, however, finally is told by Marla that she thinks the time has come (and so should he), but Jerry blows it (and therefore doesn’t) by telling her about the Contest. She leaves in a huff, and, when Elaine goes upstairs to see what happened, Marla ends up meeting JFK, Jr. They then see Kramer across the way with the nudist. Every member of the group is then shown sleeping soundly, except for Marla, who apparently just lost her virginity in a marathon session with Kennedy.
Okay, so, why does this episode stand out? Partially because, despite the fact that people were allowed to talk about sex on television at this point, most television shows weren’t allowed to address “playing pick-up sticks on easy mode.” It was a strange, and ridiculous, taboo that this episode managed to highlight. After watching it, you’ll have known exactly what the bet was, exactly what everyone was doing, you’ll have heard how common it is to “blitzkrieg the Fineland,” and yet you’ll have noticed that no one ever said anything explicit. As if the word itself was preventing society from acknowledging a very fundamental truth: It’s fun to “file your I-come taxes.”
America, and much of Western Civilization, has had a long history of wanting to suppress this instinct in people, saying that it cultivates sexual desire, which in turn cultivates immoral behavior, while everyone knows that it’s still fun. Because of this, almost all American media is driven by sexuality, while simultaneously telling us that it’s wrong to acknowledge it. George’s mother even tells him that his behavior is so wrong that he needs to see a psychiatrist. Now, this is a woman who managed to miss all of the other WAY MORE OBJECTIVELY BAD psychological problems that George’s actions would indicate, but she thinks he has a serious problem because he was aroused by a magazine.
The feel of this episode has changed a lot in the last twenty years, and I think it’s for the better. Sexuality is part of being human, and suppressing that does way more damage than acknowledging it. If you want to teach people to handle it responsibly, you first have to address it honestly.
Sex is fun. That’s true. It’s also risky on many levels, from emotional to physical. That is also true. “Letting the Care Bear stare” is fun and has almost no risk when it isn’t treated like a shameful act. That’s also also true. It’s better to just be honest about these things, than to confuse the issue by saying “Sex is bad, but also you should really want to have it right now.” Nothing manages to point this out better than having an entire episode that shows that you can address the subject without ever actually having to mention it explicitly. The thought process telling the audience what they’re discussing is so ingrained that they could fully rely on it in this episode even with the most oblique references, and yet the censors wouldn’t have allowed them to talk about it outright.
The other strength of this episode is the writing. Since they’re exploring temptation and restraint within the episode, so much of the dialogue reflects the characters as they struggle to maintain their control over their own desires. At the same time, they’re contrasted with Marla the Virgin, who has maintained her virginity into her 30s for no reason aside from her feeling that it’s something to take seriously. Ultimately, Marla, who appears to be the most disciplined and restrained loses her virginity to someone she just met, and shows no regret for it. Appropriate.
In a later episode, they revealed that George supposedly won the contest, and then in a later episode he admits he just lied. He broke down before Jerry did. I think it’s telling that they kept re-addressing this single, random plot line for years. It’s also telling that you can now talk about the subject on television explicitly, rather than saying that someone “gave Dig ‘Em a Sugar Smack.” This episode pointed out a deeply ingrained hypocrisy in a fun, inventive way, and it paid off.
Please vote on your favorite Euphemism in the comments below.
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2 thoughts on “12) The Contest (Seinfeld)”