Seinfeld: "The Contest"/"The Airport"/"The Pick"
A

Seinfeld: "The Contest"/"The Airport"/"The Pick"

"The Contest"

If there's a Seinfeld episode ingrained in the public's mind forever, it has to be "The Contest," for what I feel are two different reasons. One, it's an episode entirely about masturbation and the ways the characters try to avoid it and are eventually driven to it. For 1992, that was a somewhat shocking thing to be doing on NBC. Honestly, I don't know if it'd be shocking now, but a whole episode about masturbation would probably still raise an eyebrow. Although maybe just because it'd look like it was ripping off Seinfeld.

Along with that, "The Contest" is just a very well-written Larry David script with great camaraderie between the actors and a plot that escalates rather perfectly, very cleverly never getting coarse or even using any words referring to the act. It makes every gag feel that much cleverer and more original. There is, of course, “Master of my domain,” and every other variation on that line. But even better is the opening gambit. If George had come into the diner saying, “My mom caught me whacking off,” sure, it’d still be kinda funny, because the very idea of George’s mother catching him in the act is appropriately humiliating for Mr. Costanza. But his actual lines are almost a work of art, and Jason Alexander’s delivery can’t be underestimated.

George: My mother caught me.

Jerry: Caught you? Doing what?

George: You know … I was alone …

He stopped by his mother’s house, no one was there, and he spotted a Glamour magazine. Jerry is most mystified by that detail, but it makes sense in that Glamour is the kind of publication your mother might have around that still obviously has just the slight bit of eroticism George needs to fuel his fantasies. This is George we’re talking about.

Other reviews I’ve read make a lot of fuss about how clean and inoffensive “The Contest” is, but that’s not really the right way to talk about it. The episode’s genius lies in the fact that it is simultaneously mature and immature. It’s mature in that it accepts and presents fairly starkly the fact that these guys are masturbating pretty regularly, and then gets a lot of laughs out of their mounting frustration as that’s withheld from them. Even more daringly, Elaine gets to take part and washes out pretty quickly. The show correctly acknowledges here that she isn’t one of the boys–she has to pony up an extra $50 for entry–but she’s not horrified or squirmy about discussing the topic with the boys either.

For some balance, we have Marla the virgin (Jane Leeves), returning from last week’s episode, who is upset by the cavalier attitude Jerry and his friends have toward sex, and, of course, George’s mother herself, the great Estelle Costanza (Estelle Parsons), who sustains injuries after collapsing in shock at the sight of her son. I had forgotten that “The Contest” was our first introduction to Estelle, but it makes perfect sense. She (and husband, Frank, who enters later this year) had been hinted at for years as the root of many of George’s personality flaws, so it was best to publicly debut her with a storyline that has the biggest humiliation factor for George.

“All she said on the way over [to the hospital] in the car was ‘Why, George, why?’” George recounts miserably. “I said, ‘Because it’s there!’” More truthful a line has never been uttered, certainly not by the pathological liar George Costanza. In her first episode, Estelle is in traction in the hospital, berating George and demanding he see a psychiatrist. But George keeps coming back to see her, not out of guilt but because in the next curtain over, a beautiful nurse is sponge-bathing an even more beautiful patient and he can’t get enough of it. That George chooses to go back and back just exemplifies what’s so twisted about his character. God knows he wants to win that $450, and he can barely stand his mother screaming at him, but he just can’t help torturing himself anyway. For George, most sex is usually ungettable, but to deny even sex with himself while continuing to drink in the porn-y fantasy situation at the hospital ... well, it’s just delightfully sick.

And it works really well in contrast to Kramer, not just in the two's attitudes toward sex but, really, all of life. George is happiest stewing miserably, desiring what he can never have (witness his flip-flopping on Susan in “The Pick,” a couple episodes later). Kramer, on the other hand, is happy to just dive right in. He gets in on the bet because there’s rarely action he doesn’t want to be a part of. But when he spots a naked woman across the street from Jerry’s building, he walks out of the apartment, is gone for a little more than 50 seconds (I counted), and is back with his $100, slamming it on the kitchen counter and declaring, “I’M OUT!” It’s one of the show’s best-remembered laugh-lines for good reason: You’re snickering slightly at the rapidity of Kramer’s exit from the bet, but also celebrating his liberated attitude about it. In the first montage of everyone’s sleepless night, I always think Kramer has the right idea. He’s out $100, but he’s asleep, and he’s satisfied. And that’s not all. By the end of the episode, he’s got the woman in bed with him.

Jerry, of course, lies in the middle. He’s not about to torture himself like George, but he can’t quite tolerate the sexiness pressing in around him either. “I can’t sleep, I can’t leave the house, and I’m here. I’m climbing the walls. Meanwhile, I’m dating a virgin. I’m in this contest. Something’s gotta give!” he protests to Kramer. Kramer won’t hear any of it, particularly not his threat to get rid of the naked neighbor. Elaine’s in a similar situation. She could probably wait out a while were the circumstances not so unusual, what with John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s butt being thrust in her face at the gym and all. While Jerry is amusingly frustrated, Elaine is just as amusingly giddy and frantic at the thought of JFK, Jr. I especially love her monologue about sharing a cab with him. “He asked me my name, and I think I said Elaine, but who the hell knows!”

So sure, if Elaine was being satisfied by JFK, Jr., and Jerry were not dating a virgin, they’d probably be your traditional frontrunners in the contest. Elaine, of course, cracks second, leaving Jerry and George, but by that time, most of the episode is gone. One criticism I sometimes hear about “The Contest” is that we never find out the winner, but it’s amazing how little you care by the end of the episode. Things resolve themselves very nicely: Kramer with the neighbor, Marla with JFK Jr., and Jerry, Elaine, and George alone. There are episodes that dovetail better, but since “The Contest” is so much about frustration and withholding, it doesn’t really cry out for a happy ending.

Grade: A

“The Airport”

Honestly, “The Airport” is an episode crafted almost as brilliantly as “The Contest,” and yet while it’s a well-liked episode, it doesn’t share that classic status quite so much, because it’s about one of the cheapest comedy targets: air travel! But Larry Charles injects the right amount of madcap energy and wild plot twists to keep us from groaning through the traditional jokes about rubbery airline food.

The episode’s best achievement is just how uncomfortable it makes Elaine’s experience look. Her hair, often a great prop on the show, is used to particularly good effect here, getting frizzier and frizzier as things get worse and worse in coach. The flipside of the gag with Jerry in first class is a little duller, but it is amusing to see Jerry act so pompously. Although, perhaps the whole experience is karmic. Jerry tips the skycap guy (played by Mark Christopher Lawrence, Big Mike on Chuck) what he asked for, while Elaine gets in his face for trying to rip them off. "JFK … Honolulu,” the guy deadpans, putting Elaine’s bag on another conveyor belt. But as someone who despises every part of air travel down to my very bones, I can’t help but feel sorry for poor Elaine, crammed in the middle seat next to the guy with three pieces of carry-on and given a kosher meal meant to go to Larry David’s off-screen voice.

Really, to me, the genius of “The Airport” comes in George and Kramer’s increasingly silly driving between JFK and LaGuardia as they try to catch Jerry and Elaine’s repeatedly-diverted plane. Start off with the reason George has to do this in the first place: He tried to touch an awning from a vertical leap as part of a bet with Jerry and missed. “He’s wavin’ at it,” Jerry recalls. “I confused it with another awning,” George mutters. Ah, hubris! Already sentenced to drive around Queens trying to catch Jerry’s plane, George suffers even further because he mocks a convicted criminal by buying the last Time magazine. It’s fun to observe George’s glee (“Supposed to be a bea-u-ti-ful day!”), because it’s both a rare sight and you know he’s going to end up paying for it. Ah, Schadenfreude.

George’s comeuppance is that he foolishly gets talked into buying air tickets for Kramer, which he’ll quickly return after getting free air miles for them. Kramer, so consumed in hatred for John Grossbard (has there ever been a better peripheral character name), buys non-refundable tickets, gets George stranded on the plane with the prisoner, and doesn’t even get the $240 Grossbard owes him. I wish Grossbard could have returned for another epic showdown with Kramer, because Michael Richards really kicks ass with lines like “Listen to the bell, Grossbard, it tolls for thee!” His righteous fury on finally confronting the man (while repeatedly putting his face in profile and smoothing back his hair, as if trying to turn back time) is a wonder to behold.

“The Airport” is another episode that doesn’t really resolve itself (although the model Jerry meets, Tia, comes back in the next episode), but that’s more by design. The sight of George, screaming, sweaty, hair mussed, abused God knows how horribly, in the airplane window is a great capper. Much like last year’s “The Limo,” we don’t need to know how George extricated himself from the situation. What’s funny is that things came to this.

Grade: A

“The Pick”

With a string of episodes this good, you start wondering when the first real dud in a while is going to crop up, but “The Pick” is not it. While maybe not quite as tight as the last two episodes, the latest chapter in the ongoing tale of George’s on-off relationship with Susan is as brilliant a twist as Larry David (who gets the credit for this one) will ever come up with. Susan dumped George (off-screen) after he got her fired from NBC, and George is, of course, miserable, even though he was desperate to get out of the relationship before and exulted in her losing her job. Much like in “The Contest,” George wants everything that’s out of reach so desperately it’s almost tough to watch. Almost.

Things get so bad George actually assents to seeing a shrink, although it’s one recommended by Elaine, not his mother. But he’s so psychologically toxic, a nice friendly lady doctor is just not going to be enough. As Jerry remarked earlier in the season, George really needs a team of Freudian experts analyzing him round the clock. Rather than talking about Susan, George fixates on his jacket’s busted zipper, first distracting and finally drawing in the psychiatrist, breaking down her relaxed patient voice and getting himself tossed out of the session. His mother will pay for the session, he announces, capping a grand display of George-ness.

At the same time, I have to applaud David’s writing and Alexander’s winsome work in the scene where he talks Susan into taking him back. We know how wrong things are in George’s head, but his pleading has a certain charm to it nonetheless. “I’m like a rock! You take these glasses off, you can’t tell the difference between me and a rock!” That Susan comes back to George more than once means that you either think she’s an utter fool or that there’s at least something to what she sees in George, and that scene, with his extended monologue on the relationship of the Pasteurs, has the latter.

The other plots aren’t as compelling but are extremely diverting. Jerry, in a rare moment of weakness, is caught picking his nose by Tia the model, who gives up on him after that. At first, he’s defensive, denying everything, but by the end, he’s making an impassioned plea for all the nose-pickers in the world. “If we pick, do we not bleed? I am not an animal!” he says, going all Shakespearean/Elephant Man. Elaine’s nipple gets accidentally exposed on her Christmas card after a photo shoot with Kramer. There isn’t that much to the gag itself, but some of the side-gags, like Newman being called in and instantly recognizing the nipple, or Kramer and Jerry childishly lifting their shirts up, are cute.

Kramer’s discovery that Calvin Klein is in fact behind a fragrance based on his “beach” idea (from “The Pez Dispenser” in season three) is better, although I’m particularly fond of it because it’s calling back to one of my favorite Kramer plots of all. Calvin Klein’s cameo (he’s played by Nicholas Hormann, although I used to think that was the man himself) plays well on the general fashion-maven stereotype of being aloof. The interest in Kramer’s oddly alluring physique, tall and thin, almost makes sense from a fashion perspective, although having him walk around almost-nude seems to defy the point when he’s such a wonderful clothes horse. It’s worth it, though, for the sight gag of Kramer haplessly leaning against a rounded wall. “The Pick” doesn’t come together as perfectly as the last two episodes, but it’s still a good example of how Seinfeld can blow most sitcoms out of the water, even when it isn’t firing on all cylinders.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • One amazing thing about "The Contest" is that its Nielsen rating on first airing was 13, and on its first repeat airing, 20.1. This was the ultimate example of a water-cooler episode.
  • Love George’s dinosaur pillows.
  • Jerry singing with “The Wheels on the Bus” is very true to his character, as well as being really funny.
  • Masturbation is like shaving to a man: part of a daily routine. “I shave my legs!” protests Elaine. “Not every day,” Kramer says, through a mouthful of food, which somehow makes it all the funnier.
  • “Yeah, make a little more noise with your gum; that’s helpful.”
  • “A blurb? YOU’RE a blurb!”
  • That's Larry Charles coming out of the bathroom he stank up.
  • Kramer coming down the luggage conveyor belt is one of his best physical sight gags.
  • George is singing “The Most Beautiful Girl” by Perry Como in “The Pick.”
  • “She was in the kitchen, killing cockroaches with a boot on each hand!”
  • "It's a little, brown, circular protuberance! Everybody's got 'em!"

More TV Club