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The year was 1992 and the popular — and now iconic — sitcom starring Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards was in its fourth season. The episode — which is now a famous half-hour in TV history — is titled, “The Contest.” And on Friday night, while reuniting with Louis-Dreyfus and Alexander for a virtual fundraiser for the Democratic Party of Texas, David named the episode as his all-time favorite, and shared the behind-the-scenes story of pitching it to NBC.
“When we were making this episode, I was convinced we were going to be shut down. I was convinced that the network was going to come in and say, ‘This is not going to work out,'” recalled Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine Benes on the nine-season comedy, of the anticipated NBC reaction.
“The Contest” had a simple premise that, in a rarity, involved all four characters in the same episode-long storyline: Who could go the longest without masturbating?
David explained that he used to keep his episode ideas on a blackboard, one that the NBC executives would take a look at after a table read and ask about upcoming shows. But “The Contest” was an idea that David strategically kept close to the vest.
“This one, I didn’t even put on the board because I didn’t want them asking,” David said. “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.'”
But much to his surprise, there was no pushback. “Fortunately, they didn’t say a word,” he recalls. “I was shocked.”
The risk paid off, as David would go on to collect a writing Emmy for the episode, which would also top TV Guide’s list of the “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.”
“All of our shows broke some ground about what you could get away with on TV,” noted Alexander of the revolutionary idea to plot a show around masturbating without ever uttering the word (see: “Master of your domain”). “No one was going near a subject like this, but here’s what’s so subversively wonderful about the show — Elaine’s in the contest! And she doesn’t win!”
Indeed, though the ending is somewhat ambiguous over whether or not Alexander’s George is the true winner, Elaine doesn’t break the final two. “It’s a very important cultural moment for that reason,” said the actress of her character fighting her way into the contest. “It’s a very feminist point of view, and kind of critical I think, looking back on it.”
That episode, the gang acknowledged, put Seinfeld on the map as the watercooler show. “That show changed something about how we were perceived in television land,” said David of the episode. “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.”
David’s show reveal came during a chat with his former stars that was organized to benefit Texas Democrats in hopes of raising money and volunteer awareness for the key battleground state in the 2020 presidential election. Moderated by Late Night host and Seinfeld fan Seth Meyers, the nearly two-hour-long reunion saw each of the three Seinfeld-ians revealing their all-time favorite episodes and sharing behind-the-scenes stories, while answering questions from special guests and Texas politicians Julian and Juan Castro and Beto O’Rourke, and Texas Democrats director Cliff Walker.
And it was a question from Walker that settled the debate about who truly was the master of their domain: “George throws out a line, he says he cheated. So, I guess, then Jerry won it,” clarified David with a laugh.
The event, which came together last minute after the success of Louis-Dreyfus and showrunner David Mandel’s virtual Veep cast reunion, ended up hitting the group’s goal of raising $600,000 by the end of the night. The reunion also courted 1,200 volunteers, who can help not only to mobilize but also to protect the vote in the state, which is currently the top state in the country in early voter turnout. “We are breaking every voter record in the state of Texas,” said O’Rourke about the potential to turn Texas blue, and noting that the results, unlike other key states in the election, will be tallied by election night and have the potential to majorly impact the race being called on the night of Nov. 3.
As for the stars’ all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes, Louis-Dreyfus named the classic “Soup Nazi” and Alexander surprised with “The Marine Biologist,” with both sharing behind-the-scenes stories about some of the most memorable scenes from their respective choices, including the real-life New York inspiration for the Soup Nazi character.
During the chat, the threesome also mused about what Seinfeld would look like in 2020 (“Quarantine is a natural state for George, I’m sure he’s thriving,” noted Alexander), and David revealed both the one idea he couldn’t do on Seinfeld that he later did on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and his all-time favorite line in the history of Seinfeld. To replay the reunion event, donate at txdem.co/replay for access.
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