Some advertisers balked, but America 20 years ago turned out to be surprisingly cool with televised self-service.
Twenty years ago this week, NBC headquarters began receiving some very unusual phone calls.
Sponsors of NBC's evening hour were phoning the studio, frantically trying to stop the network from running their ads during that week's episode of Seinfeld. Why were advertisers pulling their commercials from a mega-popular, top-rated primetime sitcom? Because Seinfeld was about to show a full 30-minute episode about masturbation.
On November 18, 1992, Seinfeld aired its groundbreaking episode "The Contest." The premise: George (Jason Alexander) gets caught in the act by his mother, he and his three friends Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer discuss it over lunch, and the foursome marches out of Tom's Restaurant having begun a contest to see who can go the longest without, as George puts it, "you know."
Today, masturbation on TV draws only a small kerfuffle, if that. Neither Sally Draper's prepubescent self-exploration on Mad Men nor her mom's passionate encounter with a washing machine caused much of a commotion, for example, and even Louis C.K.'s darkly funny self-gratification after a meaningful moment with a beautiful anti-masturbation activist garnered only mild surprise when it aired in 2011. But back in 1992, even the suggestion of a little solo sex was a big deal. Nine out of 10 of NBC's scheduled advertisers pulled their ads before the broadcast, and Seinfeld's writers and cast braced themselves for a backlash.
"I figured, No. They're gonna shut it down. ... You cannot base an entire episode on masturbation," Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine on the series, remembered later. "Not only just masturbation, but everybody masturbating. The idea of broaching the subject of a woman masturbating?! My God!"
But according to a Star-News report from December 1992, NBC managed to replace every one of its dropout advertisers in a matter of hours. Tapes of the episode were sent to all the potential replacements—and all chose to air their commercials during the episode's time slot.
That proved to be a wildly lucky gamble. "The Contest," now widely considered one of the best TV episodes ever, went on to score the show's highest rating of the season. And in the process, it proved that Americans—and network censors—were surprisingly OK with masturbation on TV, so long as it was handled elegantly.
At the time, the FCC's regulations on indecency and obscenity were similar to what they are now: They prohibited "patently offensive terms" that depict or describe "sexual or excretory organs or activities," as well as material with "a tendency to excite lustful thoughts," if it could be proven to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Material that dwelled on or repeated at length "descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs" could also be pulled from the airwaves if it appeared to pander or exist only for the purpose of titillating or shocking the audience. Scripted TV was subject to intense scrutiny, too, if it aired between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. (Seinfeld, then in its fourth season, was airing at 9.)
Addressing masturbation could, then, by little stretch of the imagination, fall into any and all of those prohibited categories. But the genius in screenwriter Larry David's script for "The Contest" lay in its restraint: Not only were its many, many crafty euphemisms comic gold in themselves, but they also managed to slip right under the network censors' sensitive radar. Not once in Larry David's script was the word "masturbation" uttered, nor the act shown onscreen. Rather, David told the story through suggestion: The friends check in with one another by asking who remains "master of his domain," and those who have given in to temptation are pictured dozing peacefully at night while the "masters" lie sleepless and squirming in their beds.
"It was in your face, you knew exactly what it was about," Alexander marveled several years later. "Yet it was inoffensive. He never even said the word."
The next day, NBC Studios received only 31 phoned-in complaints about the episode. By contrast, according to a 1992 report by the Lawrence Journal-World, some 5,000 calls had rolled in the day after Sinead O'Connor shredded a picture of the Pope during Saturday Night Live. The network censors never made a peep, according to Seinfeld editor Janet Ashikaga—who, in a TV interview several years later, added that several of the original balking sponsors returned. "When [the sponsors that had pulled out] saw the episode and realized the reaction to it," she said, "a lot of them wanted to be part of it when it re-aired."
Ashikaga revealed that a Japanese family friend once approached her with the idea of using "The Contest" as a sex-education tool for school-age Japanese kids. "He said you could show it to a class and open them up to humor, which will then allow them to just sit and discuss something on a more real level.
"I came back to work the next day and I said, 'Larry, you're not going to believe this,'" she recalled, laughing. "'We are now an educational show.'"
David—who, legend has it, based the episode on an actual contest he'd had with his friends—went on to win an Emmy for that season of Seinfeld. In his acceptance speech, he offered up a toast to all of those who were "masters of their domain."