Seinfeld's Comedy Never Had To Lean On A Laugh Track

"Seinfeld" is a show ostensibly about nothing, but a look back over its nine-season run reveals that the '90s American sitcom was everything. Most of all, among the show's creators, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the series was a strange and new blend of fiction and reality. Comedian Seinfeld plays himself on the show, but not really. True New York locales serve as backdrops for unreal characters in absurd situations. Jerry and friend George (Jason Alexander) even pitch a "show about nothing" to fictional NBC executives. 

Where the typical process for comedy shows involves enhancing audience laughter in post-production, the minds behind "Seinfeld" muse that they never needed such augmentation.

Though the show ended in 1998, its grip on pop culture has remained strong. Cantankerous masses still celebrate the consumer-resistant holiday of Festivus ("for the rest of us") on December 23, and one of the most popular "Seinfeld" phrases to catch on is "master of my domain," a euphemism for the masturbation-abstinent. It came from one of the show's most iconic episodes, "The Contest," which sees Jerry, George, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) betting on who can go the longest without self-pleasure. In Vulture's oral history of the cheeky episode, Richards describes how he earned one of the show's biggest laughs:

"We knew that was a winner. None of us were like, 'Gee, I hope this hits,' or 'I hope this was as good as our last show.' No way. We knew that show was swinging. It's not a matter of conceit that I say that I knew when I put the money down on the table and go, 'I'm out,' that was going to get a laugh, particularly because it's so quick. And who's the first [one out]? Kramer, you know? It made me laugh!"


'You know ... I was alone ...'

"The Contest" is an episode that was sure to get plenty of laughs, but its naughty nature all but guaranteed rustled jimmies in the Standards & Practices department. The premise: George, Jerry, and Kramer bet $100 each on who can hold out from masturbating the longest. Elaine joins in, but due to the men's protests that it's easier for women to abstain, she adds an extra $50 on top of her buy-in. "Seinfeld" was in its fourth season by then and held choice real-estate over water cooler conversation following each episode, but it was still a prime-time television show, and writers were limited from even using the word "masturbation." They circumvented any pearl-clutching from the network with a little creative elbow-grease, appropriating the term "master of your domain" as a euphemism and showing each character's status in the contest by how well they sleep at night ("masters" can't seem to get any shut-eye, while the sexually satisfied snore the night away).

It worked: Not only did Larry David get his first Emmy for it, but the episode is often cited as the show's most influential; it even inspired a Netflix reality show. "Contest" episode director Tom Cherones told Vulture that the stars were masters of the punchline, and the laughs they got needed no boost:

"We did not enhance laughs as a comedy usually does in the editing room or the finished mix of the show. We ended up, over the years, taking out more laughs that covered lines than we did adding laughs. So it was all real. It just happened."

"Seinfeld" is currently streaming on Netflix, whether or not you're a master of your own domain.