Downtime

For the 30th Anniversary of When Harry Met Sally, I Watched My Friend Fake an Orgasm at Katz’s Deli

I still can’t believe she did it.

Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally.
Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

The Katz’s Delicatessen scene in When Harry Met Sally endures as probably the most famous few minutes in the whole Nora Ephron canon. You know the scene: Over sandwiches, Harry (Billy Crystal) scoffs at the idea that women have ever faked orgasms with him. So Sally (Meg Ryan), right there at the deli, fakes one big time. The movie is 30 years old as of this month, and everyone still wants to have what she’s having.

I’m a die-hard Nora Ephron fan, and I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’ve never had any special affection for that scene. It’s without question that Meg Ryan performs it masterfully, but as L.V. Anderson has argued in Slate, the bit actually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for her straight-laced, fussy character. Me, I’m in it for Ephron’s sparkling dialogue; I can take or leave this scene, its legend notwithstanding.

But as an Ephron fan through and through (yes, even Mixed Nuts), when I heard that Katz’s, the Jewish deli that’s served New York’s Lower East Side since 1888, was holding a fake orgasm contest for its patrons in honor of the movie’s 30th anniversary, I knew I had to be there and that I had to attempt to embrace the orgasm scene. Not by entering myself—no, no no no nooooooooo, not if my life depended on it. I’m kind of an uptight Sally type myself, which is to say, someone who would never do such a thing. But if I could find a friend who would enter and let me tag along …

Scrolling through my contacts, looking for my most spotlight-loving friend, I alighted upon Erin Klabunde’s name. Erin, who did improv comedy and wrote sketches and loved rom-coms like me—we even went to see Nora Ephron speak together a few years ago, a few months before she died. “Weird question!” I texted Erin. She was in immediately.

The concept of an orgasm contest was, on its own, stressing me out more than a little—attention! Acting! Sex noises! Just a Venn diagram of things I do not want to be publicly associated with at all. But on another level, I was offended by the contest’s seemingly thrown-together execution. I was picturing a formal competition, like a gymnastics meet, or a dog show—with a judge’s table, a slot for each entrant to perform, an announcer, a podium for the winners, and maybe all of it professionally set-dressed and produced as well. This was, after all, one of the most famous scenes in film (as further evidenced by how many outlets picked up the announcement of the contest! It was everywhere!). Instead, Katz’s put its rules, such as they were, on a flyer outside the restaurant and in an Instagram post: You could just come whenever, and all you had to do was take a video and post it on social media afterward with some ill-conceived hashtags. A video on social media? No set time? Was anyone even going to participate this janky contest? Nora Ephron deserved better.

The lack of a specific time did work in our favor, however, in that as working women, we were able to make our way to Katz’s on Friday evening after clocking out, though we lamented that we may have missed the lunchtime orgasm rush. (Later research confirmed this to be at least somewhat true.) Because even Erin is not entirely free of shame, we had to stop for a drink on the way. And then another. Erin gladly told both bartenders who served us about the contest. I tried to smile and act like this was normal while, obviously, dying inside. I cringed when Erin called the drinks “liquid foreplay” but they definitely worked, because by the time we trekked from the second bar to the deli, the girl talk was a-flowing, the YouTube clip of the scene was a-playing, and the excitement was a-building.

The early stages of a fake orgasm. Photo by an unbelievably uncomfortable Heather Schwedel.
The early stages.
A totally mortified Heather Schwedel

Under normal circumstances, Katz’s is a pretty hectic place, the kind of place that would make me anxious even if I weren’t here for an orgasm-faking contest. Still, we easily snagged the table where Harry and Sally supposedly sat in the movie (as unceremoniously marked by flyers taped to the table) and by the time Erin declared she was going to take one last trip to the bathroom to prepare herself, I was stress-shoving french fries into my mouth. It was a normal night at Katz’s full of tourists, none of whom were faking their own orgasms or even seemed like they knew about the contest at all. It was Erin who was going to perform, not me, but my stomach was in knots. Everyone was going to look at us! I didn’t know if I could take the moans! Would Nora Ephron really want this for me? Well, I remembered, she did title a book Wallflower at the Orgy. Could be worse, I guess.

Here is the most difficult thing about faking an orgasm in a deli full of oblivious people: The general level of chatter is so loud that even when you start really going for it, everyone around you is still talking. It’s supremely awkward to be erotically moaning over people just eating and having normal conversations. So in addition to performing this already pretty challenging little recital, your goal becomes doing so loudly enough that you break through the din so that everyone stops talking to listen and understand and hopefully be amused by what you’re doing.

Watching Erin gamely try to moan louder than the lady next to us could talk about her new ketogenic diet, I realized that if the contest had been orchestrated like a talent show, with one fake orgasm performance after another, it just wouldn’t have been the same. Surmounting the commotion of the restaurant is what made the challenge so exquisitely uncomfortable. Of course Erin did manage to, uh, overcome the noise, so that for a brief moment around the “Yes, yes, yes!” everyone in the restaurant—OK, just about everyone in our middle sort of area of the restaurant—stopped to listen. When she finished, they applauded and whistled. Erin swears she heard someone say, “I’ll have what she’s having,” and she earned several high fives and compliments from strangers afterward.

We had made it! She faked an orgasm; I didn’t do anything but laugh nervously and nearly collapsed with fear anyway. It was a huge relief—until I figured out that I somehow screwed up my video camera and didn’t capture the performance, which led to a full day of agony as I fretted over how to break it to Erin that I wouldn’t be able to post her video on social media, thus denying Erin her big break. My embarrassment and shame about this easily outdid my embarrassment about the contest itself. It actually struck me as an important lesson: I longed for the previous day, when I had been anxious about a silly performance I just had to witness, rather than a huge screw-up that was entirely my fault. Why is it that every anxiety is soon replaced by another, worse-seeming anxiety!

When I gathered the strength to tell Erin that I’d messed up, she could not have been kinder or more forgiving. Judging from the (low-ish) number of posts tagged #fakeitlikemeg on Instagram, others must have faced similar roadblocks. But no matter: It had been one of those journey-not-the-destination things. In the movie, Sally is so provoked by Harry’s entitlement that she decides to put on a little show at the deli, even though doing so risks being much more embarrassing for her than for him. It’s a sacrifice on her part, I think, a gesture of friendship to show him he was wrong in a way that cost her more than it did him. When I was in Harry’s seat, I did kind of hate being there, but I was touched and grateful to have the kind of friend who would agree to reenact this scene just because I asked. When Harry Met Sally is about friends falling in love, but this dumb stunt of ours reminded me that it’s also very smart about just being friends. If that makes this story anticlimactic—well, I recognize the irony.