The Seinfeld writer who gave the world Festivus reveals the origins of the holiday—invented by his father, not Frank Costanza, and featuring clocks and wailing children rather than the famous pole—which are pretty dark indeed.
Dan O’Keefe, who also worked on iconic shows such as Silicon Valley and Veep, joined The Daily Beast’s Fever Dreams podcast to talk about satire in the post-Trump age. But first, he gave hosts Will Sommer and Asawin Suebsaeng a surrealist tour through how Festivus came to be.
“I mean this in the nicest way possible: My father was an undiagnosed bipolar, severe alcoholic who nonetheless was extremely high-functioning and held down a job as an editor at the Reader’s Digest and had an advanced degree and was extremely erudite,” O’Keefe explains, noting he “came from an extremely working-class background, which he was constantly trying to make sure no one knew about—and in so doing, he reminded everyone of it constantly. I think the phrase is, ‘came up from nothing and brought it with him.’” O’Keefe’s father invented the holiday: “At one point he said it was an anniversary for his first date with my mom, but he also said a lot of crazy shit... so who knows?
“It was a holiday that was unique to our family. That was ostensibly a strength. And it didn’t have a set date.. in real life it could just happen whenever the fuck he felt like it, or was extremely hung over and wanted to jump-start his synapses. In one year, there were two for some reason; one year, there were none. You never knew when it was coming.”
And unlike the fictional Festivus—which featured an unadorned aluminum pole as its centerpiece (Frank Costanza found tinsel distracting)—“in real life, there was no pole. There was a nail that he hammered into the wall in the early ’70s. And every year he put a clock into a bag and hung it on the wall. And the symbol of the holiday was a fucking clock in a bag for some reason... [and there] was a poem that referred to ‘clock and bag’. And it was rhymed—four-line stanzas with a very complicated rhyme scheme. And I don’t have a copy of it somewhere and I will burn it before I share it with anyone, let alone you. It was very peculiar.”
One real-life feature of the holiday that did make it into Seinfeld lore was the legendary Airing of Grievances. “It was just a very formalized setting for yelling at us,” O’Keefe notes. “Yeah, growing up, myself and my two brothers were in a form of child abuse that yet wasn’t recognized as such by the state of New York, induced to perform seasonal rituals.”
“Every time we asked him about [the clock and bag], he literally screamed at us—‘That’s not for you to know,’ for some reason, that was what he said. So we celebrated this thing and my brothers and I quickly realized you don’t talk about this at school or you get more beatings than you’re already getting.”
O’Keefe had long buried his memories of Festivus—which was “patterned after the Roman Saturnalia and some of the other holidays of antiquity … I think it was to show that he knew who the Romans were”—when he was at a party in L.A. with one of his brothers, “and my loud-mouth younger brother opens his yap and mentions this weird family holiday called Festivus. And I’m on Seinfeld at the time, and a couple of my co-workers are there and they’re instantly all around me, like flies on shit: ‘Wait, excuse me, what is this?’ And I tried to explain it as calmly as I can, and then turn the topic away.”
But O’Keefe’s colleagues sensed comic gold and lured him to a diner in order to convince him to include Festivus in the show. “These are not thugs. These are like the head writers of the show. One of them sits down, so I can’t leave. And they say, ‘Jerry thinks this is hilarious and we want to put it in the show.’ And I tried to dissuade them as convincingly as I could, saying, ‘I have the greatest love and respect for the show. I don’t think you want to do that to it. It’s done nothing to deserve that.’ But they said, ‘Look, it can go in your episode or someone else’s.’ So I figure, fuck it, if this has to be smeared onto the world, that I might as well be the hand doing the smearing.”
O’Keefe’s admits he downplayed the more traumatic aspects of his childhood ordeal in the writers’ room. “I tried to keep that shit on the down-low as much as possible and still do it. I don’t know why I’m telling you about it now … I certainly didn’t bring it up as much as I could. But it seems, if you take it out of context, like a very fun, quirky Frank Costanza story, which was turned into.” And that’s how a family tradition that involved “all the craziness of my dad ranting about politics of the Reader’s Digest C-suite and forcing my crying brother to sing a song in German for some reason” turned into the anti-Christmas celebration that Cosmo Kramer and Seinfeld fans love today.
Later in the podcast, O’Keefe and the Fever Dreams co-hosts also discuss how Festivus has been co-opted by Republican politics—if you Google the words “Festivus Trump” you’ll see what they mean—and debate whether social and political satire can actually address the Donald J. Trump presidency or whether it’s “just too horrible and fresh” for comedians to be able to make fun of something “so already preposterous and absurd and awful.”
O’Keefe also reveals that Trump’s presidency changed the story arc of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character on Veep. “We found when looking at those whiteboards that the bar for a corrupt, venal, and just downright evil presidency had been considerably lowered or raised—whichever the correct one is—and that what we had at the time put together, what seemed sort of lacerating, it was sort of quaint in a world where it was suggested that you should inject bleach into yourself. So we had to pretty much scrap Season 7 and rewrite the whole thing. And what it ended up being is, I like to call it a comedic Breaking Bad.
“It shows the Selena [Meyer] character subverting an election with foreign aid and allowing and encouraging a devoted underling to go to the penitentiary—and just becoming a monster.”