By Ben Olson
Aside from Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin and perhaps Yogi Berra, the hit television show Seinfeld is responsible for more additions to the American lexicon than one might imagine. Even those who never watched the show, which ended almost 25 years ago, are unable to escape the inane and often hilarious references the show’s creator Larry David unleashed onto the world.
Be it the “Soup Nazi” or “yada, yada, yada” or “sponge-worthy” or perhaps being “master of your domain,” Seinfeld has seemingly tackled every awkward social situation and captured it for eternity on film, to be laughed at by future generations.
One lasting Seinfeld reference is “Festivus,” featured in the episode “The Strike,” which aired in the penultimate season. In the show, George Costanza’s dad Frank, played hilariously by Jerry Stiller, introduces a non-commercial holiday in which celebrants gather around an aluminum pole (which Stiller points out has a “very high strength-to-weight ratio”) to air grievances during the Festivus meal — each attending telling the group all the ways they have disappointed them over the past year. The holiday is continued with feats of strength and labeling easily explainable events as “Festivus miracles.”
Think of it as the anti-hero Christmas.
While many assume this holiday was wholly invented by the Seinfeld writers, it was actually founded back in 1966 by writer Daniel O’Keefe to commemorate the first date with his wife. O’Keefe’s son Dan, who worked as a writer on Seinfeld, brought Festivus into popular culture once and for all when he co-wrote the episode “The Strike,” cementing Festivus as both a playful resistance to the sickly consumerism of Christmas, as well as an alt-holiday for people to celebrate when they want something a bit more awkward than what Christmas can provide.
Kaleb Keaton, a local Sandpointian who has celebrated Festivus with a group of friends and family for more than 25 years, has decided it’s finally time to take the act on stage. Keaton and friends are hosting a special Festivus celebration event Friday, Dec. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Panida Theater.
The show will feature all the hallmarks of a traditional Festivus celebration, including airing of grievances, poetry reading from locals and feats of strength, but will also include Seinfeld trivia and a script reading of the episode featuring local actors. Of course, there will be an aluminum pole.
“We’ve been Seinfeld fans since high school and we’ve celebrated Festivus every year since then,” Keaton told the Reader. “One of the reasons we gravitated toward Festivus is there’s an awkwardness to it. I always loved the self-deprecating humor in Seinfeld. We weren’t popular in high school, so we were always tackling insecurities. Seinfeld does that so well.”
For Keaton and friends, celebrating Festivus became an annual tradition in which they playfully poked fun at the holiday season and its frequent overindulgence in emotional confection.
“Everyone comes together and enjoys seeing each other during the holidays,” Keaton said. “But the whole sugar-coated, ‘Everything is all great for everyone’ is not accurate. When families come together, it’s not all smiles and everything’s good. Usually there’s some drama in some shape or form and petty things start to creep in. That’s why it’s fun to shake off that tension by laughing at it, laughing at yourself and the context of the holidays. Humor and comedy can go a long way toward breaking the ice of social awkwardness.”
Keaton is no stranger to comedy, having performed stand-up in Boston and during his undergraduate studies at Florida State.
“I think comedy is something that’s important to allow it to be,” Keaton said. “It’s a front for exploring ideas and pushing people and their comfort levels to an extent. Comedy explores the human condition and it’s a great way to build bridges and connect with people. The authentic feeling of cheer that comedy has — without overthinking it — is what I love most about it.”
While last year’s Festivus was held at the Bonner Mall, Keaton is excited to bring the production onto the Panida main stage for what will prove to be an interesting night.
“Expect something different,” he said. “This is not going to be a traditional show. There’s going to be an abundance of Sandpoint references because it’s Festivus in Sandpoint. It’s an all-Sandpoint cast, so this will be a big opportunity to explore not just Seinfeld, but Sandpoint, too.”
Along with Keaton, several friends will assist in the performance, including Lonnie Williams playing Jerry Seinfeld, Cat Aster Phey playing George Costanza, Leslie Spohn playing Elaine Benes, Lindsey Klein playing Cosmo Kramer and “Cheryl Klein’s son” (as he insisted on being identified) playing Frank Costanza.
Keaton said there will be lots of audience interaction, but those attending shouldn’t expect to see a Broadway performance.
“It will be sporadic, well-tuned, but not to the extent of being crisp and pristine,” Keaton said. “It’s not going to be cookie-cutter perfect. It’ll be raw and edgy, because that’s how you get a good Festivus. But the humor is never at anybody’s expense.”
That’s the most important part when celebrating Festivus — not taking anything too seriously. It’s a chance to laugh and make merry, to perhaps be mildly offended in an entertaining way and push a boundary or two for the sake of the aluminum pole.
“As somebody who gets a little overexcited about things, I think it’s going to be a good show, a good turnout,” Keaton said. “Here’s the beauty of it: If it’s a good show, it’s a good show. If it bombs, if it’s terrible, it’s a good Festivus. We can’t lose!”
Festivus • Friday, Dec. 23; doors at 7 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m.; $9 advance, $15 at the door. Panida Theater, 300 N. First Ave., 208-263-9191, panida.org.
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