'Seinfeld' writers talk 'The Strike' (aka the Festivus show) on its 20th anniversary

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Jason Alexander as George Costanza on <em>Seinfeld</em> (Photo: Hulu)
Jason Alexander as George Costanza on Seinfeld (Photo: Hulu)

Twenty years ago, on Dec. 18, “The Strike” episode of Seinfeld debuted, introducing Must See TV viewers to Festivus, that made-up — yet also real-world — holiday that, two decades later, has become a still celebrated pop culture classic.

Those responsible for bringing Festivus to the rest of us: Daniel O’Keefe Sr., a Reader’s Digest editor who created the endearingly wacky holiday for his family; Dan Jr., a Seinfeld writer who made the mistake of allowing his fellow Seinfeld scribes to find out about his family celebrations; and Seinfeld writers and producers Jeff Schaffer and Alec Berg, who insisted that Festivus become the signature holiday festivity for George Costanza and his family.

But with all the fuss about Festivus, some viewers may have forgotten about the other totally Seinfeld-worthy storylines of “The Strike”: The Human Fund, anyone? H&H Bagels? The end of Kramer’s job strike? The revelation that Kramer had a job to be on strike from? “Two-Face” Gwen? Atomic Sub? “Denim Vest”?!

So much gold — gold, Jerry! — packed into one half-hour episode, and, in true Seinfeld fashion, all of those gems came together tidily for one of the best episodes of the show’s final season.

“I think, arguably, most of the reasons why it’s watchable are stuff [the other writers] came up with, and nothing to do with the holiday,” Dan O’Keefe, now a writer and producer on Veep, told Yahoo Entertainment. And while we’d take nothing away from Festivus, the 20th anniversary of “The Strike” does feel like the perfect time to shed some fan love on the installment’s other storylines, which, like the Festivus portions of “The Strike,” we’re still celebrating, and quoting, today.

O’Keefe and Schaffer, now an executive producer and writer on Curb Your Enthusiasm, talked to Yahoo Entertainment about bringing together the various storylines of “The Strike,” including the real-life inspirations for the Human Fund and “Denim Vest”; the two future major awards winners who made unforgettable impressions as an ornery dentist and a randy bookie; and what that mystery entrée was on Estelle Costanza’s Festivus dinner table.

Like most of the best Seinfeld episodes, “The Strike” is a blend of storylines based on the writers’ own experiences. Another hallmark of Seinfeld classics is that each of the main characters has a storyline going, and that they all mash up into another gloriously dysfunctional display of their friendship in the end.
Jeff Schaffer: It ended up being a very good show. Everyone is away for a little bit during the summer. And you go out in the world, and you get embarrassed, and you get into awkward situations. So you come back [to the writers’ room] with some stories. And everyone gets together and shows their awkward scars, and we figure out which one of them is for George, and which one is for Elaine, and which one’s for Jerry, [for Kramer]. So everyone goes through their first group of ideas, and those are the first round of scripts. Then you’re like eight scripts in [“The Strike” is the 10th episode of Season 9], and everyone has to reload. So the writing staff starts to resemble, like, the Uruguayan rugby team from Alive, where we will just happily eat our own for stories. You’re just looking at: What do you got? What do you got? What do you got? So there were some stories that we wanted to do, and we were cannibalizing our own life. Certainly, Danny O’Keefe [was] cannibalizing Festivus. By the way, not voluntarily. He was forced to cannibalize his own life — and the Human Fund was straight out of our offices.

At Christmastime every year, everyone would exchange presents, et cetera, et cetera. And every year we would get a card from [Seinfeld production company] Castle Rock saying a donation has been made in your name to … blank. And I would look at this, and be like, “This is the worst gift ever!” One, I’m not getting anything. Two, I’m not even getting the write-off. They are. So, I’d complain about that. Then we realized that Castle Rock had given us the perfect George story.

The specific brilliance of that storyline is how George starts off being so angry about the donation in his name to the Children’s Alliance, from Tim Whatley. But it really is the quintessential George idea, it’s just that Tim Whatley happened to think of it first.
Schaffer: Exactly. Exactly, and that’s classic George, right. Complain about it, complain about it, “Oh, wait, I can use this to my own advantage.”

And it gives us another peek into how possibly depraved Tim Whatley really is, if his charity donation cards were also fake.
Schaffer: Tim Whatley was like our Swiss Army knife of depravity. We needed someone who seemed on the outside like a normal professional, but he’d have these other real deep-seated problems. Whatley was the perfect guy. And Bryan Cranston, just nobody’s funnier than him.

Maybe we should have known he had Walter White in him, from all of Tim Whatley’s little tricks.
Schaffer: These are the seeds. The seeds of Walter White were sown in Tim Whatley, the mentally disturbed dentist.

Danny O’Keefe: It’s so weird, Bryan Cranston’s gone on to do all these amazing things. He was great as the dentist. Going back and watching that episode and thinking “Wow, that’s Walter White playing a dentist throwing a Christmas party,” it’s very odd.

Tracy Letts (far right) on <em>Seinfeld</em> (Photo: Hulu)
Tracy Letts (far right) on Seinfeld (Photo: Hulu)

“The Strike” is also probably the first time most of us saw Tracy Letts, future Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County writer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Tony winner — in action, playing the bookie who’s creepin’ on Elaine at the betting parlor.
Schaffer: You never know what people are going to become. You’re just thinking, “Oh, this guy is great for this role.” I’d say the guest cast on the show got to embody and inhabit these crazy stories we wanted to do, and a lot of these stories were based on real experiences that we had, so they struck a chord with people. … The audience is saying, “Oh my gosh, I know someone just like that.”

Was “Denim Vest,” Elaine’s would-be suitor and the holder of her Atomic Sub free sandwich card, inspired by anyone close to one of the writers?
Schaffer: Denim Vest was inspired by all Canadians. Everywhere. It was only fitting that Kevin McDonald [The Kids in the Hall] played him.

O’Keefe: That was just an attempt to be funny. Just standard comic reversal. … You can’t stand someone, then you need something from them, so you have to abase yourself, in a way.

And what about Elaine’s “NO ELAINE” fake phone number? Was that inspired by anyone?
Schaffer: I think you’ll find that among the writing group, our dating lives were not so busy that we needed to be giving out fake numbers. That was something we made up.

The end of the strike at H&H Bagels means Kramer is going to return to work at the job we — and his friends — never knew he had. H&H also had an important Seinfeld connection before “The Strike”: H&H Bagels were FedExed to the writing staff every week?
O’Keefe: Yeah. Most people [on the writing staff] were from New York. I actually lived literally around the corner from H&H. It was on Broadway and the corner of, I think, 80th. I lived on West End Avenue between 79th and 80th for a number of years in the early ’90s, and I loved that place. I ate there every day.

Michael Richards as Kramer on <em>Seinfeld</em> (Photo: Hulu)
Michael Richards as Kramer on Seinfeld (Photo: Hulu)

Schaffer: Jerry [Seinfeld] had a real, I guess I would say, like an edible homesickness for New York. He always wanted to make sure the show captured the flavor of what it was like in New York City, like bumping into people you know on the street — it’s the smallest big city in the world — which happens to me every time I’m in New York. The food, I mean we would take trips, the whole writing staff, before the last two seasons, we would go to New York [before each season]. And the idea would be to just walk around and do things, and then we’d come back and talk about it. We got so many ideas that way. And Jerry obviously loved H&H Bagels. He was always trying to make sure that the show still had a New York feel, even in our writing- room snack cabinets.

Were those trips to New York fun, or were they a lot of pressure, to come back with storyline ideas?
Schaffer: Oh, they were great. I can remember, just off the top of my head, walking down the street, we ran into a friend of ours from college, and we hadn’t seen him in a long time. “Oh my gosh, this is so great. Do you want to grab lunch?” He said yes. So we went and had lunch, and we asked him at lunch, “How’s it going, what’s up with you?” And he said, “Oh, I actually just started a new job. In fact, I had a big meeting today.” We said, “But why are you here, then?” He was like, “Well, I hadn’t seen you guys in so long.” That became part of [“The Chicken Roaster”].

My brother used to live in New York, and he lived across from the Empire Hotel. Before it became a hip hotel, it still just had that big red light [sign], and his apartment was always bathed in this red light. I thought that was hilarious, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. You know, does Kramer have a dark room? I’m not sure. And so it just sat around for a while in our list of stories. Then on one of these trips to New York, we were reading that a Kenny Rogers Roasters was venting their chicken waft into a law firm. And [a lawyer at the firm] was writing that Kenny Rogers Chicken Roasters is terrible … they were putting these big signs up right above them, and then it sort of all came together. That’s how the Kenny Rogers Roasters [episode] came to exist.

Do you still keep a running list of ideas like that?
Schaffer: Oh, of course. Used to always carry a notebook. Now I do it on my phone. So, a lot of times people will be talking to me, and they think that I’m writing an email. I’m actually just writing down what they just did.

Gwen, aka “Two-Face,” keeps Jerry busy in “The Strike.” Is there a real-world Two-Face?
O’Keefe: Yes. There was someone I knew in college who looks remarkably attractive or unattractive depending on the lighting, and then I was told the same story goes for me. … How I come off really depends on the angle. So, I was talking to myself without even realizing it.

Schaffer: For Danny, it’s like the line between chiseled and gaunt is really just based on lighting. Once we started to talk about this, everyone knew someone who sometimes looked great and sometimes looked off. … Everybody feels like, “I look better from this side, I look better in this lighting,” you know? So, we thought, oh, this is actually a totally relatable thing.

The interesting thing was, we didn’t quite know how to pull it off. We thought about a few different things. At one point, we actually talked about having two separate actresses playing Gwen. But then we realized that we didn’t really want to hire anyone and bring them to the table read as “Ugly Gwen.” So, we dropped that idea, and did [“Two-Face”] with makeup. It’s kind of an odd thing. It’s an unusual story for us, in that it required some production to pull off.

We initially might assume Jerry would break up with Gwen (Karen Fineman) at the first peek at her Two-Face-ness, as is his way, breaking up with women for sometimes silly reasons. Is the reason he allows this relationship to play out as long as he does because he can relate to her, or to the moniker “Two-Face,” as a Batman villain?
O’Keefe: I think comic book affinity certainly played into that. He liked that idea, and that’s why he went to such lengths to try to find good lighting to make things work. Or, maybe we were just getting tired of Jerry breaking up with people very quickly.

OK, we can’t really talk about “The Strike” without talking about Festivus. It is the occasion that brings everyone together at the Costanza household in the end, after all.
O’Keefe: Sure. I find it disagreeable, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to talk about how I find it disagreeable.

Schaffer: We were cobbling together an episode, and we had had some of these stories around for a while. I think Danny must have told us about Festivus, I’m guessing the year before. Maybe Danny’s brother Mark, who’s also a very funny writer, brought it up. Maybe Danny brought it up at lunch. And he thought he was entertaining us, and he didn’t know he’d soon be entertaining a large portion of the United States. He really never thought that this was suitable for the show. But once we heard it, we said, “We are doing this.” We didn’t do a lot of seasonal episodes. But this was a perfect Christmas episode.

O’Keefe: I don’t know how many people think [“The Festivus”] is the episode title. People usually just call it “The Festivus episode.” Most people seem to know it’s called “The Strike,” but it never occurred to me for a second to try and suggest we should call it “The Festivus,” because I really, legitimately, thought that whole plot would be excised somehow, in the editing room. Or maybe I hoped that, I don’t know.

One of the enduring mysteries of TV “Festivus” is: What is the meat that Estelle serves during the dinner? Some people think it’s meatloaf and some people think it’s spaghetti, because it’s red on top.
O’Keefe: I think it’s meatloaf, and there was a red sauce on the set. I’m pretty sure it was some sort of fake meatloaf, or really meatloaf, and people really ate it. That scene took like six hours to shoot. [There were] so many angles and a lot of lines, and it was very complex. But, I recall a meatloaf sitting there for quite a while, and I think they might have had to replace it, because at some point, people had to have been eating meatloaf for a while, and it might not have been good anymore — if it ever was good. I’m pretty sure it was meatloaf. In real life, it was usually ham or turkey.

What did you add to or tweak from the real-life Festivus to create the TV Festivus?
O’Keefe: The airing of grievances is taken from the real thing. I think it was Schaffer’s joke with the pole and [it having a high] strength-to-weight ratio. I think I had the idea that you had to wrestle your father, which says all kinds of things about me. But, I think the feats of strength was me, and in terms of the rest of it, the tape that played in the diner where you hear Estelle scream, “Leave him alone!” and all that, I don’t think I played it for anyone, but I went back and listened to some of the old actual cassette tapes my dad made while we were celebrating that weird thing.

What’s the funniest or saddest or coolest thing you’ve heard about people celebrating Festivus since “The Strike” initially aired?
O’Keefe: Well, the fact that anyone would be willing to do such a thing to begin with is kind of all the funny and sad you need. But, my favorite appropriation of Festivus into the mainstream? I just love the fact that there’s Brooklyn-based rapper [Wale] who dropped a mixtape called “Festivus.” He’s a Seinfeld fan, and he loved the show, and it’s actually a great mixtape.

Why do you think Festivus endures as a real-life holiday people continue to celebrate?
Schaffer: I don’t know why it’s so popular. I guess because the traditional holidays are such bloated, commercial events that this resonates, because it gets to the true essence of what we need during the holidays. Which is just a knockdown, drag-out bitch session.

One of my favorite things about working on Seinfeld (besides it was the best job you could ever have), was that the next day, you would hear people talking about what you wrote. And I’ve been very lucky to have a few instances of this. Like, Alec [Berg, now the showrunner for Silicon Valley] and I wrote an episode with “regifting” our first year, and that made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. … That’s the coolest thing ever. Just the idea that you know, you sit there and you work in your office, then you shoot on a stage with a few hundred people, you hope that the thing you think was funny resonates with everybody else. But you never expect something that you wrote to actually show up on a calendar and get celebrated like it’s Easter or Christmas. It’s amazing. So, I think of it as an episode first, but then I can’t believe that the episode has taken on a life of its own. But I’m very happy that it has.

Also, just think about how embarrassing it is for Danny. That’s what really makes me happy. I mean, Danny told us something. Danny told like four people something. In confidence. Then we bullied him into making a show about it, and people are still now talking about it. It’s the humiliating gift that won’t stop giving.

That is regifted every year.
Schaffer: Yes, every year. Every year, Danny’s humiliation is regifted to Danny. Yeah, imagine, your most embarrassing family secret is on Must See TV. And now is literally part of the holiday season.

And has spawned its own industry of aluminum pole makers, mixtapes, ugly Christmas sweaters, and even a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor.
Schaffer: Yeah. It’s a cottage industry embarrassing Danny O’Keefe.

All nine seasons of Seinfeld are streaming on Hulu.

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