Jerry Stiller, who died last year at the age of 92, bestowed upon us many comedic gifts, including his brilliant stand-up work with wife Anne Meara, his scene-stealing work on “Seinfeld” and “The King of Queens,” and his son, Ben Stiller.
But the beloved entertainer’s most memorable gift – arguably his best – is a holiday, or perhaps an anti-holiday: “Festivus, for the rest of us.”
In “The Strike,” a “Seinfeld” episode that aired Dec. 18, 1997, in the hit sitcom’s ninth and final season, Stiller’s Frank Costanza explained and celebrated Festivus, which he created as a reaction to the commercialization of Christmas.
Every December 23, many fans commemorate the holiday, which was inspired by the father of “Seinfeld” writer Dan O’Keefe. The Festivus pole and the rituals, which include “Feats of Strength” and the incomparable “Airing of Grievances,” have become pop culture icons in their own right.
No less than a “Seinfeld” expert than Jerry Seinfeld marvelled at the enduring appeal of Festivus in a 2019 interview with USA TODAY: “I think the biggest surprise to all of us was the staying power of Festivus. That, I believe, completely surprised us. When I run into any of the other writers, we’re all taken aback.”
Festivus is a brilliant concept, but it would receive less attention than St. Swithin’s Day if it weren’t for Stiller’s bravura – and high-decibel – performance.
Festivus was a subplot in “The Strike,” which featured a holiday cornucopia of “Seinfeld”-ian quirks: Kramer’s (Michael Richards) return to work after a 12-year strike; Elaine’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) “fake phone number” dating gambit backfiring; and George’s (Jason Alexander) creation of The Human Fund.
When Elaine inquires about the holiday, Jerry cheerfully explains, despite angry George’s constant yells of “No!”
“Didn’t your father put up an aluminium pole instead of a tree?” Jerry inquires, much to George’s chagrin. “Wasn’t it their feats of strength that always left you crying?”
Kramer, unsurprisingly, is captivated by the holiday and inquires about its origins.
“I went to buy a doll for my son many Christmases ago. I reached for the last one they had, but another man did as well “Frank says this with a Stiller hand wave that is hilarious in and of itself.
Then there are the classic lines: “I realised there had to be another way as I rained blows on him. As a result, a new holiday was created “he says, raising the volume and waving his arms widely. “For the rest of us, a Festivus!”
“At the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around and tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year,” Frank says.
Frank’s Festivus dinner gathers his wife, Estelle (Estelle Harris), George and his friends, and a motley crew of hangers-on, including Pulitzer Prize winner Tracey Letts as a skeezy OTB employee.
“Welcome aboard, newcomers! “The Festivus tradition begins with the airing of grievances,” Frank warms up before delivering a line for the ages in Stiller’s pitch-perfect agitated yell: “I gotta lot of problems with you people!” You’re going to hear about it now!”
When Festivus begins the Feats of Strength, Frank summons Kramer, who flees. “Festivus is not over until you pin me, George,” he says.
As the chaos begins and the camera pans to the house’s exterior, Frank exclaims triumphantly, “This is the best Festivus ever!”
It is, and will always be, a standout among so many comedic gifts that we can enjoy in his memory, regardless of the date on the calendar.