Venture Voice – interviews with entrepreneurs

Entertaining Entrepreneurship

Dan O’Keefe, TV writer for Seinfeld and Silicon Valley

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It’s a special holiday edition of Venture Voice, and the holiday we’re celebrating is Festivus. You may know it from the hit TV series Seinfeld, where the holiday “for the rest of us” is featured in the episode “The Strike” as an invention of George’s dad, Frank. Festivus was, in fact, invented by someone’s dad, but as you’ll hear in this episode, it wasn’t George Costanza’s; it was Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe’s. Dan shares how he reluctantly turned a family holiday memory he’d long tried to repress into one of Seinfeld’s most iconic episodes. At the time, he wasn’t convinced it would be well received. “It was embarrassing to me and seemed insane and not in a good, quirky TV way but in, like, a sad creepy dysfunctional way,” he shares. And yet, not only was that episode a hit with audiences, decades later, the holiday lives on. In preparing for the interview, I looked up media mentions for Festivus in our Muck Rack software and found over 3,000 articles have mentioned it in the past 12 months alone.

Also in this episode, Dan shares some insider details from his time writing for HBO’s Silicon Valley, where he interviewed start-up founders and entrepreneurs as part of his research. The year the show premiered, HBO sponsored The Shorty Awards, which I co-founded and run, and they invited us to watch the pilot. I remember watching it and thinking, this is so good — it’s so accurate and incisive. After talking with Dan about their research process, I now understand just why it was so realistic. To nail down the Silicon Valley culture, the writers piled into vans and visited various tech companies, where they hit up founders, executives, engineers and VCs for stories. Coincidentally, among those Dan talked with were a couple of past Venture Voice guests, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman and my first guest on the podcast, the very funny Dick Costolo, then CEO of FeedBurner. 


According to Dan, a large percentage of the original Festivus was spent on airing grievances. I’m sure that’s something we can all get into as 2020 comes to a close. But you could probably also use a break about now, so tune in — I think you’re going to have a lot of fun with this one. Happy Festivus!

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Highlights from this episode:

4:39

“It sort of metastasized into this weird thing he celebrated with his family through the 70s and 80s.” 

7:00

“It seemed like a terrible idea. It was embarrassing to me and seemed insane and not in a good, quirky TV way but in, like, a sad creepy dysfunctional way.”

8:52

“That show’s a landmark, and I had virtually nothing to do with it, but somehow this ridiculous episode has gotten traction, and people — it’s almost offensive to me that when people think of Seinfeld, that’s one of the first words that springs to their minds. Like, I don’t deserve that. That’s not earned by me. That is this thing that my dad made up that I sort of got sucked into the show against my better judgment.” 

10:20

“One year we didn’t have one, one year we had two. The rules of logic did not apply.” 

11:00

“I think it actually stems largely from mental illness and the love of Samuel Beckett. You know, that Venn diagram  — there’s some overlap there.”

12:28

“I look back on it with a mixture of confusion, resentment, relief that I no longer celebrate it, just amazement that it ever happened. You know, gratitude for the occasional residual check that still trickles in after many years, for 11 cents or so. It’s a complicated legacy to this strange cultural sub footnote of her late 90s.” 

16:52

“I registered my objections, but figured if anyone is going to profit off of, you know, my father’s misfiring neurons, it might as well be me.”

18:30

“Normally one agitates for one’s ideas to be included in a sitcom that one works on. In this case, I, you know, made an effort to try and stop something that I was connected with from being approved to be shot and aired. That doesn’t happen a lot.” 

15:04

“A lot of the original holiday was complaining about, talking about the year — it was a celebration of the year — but mostly it was talking about how terrible the year was, and every Festivus had a theme, and the names of them were extraordinarily depressing.” 

20:50

“Bringing everything to a satisfying and ridiculous point of convergence — yeah, that happened, largely through just a lot of sweaty people with corrective lenses sitting in a room for hours and hours.”

21:11

“There was no magic to it. It was just unbelievably hard work, and everyone was super disciplined, and Jerry [Seinfeld] set a hell of an example.”

22:50

“Keeping that show at a level that approximated the quality of the years before, without Larry David, meant that everyone had to be on their game all the time…It was unbelievably fun…but it was also, we were working hard all the time.”

26:29

“At first, [my dad] was sort of outraged…and then he got more and more into it. After it aired, and when people started, you know, over the years, talking about it more, he got extremely pleased with himself and thought that this, you know, retroactively justified everything he’d ever done.” 

28:22

“It’s an open source holiday. Technically, the rights to the holiday are owned by Castle Rock Entertainment, so anytime someone suggests that I start a foundation or something, I have an excuse, which is I technically don’t own anymore.”

27:30

“I think this, more than anything, is proof that we are in fact, living in a simulation. Because it’s preposterous to think that this could actually happen in a real world. So by definition, we must not be living in the real world. It proves what Elon Musk has been saying.”

29:23

“My dad, you could argue, was sort of like an Irish Frank Costanza with a PhD and a drinking problem.”

31:41

“I loved working on Seinfeld, that was an honor. But the most fun I ever had on TV was working on Silicon Valley.”

33:26

“Roger McNamee was a real friend of the show, just a brilliant man and obviously a lot of what he said has come true. He was super giving with his time, and we had some amazing dinners with him and some of his friends.”

36:36

“Mike and Alec realized what we need to do is write this like a drama with jokes.” 

38:36

“Smart people behaving irrationally — it’s just a lot of comedy in that, and we got a lot of juice out of that sort of thing.” 

40:01

“We followed the paradigm of some companies that just kept, you know, having to reinvent themselves, and it was more interesting.”

41:41

“It was just a very interesting subculture that we had to learn the rules of in order to, not only to write the show, but also to navigate the actual Valley, to be able to glean what we needed to know to write the show.” 

43:46

“It was intellectually intimidating, at the time, thinking, wow, these guys were actually changing the world.”

45:40

“I would say, given where it started, by turning [Festivus] into something celebratory and inclusive and, you know, letting a lot of air in it, it’s perhaps washing away the stain of that mid 70s peculiarity.”

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