For the Rest of Us

Festivus parties are now almost as common as cookie swaps — though usually much quirkier and more fashionable.

Don’t expect comedian Steve Hytner to participate in a Feat of Strength with an audience member at one of three local “Seinfeld Festivus Holiday Celebrations” this month.

“I can assure you there will be no two-point reversals — nothing like that will take place,” says Hytner, who portrayed hack comic Kenny Bania, Jerry Seinfeld’s eager protégé, on the much-loved TV sitcom. Instead of wrestling moves, Hytner will entertain audiences with his stand-up routine and talk about his time on the popular show.

Festivus became known to the American public after another memorable Seinfeld character, George Costanza’s father Frank (played by Jerry Stiller), explained the concept in a late-season episode. Disgusted by the commercial chaos of Christmas, he invented his own dysfunctional holiday: “It’s a Festivus for the rest of us … at the Festivus dinner, you gather around and tell your family all the ways they’ve disappointed you over the past year.” (Featuring a plain aluminum pole instead of a tree, Festivus was actually celebrated by one of the show’s writer’s families.)

The holiday’s real-life roots, like the series itself, grew into a genuine part of American pop culture. In fact, Festivus has gone mainstream: poles are sold at Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond, among other big-box outlets.

Comedian Steve Hytner

And, whether real or staged, the “airing of grievances” portion of the celebration has an understandable appeal. Greg Yeager of Wilmington is a Seinfeld fan who will be traveling to Western NC for the December shows. He’s thrown his own Festivus parties for almost a decade and notes, “Our first Festivus pole was a small chrome pipe that was jammed in a pickle jar … after the third year, a couple guys at my job gave me a five-foot-tall milled aluminum pole, which has served us proudly ever since.”

At first, he says, partiers just aired their grievances face to face. Then, as the guest list lengthened, Yeager got wise and put paper slips in cups labeled for each guest. “People can now anonymously write their grievance against a person and drop the slip in the appropriate cup, and later in the evening, a few rounds of cup reading will be done by some of our original party group members,” he explains. The revelations prompt “groans, cheers, laughs, or gasps, according to the severity of the claim.”

Hytner isn’t surprised that the holiday has flourished since it was introduced in a 1997 episode and repeatedly aired through syndication. Still, he’s never done a stand-up act specific to Festivus, and admits he has “no idea” how the newly developed seasonal performance will come off, though he predicts “a lot of energy and passion.” Interacting with Seinfeld fans, he gets to launch jokes from a shared viewpoint: “They have a sense of humor and don’t take it too seriously.”

On Seinfeld, Kenny Bania was a sycophant with a stagey grin. He aspired to be as funny as Jerry Seinfeld; classic Bania lines include “That’s gold, Jerry, gold!” — in response to a joke — and his befuddled protest “Soup’s not a meal!” (after sharing a bowl with Jerry that he wishes to upgrade to a fancy dinner).

Hytner may be best known as Bania, but he’s appeared in plenty of movies and TV shows throughout his career, including two seasons on Working with Fred Savage and roles on Modern Family, Two and a Half Men, and Friends. These days he favors the stand-up life so he can be home more with his 12-year-old son.

“Obviously Seinfeld is a momentous show. It’s arguably the greatest sitcom of all time,” Hytner says. “To be on it and associated with it is a tremendous fortune.” However, he goes on, “it has its positives and negatives. I’ve done tons of dramatic roles, but a lot of times, especially with films, you can feel the room saying ‘He’s killing this, but I don’t know if Bania can play this part.’

“I’ve been acting for 30 years and I’ve done hundreds of movies and TV shows, but Seinfeld is an 800-pound gorilla, and you accept that.”

Comedian Steve Hytner will perform his Seinfeld Festivus Holiday Celebration at 8pm on Friday, December 8 at the Artisan of Flat Rock — 5 Highland Park Road, East Flat Rock — and at 7pm on Saturday, December 9 at the Tryon Fine Arts Center, 34 Melrose Ave. $18. (Hytner also performs December 10 at the Orange Peel in Asheville.) See the Artisan of Flat Rock on Facebook or for more information.

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