Danny Pellegrino, THE JOLLIEST BUNCH: Unhinged Holiday Stories

Danny Pellegrino, THE JOLLIEST BUNCH: Unhinged Holiday Stories

In this special podcast episode presented by Nordstrom, Zibby speaks with Danny Pellegrino about his hilarious collection of essays, THE JOLLIEST BUNCH: UNHINGED HOLIDAY STORIES. Danny explains that the book, inspired by his own family, is a humorous yet heartfelt look at the chaos and emotions surrounding the holiday season. It includes anecdotes (like a hectic cross-country road trip) and the familiar stress of holiday hosting. The book aims to capture both the joy and the pressure of holiday traditions. Danny also discusses his career as a podcaster, his passion for cooking, and his desire to write a children’s book about rodents. He concludes by offering advice to aspiring authors, stressing the importance of authenticity and writing from the heart.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Danny. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Jolliest Bunch: Unhinged Holiday Stories.

Danny Pellegrino: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I’m so excited to talk to you. I’m a huge fan of your work. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thank you. I feel like I know you so well now. I know everybody says this after they read your books. I feel like I know your mom so well. I know you and your family. Oh, my gosh, the part of the book with the strand with the three lights that are still out and missing your mom, I was so sad reading it. Most of it was so funny.

Danny: The book really is a love letter to moms. My mom and I have a very close relationship. There’s a lot of chaos with the holidays, so there’s a lot of laughs on moms’ behalfs. I really hope it comes across just how much, in particular with moms — I am so close with my mom. I think moms are the best people in the world.

Zibby: Amazing. Why don’t I take it back a minute and ask, why did you write this book? Why The Jolliest Bunch? What’s it really about?

Danny: I came out with a book last year called How Do I Un-Remember This? It was a collection of stories. A lot of them were family stories. Those were the stories that I heard from the most when I was on my book tour and meeting people and on social media. I think people really related to the stories about my parents and my older brothers and being raised in this Midwest family. While I was writing that book, there were so many chapters that were centered around the holidays. In my head, I thought, I can’t have them all in this book. I had this fantasy of doing a holiday collection. I grew up loving David Sedaris. Jean Shepherd has a great essay collection that was the basis of A Christmas Story, which is the movie that’s played a million times. I loved the idea of having a holiday collection that people could pick up over the holiday season and read every holiday season or just stories that are little nuggets that people can read in between shopping and baking and doing all the craziness and hopefully have some laughs. There’s, hopefully, some heart in there too. Really just wanted people to be able to pick it up and laugh. What I think about the holidays and this book in particular, I think if you love the holidays, hopefully, you’ll like the love letter to the holidays. If you hate the holidays, hopefully, you’ll find the humor in it throughout this book too. I like to think it’s for anyone.

Zibby: It’s absolutely for everyone and so great. The story you told about driving cross-country — was her name Barbara? I think her name was Barbara. I was laughing out loud. I kept quietly laughing. Then I was like, oh, my gosh, this is so funny. Why don’t you just summarize what happened with Barbara? Your voice is so funny. Hearing your internal monologue but on the page while you deal with — it was so funny.

Danny: Thank you. It was this woman — her name was actually Claudia.

Zibby: Claudia. I’m sorry.

Danny: No, it’s okay. I was trying to think too because I changed all the names. Sometimes I’m like, wait, what’s their name in the book versus real life? I took a cross-country road trip, the only time I ever drove from California to Ohio, which is where I’m from. It happened to be for the holidays. Basically, a friend of a friend, someone who worked with a friend, was doing the road trip. I naïvely jumped in her car. It was just a chaotic trip. This woman was a little crazy. Very crazy. I always kind of like the craziness. I like to look around and be like, what’s going on here? Why am I in this situation? It’s just a cross-country road trip gone awry to get home for the holidays. As I’ve gotten older, I don’t always feel so much pressure to make it back to Ohio for the holidays. Throughout the years, there is that. Every time November, December comes around, you’re thinking, when am I going to get back to see my parents or my siblings? There is so much pressure, it seems, to try to make it, especially if you’re someone who lives out of state from the rest of your family. You do whatever it takes. At the time, I was in my twenties. I didn’t have a lot of money. I couldn’t afford the plane ticket. It was an opportunity to get home and see everyone, so I took the opportunity. There was craziness. I found out throughout the road trip that she had been drinking while driving, which we do not support. I did not know that.

Zibby: You were so funny, though. You were like, oh, my gosh, it’s your birthday. Happy birthday. How are you going to celebrate? She’s like, I already had a few drinks. You were like, oh, last night? She’s like, no, no, this morning.

Danny: She was one of those people, though. I envy this in people, just so unapologetically marching to the beat of their own drum. She’s someone that was so unfiltered too. That’s something I envy. I’m someone who’s in my head a lot. I always want everyone to get along and all that kind of stuff. I like to be around people like that who are so outspoken and just say exactly what’s on their mind and have dirty sailor mouths. I tend to gravitate towards those people, I think probably because I might be a lot of the opposite. She was one of those people who pulls you out of your shell. She just was living in her own world. I envy that in so many ways.

Zibby: The best part was not her, but just the way that you interacted with her. I don’t want to keep harping on this, but when you were at the gas station and you were trying to buy Oreos and a Coke or something, she was like, we have to go, and shoved something deep into your pocket. You thought you were stealing, but actually, it was just paper towels. Oh, my gosh. You have to read it. It was so funny.

Danny: I know. I thought she was going to get me arrested, this woman. I wanted all the stories to feel — the first book, a lot of people were telling me the stories felt like the movie Vacation, Clark Griswold. I kind of liken this to A Christmas Vacation where each chapter will highlight some of the absurdity that goes on around the holidays, whether it be getting home for Christmas or doing a childhood Christmas play or whatever it is.

Zibby: Having your epigraph by Clark Griswold was the greatest. I was like, I am going to love this book. This is amazing.

Danny: The title comes from the speech from the movie Christmas Vacation where he says, “Santa’s going to squeeze his ass down the chimney and see the jolliest bunch of a-holes this side of a nuthouse.”

Zibby: It’s not all laughs, as we alluded to. There are some very real feelings that really speak to how stressful the holidays can be. There’s the scene where your mom — you ask the question, which, of course, everyone who hosts events always asks. Why do we do this to ourselves? You’re like, why is she doing this to herself, hosting holidays and Christmas and cooking all day and all of this stuff? It happens every year. We’d be fine with pizza.

Danny: People drive themselves nuts trying to make the perfect Christmas Eve party. That’s what my mom does every year. She never enjoys it. Every year, we’re like, “Mom, why are we doing this? Why don’t we just do a scaled-down — why don’t we all just watch a movie at home or just the immediate family or something?” It always has to be this big, elaborate thing that inevitably turns into chaos and my mom screaming that she wants to go sit on the corner. That’s always her famous thing. “I’m getting in the car, and I’m going on the corner. I’m going on the corner, Dan.” We’re like, “What are you talking about?” There’s so much emotion. She’s trying to make it perfect, but you can’t make the holidays perfect. They’re imperfect.

Zibby: True. I feel like that scene where your mom was in the car — you found her in there. She was basically having a moment with the corner and all of that, but really just a moment to regroup and freak out. Then cut to not even an hour later when everyone’s walking in. It’s beautiful. She’s like, it was nothing.

Danny: That’s always the dichotomy. It’s very Midwest Catholic upbringing where it’s like, sweep everything under the rug, but the immediate family knows what’s going on in the house. As soon as the other people come over, the aunts, the uncles, the cousins, then it’s like we’re presenting The Brady Bunch face. My mom’s like, “It was nothing. This was all so pleasant. I can’t wait to do it again next year.” Then five minutes before that, she’s having a total breakdown. We’re all fighting and all of that.

Zibby: I think actually, it really allows for much more closeness if you show the behind the scenes. If two families getting together could see the craziness of right before they meet up, it would just allow for a much deeper level of conversation.

Danny: It’s amazing. With my other book, I told a story about a family vacation. I thought, this is such a crazy family vacation story, but then I heard from so many people with their own crazy family vacation stories that were even wilder. Everyone goes through these similar touchstones. They might look a little different. Whether it be Christmas Eve dinner or some other holiday, a birthday or just having a nice dinner on a Sunday, I think people all go through those moments right before the company gets there where they’re nuts.

Zibby: Absolutely true. Why do you think we do it? Why is it all worthwhile when there is so much stress? What can we do about it? What do you think? Is there anything that could make it any easier?

Danny: I think those stories that we all remember from our childhood that were chaotic, over time, they become these loving stories that we look back on fondly. In the moment, they weren’t. They were so filled with bad emotions, anger, sadness, whatever. I think as we get older, we try to sort of recreate those moments that we thought were so perfect, but of course, they weren’t, whether that was in the past or present. We do keep chasing that high. Ultimately, we’re chasing the imperfection story. I also think the holidays, there’s so much chaos, but it’s also so beautiful. I love the twinkle lights everywhere. I love the colors. I’m decorated for Halloween now. I’m so excited for Christmastime, to decorate. There is also so much joy and music and nostalgia that makes us feel good. I think we just keep chasing those highs of, maybe not our youth, but those holidays we remember that seem so perfect in our head. I think if most people were to take a step back and reexamine moments that they held so fondly in their heads, they might realize it wasn’t as perfect as they thought.

Zibby: I think the things you remember the most are the things that go wrong. They become the funny stories. In the end, does it really matter how beautiful the table or where every fork is set? Those things fade. They fade quickly.

Danny: Do you have a favorite holiday memory? Is there one that jumps out in your head as I mention that?

Zibby: Favorite holiday memories, I just feel like whenever my family would get together, even for Thanksgiving, for example, the guys would all go in one room and watch the football game and talk about business. All the women would be in the kitchen. I was like, I don’t want to be in the kitchen. I want to be with the guys. What are they talking about? I would sit and nuzzle up to my dad on the chair and just listen to their conversation and listen to the sounds of the football. It makes me look so fondly with my dad and my uncles, my grandfather.

Danny: The other thing, too, with the holidays is you remember those people in your family unit that are no longer with you. Sometimes that nostalgia is so tied to the people in our lives. You think about people you’ve lost and the holidays you had with them or even the new people as families grow and kids come into the world. I was the opposite of you, though. I was always looking to be in the kitchen with the women. I was like, please, put me in the kitchen.

Zibby: There you go. We could’ve been at the same occasion and just swapped. It would’ve been fine. I don’t like to cook, really.

Danny: I don’t know what’s going on with football. I want to be gossiping with the women in the kitchen. I always say my homebase is the oldest woman in the room. That’s who I’m most comfortable — put me near the grandma, whoever the person is in the kitchen. The oldest woman there is who I want to chat with.

Zibby: My grandma would’ve loved you. I know that you are involved with Nordstrom. You have all these amazing deals. You’re everywhere. Tell me about what you love at Nordstrom or what you’ve gotten there lately and what you recommend for holiday gifts.

Danny: Nordstrom is so great. They have everything. We’re talking books. They have so many different things that you — I am a big fan of creating the vibe around your reading. You’re in a beautiful library right there. I think it’s so important to, if you light candles, light a nice candle. Put on a cozy blanket. I love the Nest candles, which you can find there. Then there are so many different great, cozy blankets. I always think that makes a great gift, putting those together in a gift basket with some good chocolate. I think it’s important for everyone to have a good chocolatier or a good chocolate. I really love the Tony’s chocolate. I know that’s not what we’re talking about here. The Tony’s Chocolonely, I think it’s called, I feel really passionate about them lately. If you have a reader in your life, you can get The Jolliest Bunch or another book, but just put together a gift basket with some of the stuff from Nordstrom. They have everything. Also, I want to say the Nordstrom café, it’s attached to a lot of the Nordstroms. Not all of them have them. The blackened chicken Caesar salad is truly the best Caesar salad ever. I love it. Get it. Blackened chicken and chopped.

Zibby: I like to ask for salads extra chopped, I have to say.

Danny: Me too. Oh, my god.

Zibby: Sometimes they’re not chopped enough. Come on. I’m with you. I have a beautiful green throw that I got at Nordstrom. I feel like if you put a plant and a green throw and maybe a coffee table book about plants, all of a sudden, you have the outside in. It makes a new vibe. I have that in my office.

Danny: I also just have to say that one of the great things about them is returning stuff is so easy there, or exchanging. I think that’s great for gift giving. I don’t know about you, but sometimes you get something from a specialty store that you don’t want and you can’t exchange or return. They have good customer service and stuff there.

Zibby: Last year, my son was trying to meet some girl or something. We were in a part of this town I had never been in. They had a mall. It was near the holidays. Not that close, though. I was like, let’s just go walk around the mall. There’s nothing else to do here. I was like, wait a minute, I don’t have to order stuff online. You know how you get in those habits? I’m like, I could just actually do it here with the kids. Next thing you know, we were running everywhere. We got home, spent the afternoon wrapping ourselves. Although, I know that Nordstrom has amazing wrapping services. We were not there at that time, which is why I am going to go there this time because it took us another two hours to wrap everything. I was like, this is so efficient. Sometimes the easiest way is not actually the easiest way.

Danny: I know. It’s easier to go to a store.

Zibby: It’s easier to go.

Danny: I remember shopping with my mom when we would go for Christmas shopping. We would just go together, me and my brothers, with her. We’d see something. We’d be like, “I really like that T-shirt,” or whatever. She’d be like, “Okay, why don’t you guys go get a pretzel in the mall food court or something?” She’s like, “I’m going to sit in Nordstrom and do all the shopping.” She’d be able to get it done. If you’re with someone, just send them away while you’re at Nordstrom. Say, go to the restroom. Go look for something else. Then you can buy it there.

Zibby: Perfect. It makes it so easy. I know, it’s amazing. How do you fit in everything that you do in life? You have written two books, podcasting, everything. When do you do what? Tell me about your whole podcasting experience and how you even got into podcasting and writing and all of that?

Danny: Thank you. I started podcasting five years ago. My show is called “Everything Iconic.” I had been doing stand-up and sketch comedy around town in Los Angeles. I lived in Chicago for a couple years. I was struggling. I had fallen into a bit of depression. I had some mental health struggles. At that time, I was like, I’m never going to perform again. A friend recommended a podcast. She said, “You can talk about what you want. You can do some comedy and all that kind of stuff.” Ultimately, I picked up a microphone, and I started podcasting. It grew quicker than I thought. It led to performing live. I have been touring and doing shows across the country. It’s been really fun. I cover a lot of reality TV and Bravo. I cover a lot of Real Housewives. I’d say it’s about eighty percent reality TV and then twenty percent celebrity guests. I just recently had Idina Menzel on. I’ve had Drew Barrymore, Kelly Ripa, Andy Cohen, all sorts of great people on. It’s a fun mix. I try to just follow what I’m interested in. Sometimes I will cover other shows. I just recently recapped the And Just Like That series, which is a crazy show, but fun, crazy to watch. It’s a lot of pop culture, is the long story short. In terms of finding time, I don’t know. I really like to work. I like to keep busy. I feel like that’s where I’m comfortable at. I don’t know. I sort of fit it all in.

Zibby: Amazing. Is there anything you wish you had more time for, especially around the holidays?

Danny: Around the holidays, I love to sit and watch — I’m a huge Hallmark Christmas movie fan. I always find that I wish I had more time. I say that, but I spend a lot of hours watching Countdown to Christmas and all those cheesy holiday movies. I wish sometimes I had more time, or even just to cook. I love to cook, but sometimes — I don’t know if you find this. It takes a lot of time to clean and cook and everything. When I cook, I like to have a lot of time that I could just really settle in and relax into it and have a recipe going that I can have plenty of time to screw up or to experiment with and play around in the kitchen. Those two things would be the thing I wish I had more time for. I recently got into — I hope I’m saying this right — Le Creuset. I got one of the pumpkin Dutch ovens. It’s become sort of this weird goal this holiday season to make as much as I can out of it because it’s a very expensive piece of equipment. An excuse I’ve had is, I have to use that. It’s forcing me to try different recipes in there. That’s my focus this year.

Zibby: I love that. My husband’s the same way. I’m like, “The kids have to eat at six thirty because we have this. We have that.” He’s like, “But no, when I cook, I can’t be looking at the clock.” I’m like, “What do you mean?”

Danny: I get it.

Zibby: He cooks when he has time on the weekends. He’s so good. If you rush it or if it’s something the kids don’t like, he’s like, “You’re taking all the joy out of cooking.”

Danny: I’m sure it’s so much more stressful with kids too. I don’t have kids. I would imagine having to feed a bunch of kids, you don’t have time. You don’t have the energy to be able to experiment for hours. I love a Sunday. I’m Italian. We would spend Sundays where you’re just around the pot of pasta for hours. It’s cooking all day. Grandma’s bringing out different dishes to the table while you’re waiting for the sauce to be done. The ideal Sunday is being able to read and cook and sit around and do that all day.

Zibby: Are you working on another book already?

Danny: I have an idea for another one. Hopefully, people will buy this one and let me do another one. Then I really have this fantasy of doing a children’s book about cozy rodents. It’s been a running gag on my podcast. I don’t like rats and rodents. It’s become this idea of facing my fear and doing a book about really cozy rodents. That’s a fantasy of mine. Maybe one day.

Zibby: Are there a lot of people who like rodents? Not to be rodent discriminatory or anything, but you know.

Danny: No, I don’t think many people like them. One of the interesting things I’ve found is there are so many books about rodents, like the Stuart Littles. There are so many nice children’s stories about rats and mice and squirrels and all sorts of stuff.

Zibby: That’s true. You should definitely do that. That sounds great. We were thinking of doing a book — I’ve done Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Kids and Moms Don’t Have Time To anthologies. We were thinking of Moms Don’t Have Time for The Holidays where authors would write different essays. Yours is all written by you, and it’s so brilliant. Maybe if I ever get time, .

Danny: Zibby, selfishly, I want that book, so please just find that time.

Zibby: Okay. You’ll have to write an essay, then.

Danny: I would love to. There are so many essay collections or story collections, but in terms of holiday season ones, there weren’t a ton. I always go back to the SantaLand Diaries or In God We Trust, the Jean Shepherd book, or even Surviving Christmas. I go back and read those holiday books every year. Especially around the holiday season, everyone’s so busy. Sometimes you might not have time to read a book cover to cover. Being able to get little, shorter essays, I am a fan of.

Zibby: Are you an audiobook listener?

Danny: I like to hold a book. I’m not as much of an audiobook person, but I know people love it. I shouldn’t say that as a podcaster. I think there’s something so satisfying about closing a book and being done with it. I also earmark pages sometimes if I like something.

Zibby: I’m with you.

Danny: How about you?

Zibby: Sometimes I just don’t think to listen to audiobooks. I do like audiobooks. The other day, I had to walk to my kids’ school. It was quite a distance. I passed this woman who was booking it down the street with her EarPods. I was like, I should put EarPods in. I could use this time instead of just spending twenty minutes walking.

Danny: I know. Sometimes people do audiobooks even better than the print copy. I read the Mariah Carey book, but I also listened to it. I did both. It was fascinating to be able to hear. Even throughout it, she would sing certain things. You get a different experience with audiobooks sometimes.

Zibby: I did listen to Matthew McConaughey’s audiobook. Have you listened to Greenlights?

Danny: No, I haven’t. That’s one to listen to.

Zibby: That was amazing.

Danny: I saw you interviewed him.

Zibby: I did.

Danny: He’s got that great drawl in his voice.

Zibby: I would highly recommend.

Danny: I read Greenlights, but now I might have to go back and listen to it.

Zibby: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Danny: With anything in the arts, I think it’s really important to follow your gut and follow what you like. Know that if it’s something you think you would like, there’s going to be other people out there. I think that’s more important than chasing or trying to write a book because a certain genre is really popular or there’s an author who’s really successful at the moment. Just write the book you want, whether that’s fiction, nonfiction, whatever it is. Then I think that helps with your voice too. I’m not a very good technical writer when it comes to things like grammar and spelling. There’s editors that can help with that kind of stuff. I feel like I’m more of a creative storyteller. There was a long period of time before — I was a ghostwriter before I had written my own books. I was so worried about my technical skills. I was so worried, am I crafting this sentence properly? All of those kinds of things. When I started branching off on my own, I realized I had to let go of some of that stuff. I try my best to write more in a way that I would talk. I think that’s really good in honing your voice. Those technical skills are really important if people are in school. I think it’s good to know all those things. In terms of finding your own voice, I think you have to just listen to your gut.

Zibby: I think that’s great advice. Totally agree. It’s hard to really connect if you’re not bringing your whole self to the table.

Danny: Don’t be afraid of those scary parts too. One of the things with both my books I noticed was, at first, I was like, every chapter has to be really funny. Then I started realizing that I could have different chapters, I can have different moments in there that are maybe more dramatic or something, and not to shy away from those because those are me too. I can be really silly, but I can also be kind of dramatic. That goes with that whole thing of just making it your own and making it your voice and doing as much as you can, of course, within the confines of a publisher, an editor, and those kinds of things.

Zibby: I think your alternation or the assortment curation of different experiences in the book really echo the landscape of holiday emotions anyway. We all have hilarious times. We have times where we’re nostalgic or we’re missing people or we’re just sad about something or struggling, and then we’re laughing about something else. It’s very relatable and endearing, honestly. Although, that doesn’t sound like a nice word, but I mean it in the most positive way. You want to give you a hug after and be like, oh, my god, that was amazing.

Danny: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Congratulations on The Jolliest Bunch. I look forward to hopefully seeing you around.

Danny: Thank you, Zibby. I’m going to come to Santa Monica. Hopefully, we’ll get to meet in person. I’ve only heard the best things about your place there. I’m so excited to check it out. I am a huge bookstore person. I can spend hours in a bookstore. I’m so excited to make it there.

Zibby: Good. Come settle in. Thanks a lot, Danny.

Danny: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care.

Danny: Have a great day.

Zibby: Thanks. You too. Bye.

THE JOLLIEST BUNCH: Unhinged Holiday Stories by Danny Pellegrino

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