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‘Why ‘The Family Circus’ Was Always So Sentimental

Cartoonist Bil Keane landed on a formula that worked and he stuck to it

Cartoonist Bil Keane in his studio in 1990. (Christopher Keane/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

“It doesn’t have to snow for Santa to get here,” PJ’s older sister Dolly reassures him in a Family Circus comic from the 1970s. “His sleigh rides on air!” Older brother Jeffy looks out the window at the green lawn.

Saccharine images of familial togetherness like the above are what The Family Circus is known for. A lot of hugs and cutesy learning moments take place in that little circle of newsprint each week–and the long-running strip has had success with this formula. The comic, which was drawn by cartoonist Bil Keane from 1960 until the 1980s and has since been drawn by his son Jeff Keane, has a Rockwellesque humor that remains a staple of newspaper comics sections.

But beneath the cuteness and familial love, Bil Keane, who was born on this day in 1922, was known for having “a quick wit that veered into biting sarcasm and rampant irony,” wrote R.C. Harvey in Keane’s 2011 obituary in The Comics Journal. His early Family Circus cartoons showed this sense of humor about “the way child rearing can be its own special prison,” according to Sean O’Neal’s AV Club obituary of Keane–that’s until he discovered his magic formula. O’Neal writes:

Keane himself often pinpointed the moment that everything changed—a mid-’60s panel that featured middle son Jeffy emerging late at night in his pajamas, saying, “I don’t feel so good, I think I need a hug.” As Keane said, “And suddenly I got a lot mail from people about this dear little fella needing a hug, and I realized that there was something more than just getting a belly laugh every day." Indeed, some would argue that Keane never really cared about getting a belly laugh ever again: Over multiple decades, through all the shifts in social mores and increasingly sophisticated ideas about comedy, Keane made Family Circus even more cutesy and sentimental, saying explicitly that he believed it was his responsibility to act as a stalwart for traditional values.

“We are, in the comics, the last frontier of good, wholesome family entertainment,” Keane said in 1995, according to his 2011 The New York Times obituary. “On radio and television, magazines and the movies, you can’t tell what you’re going to get. When you look at the comic page, you can usually depend on something acceptable by the entire family.”  

But Keane also acknowledged that the strip wasn’t really funny. “I think the injection of the warm, tear-in-the-eye humor is what built a particularly strong following for me,” he said according to Harvey. “Consequently, since I didn’t have to always be funny, I could change the pace of the cartoon. Going from to day from funny, to a warm loving look, to a commentary, and even to inject religion into the feature.”

Anything so wholesome was ripe for parody, though, and it found it in the 1990s in the form of a meme-style, multi-contributor series of parodies which are broadly filed under the name of Dysfunctional Family Circus. The parody eventually got legal attention from syndicator King Features and Keane himself. In its earliest forms, which were published by a zine collective, Keane admitted to liking it, according to O’Neal, but after it went online felt it went too far as user-suggested captions for his images turned into an early version of a trollfest.   

That’s fair: after all, Keane had based his characters on his own family. It remains to be seen how an upcoming movie version of The Family Circus, which a has been in development at Fox since 2010, will handle the characters and the strip’s conversion from a one-frame homily to the big screen.

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