Bil Keane was known, among his fellow professional cartoonists, as a funny, funny man. His life's work, in The Family Circus, was to hide that fact from as many people as possible. Day after day, decade after decade, The Family Circus delivered the mildest gags imaginable—observational humor minus the observation, spiked on occasion with puns.
Because of this, because of the unshakable whitebread vanilla infantile tranquility contained within the daily circle, Keane was the object of contempt and abuse among the wised-up general public. He was a sap. He was a dope. The oval-headed children he created were simpering dullards who couldn't even talk straight.
Starting in 2001, we wrote a comics column called Funny Paper. It was easy to throw eggs at the station wagon, and Funny Paper's own Dead Grandpas, looking down from the fluffy clouds, know we did it:
FAMILY CIRCUS: "Why does this picture of Daddy when he was a kid look like me?" Billy asks. Because you're so fucking inbred, sonny. If Thel hadn't brought some Aussie genes into the mix, you'd probably have a tail.
Jeffy exults—"Yee-aay! We WON!"—as Mommy gets money from the ATM Wednesday. Are the Circus Family finances really that shaky? Or is Jeffy confused by all the hours he spent playing the slots with Grandma?
Friday, Jeffy contemplates a sign with a ghost saying "Boo!" "What does B-zero-zero spell?" he asks. That's your class group in preschool, you beta sub-minus.
We looked through the archives just now, to see how much sport we'd had at Keane's expense, and we had to go back six full months before finding a week when we hadn't goofed on the Circus. There were dozens of other comics—shrunken and crammed into the sinking lifeboat of the Baltimore Sun—to choose from, but we could not keep ourselves from reading The Family Circus and, however perversely, enjoying it. It was an essential element of the funny papers, and of Funny Paper.
When a cartoon is consistently not funny, through the generations, it's the serious reader's job to consider the possibility that the artist knows what he's doing. Bil Keane was an emissary from an era when the mark of a real professional was the ability to keep stuff to yourself. The Family Circus began in the last year of the Eisenhower Administration. A healthy and vibrant young senator, a devoted family man, was running for president. His opponent, the vice president, was a law-and-order man. Clean-cut Mickey Mantle was patrolling center field for the Yankees.
The Family Circus refused to wise up. Bil Keane believed that the comics page should be a place where children could be innocent. Earlier this year, before Keane died, the New York Times Magazine profiled the unimpeachably wised-up cartoonist Lynda Barry. Barry, author of spiky, blotchy, troubled domestic narratives, was a fan of the Circus; she identified the circle as a deliberately peaceful space and praised its influence on her own turbulent young life: "No one's getting hit. No one's yelling."
Half of Funny Paper had a Family Circus collection as a small child. It was I Need a Hug. On the cover was Jeffy, padding into the living room, announcing, "I don't feel so good. I think I need a hug."
That same half of Funny Paper has now lived long enough to witness an actual child of its own—a child who intentionally quotes smart-alecky lines from Calvin and Hobbes, which he studies with Talmudic intensity—come padding into the living room to announce, in more or less identical words, that he didn't feel good, and that he thought he needed a hug. It was sweet.
The other half of Funny Paper came from a broken home, but was pulled into the circle by Billy's dotted-line trails and the devilish antics of the invisible goblin NOT ME. A Circus kid could go anywhere and not get lost or hurt, and if one ever did make something bad happen—which would mean maybe breaking a lamp—his or her guilt would literally dissociate itself and flee. Who is a fallen creature, with an uncontrollable id? IDA KNOW, NOT ME.
The winding dotted lines became, over time, the most out-of-date thing in the Circus's universe. Keane's America was a place where a 7-year-old was free to wander off alone, out of sight, looking for adventure. Who's the joke on now?
The gag at The Family Circus's expense is to force anger and shame and pain into that ideal little world:
"In case God is tired of the same old prayers," a kneeling Jeffy announces Monday, "I recited Humpty Dumpty for him." Compare the results for a while, Jeffy, and you might be the first in your family to figure something out.
One of the funniest things we ever saw was the Dysfunctional Family Circus panel where they'd taken a Keane drawing of Billy, waving a briefcase out the back of that family station wagon to his startled father in a crowd of commuters on a train platform, and recaptioned it so he's yelling, "Orange out of Ulster!" Boom!
Why is the joke so funny? Because the straight man let the jokesters shine. Bil Keane would let you make fun of him. He enjoyed the parodies; they proved the sturdiness of his work. Meanness was a hoot because the Circus was never mean itself.
Countless gags went unmade. Consider, from an adult perspective, the visits from the children's burly, strong-jawed maternal grandmother. Imagine the real-life dynamics between Bil Keane and his Aussie mother-in-law. He wouldn't have given her a jaw like that if it were all sweetness. But in the cartoon, she was just Grandma.
The cartoon's innocence was of a kind only available through hard work. Home was peaceful and secure. School was a fun place to learn stuff and see your friends. Death was a happy reunion, with slow-arriving guests.
Yeah, call it phony. You know what else is phony? When you tuck your kid into bed and kiss him goodnight like he's going to get tucked in and kissed goodnight forever, like everyone in the world gets a kiss goodnight from someone who's looking out for them.
Charles Schulz could write Peanuts strips about staring into the existential abyss, because Charles Schulz was a genius. Bil Keane wasn't. He was just—just!—a total professional, with total commitment to his round little world.
Life isn't supposed to be like the funny pages. The real-world Dennis the Menace went to Vietnam and was estranged from his cartoonist father; his mother overdosed on pills. Keane's junior guest cartoonist, Billy (Age 7)—Glen Keane, in actual life—grew up to draw cartoons for Disney. Jeffy? Jeffy grew up to draw The Family Circus, first with his father, and now on his own. Funny Paper usually disapproves of these undead comics franchises, handed down from creator to children, at the expense of space for new artists and new ideas. In this case, though, we'll make an exception. Some things should stay in the family.
Top image by Jim Cooke.