The Family Circus
(originally The Family Circle
) is a syndicated comic strip
created and written by cartoonist Bil Keane
and inked/colored by his son, Jeff Keane
. The strip generally uses a single captioned panel with a round border, hence the original name of the series, which was changed following objections from Family Circle
, the magazine
of the same name. The series has been in continuous production since 1960, and according to publisher King Features Syndicate
, it is the most widely syndicated cartoon panel in the world, appearing in 1,500 newspapers
Compilations of Family Circus comic strips have sold over thirteen million copies worldwide.
The central characters of the Family Circus are a family whose surname is rarely mentioned. The parents, Bill and Thelma (Thel), are modeled after the author and his wife, Thelma Carne Keane
Their four children, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and PJ, are fictionalized composites of the Keanes' five children. With the exception of PJ, the characters have not aged appreciably during the run of the strip.
Bill (named Steve in the early years of the strip) works in an office, and he is believed to be a cartoonist, most likely based on the writer of the strip because he draws big circles on paper presumably a cartoon version of the Family Circus. Bill is also a veteran of World War II, though this reference seldom occurs now that the youngest World War II veterans are approaching 80 years of age.
Thel is a college-educated homemaker. The Los Angeles Times ran a feature article on the Thelma character when Keane updated her hairstyle in 1996.
The oldest child is seven-year-old Billy. A recurring theme involves Billy as a substitute cartoonist, generally filling in for a Sunday strip. The strips purportedly drawn by Billy are crudely rendered and reflect his understanding of the world and sense of humor. The first use of this gag by Keane was in This Week Magazine in 1962 in a cartoon titled "Life in Our House" which attributed the childish drawings to his six-year-old son, Chris. Keane also modeled Billy after his oldest son Glen, now a prominent Disney animator.
Dolly is modeled after Keane's daughter and oldest child, Gayle. Dolly was Gayle's pet name as a child.
Three-year-old Jeffy is named for Keane's son (and now assistant) Jeff Keane.
Youngest child PJ was introduced to the strip on August 1, 1962, and is the only character to have aged appreciably over the course of the strip. PJ was introduced as an infant and gradually grew to be about eighteen months old. PJ rarely speaks.
Bill's mother (Florence, but usually called Grandma) appears regularly in the strip and apparently lives near the family. Bill's father (Al, called Grandpa by the kids and Bill) is dead but occasionally appears in the strip as a spirit
or watching from up in heaven. Bill's father (as a spirit) plays a prominent role in the TV special Family Circus Christmas.
Thel's parents are both alive but apparently live several hundred miles away in a rural area. (Strips in the past have mentioned them living in Iowa, however, one 2007 strip mentioned Florida) The family occasionally visits them for vacation.
The family pets are two dogs—a Labrador named Barfy and a shaggy-haired mutt named Sam—and a cat, an orange tabby named Kittycat.
- Morrie is a playmate of Billy's, and the only recurring African-American character in the strip.
- Mr. Horton is Bill's boss.
The Family Circus takes place in Scottsdale, Arizona
. They often visit a popular ice cream parlor
named the Sugar Bowl, and Jeffy once went to St. Joseph's Hospital for a tonsillectomy
. Thel was seen playing tennis with a racket marked "Scottsdale Racket," and Bill mentioned moving up to B class at Scottsdale Racket Club in a 1984 strip. Also, a sign for Paradise Valley
, where Keane lives, is seen in one 1976 strip. However, the family has had snow in the strip. Bil Keane commented that he took scenes from his boyhood in Pennsylvania
, such as snow, and added them to the strip.
One distinguishing characteristic of the Family Circus is the frequent use of Christian
imagery and themes, ranging from generic references to God to Jeffy anachronistically daydreaming about Jesus at the grocery store. Keane states that the religious content reflects his own upbringing and family traditions. Keane is Roman Catholic, and in past cartoons the children have been shown attending Catholic schools with nuns as teachers and attending Catholic church services. http://www.americancatholic.org/messenger/nov2001/feature1.asp]
One of the most popular of Keane's work is the dotted line comics, showing the characters' paths through the neighborhood or house followed by a thick dotted line. (The earliest showing of the dotted line was on April 8, 1962
, though on February 25 of that same year, the first strip that had a path appeared.) This concept has been parodied
by other comic strips, including Pearls Before Swine, For Better or For Worse
, Mother Goose and Grimm
, and Marvin
In April 1975, Keane introduced an invisible gremlin named "Not Me", who watches while the children try to shift blame for a misdeed by saying, "Not me". Additional gremlins named "Ida Know" (in September, 1975), "Nobody", "O. Yeah!", and "Just B. Cause" were introduced in later years. Although it is clear that the parents do not accept the existence of the gremlins, Thel did include them as members of the family, perhaps tongue-in-cheek
, when being interviewed by a member of the US Census Bureau
One theme Keane tried from time to time was picturing the children as adults, or what might come of it. One time when Billy had been asked by Thelma not to leave the house until he finished his homework, she told him "one day when you are grown up you will thank me for this!", causing Billy to imagine the absurdity of himself as a full grown man paying a visit to his elderly mother just to thank her for telling him that as a child. Other "adult" ideas included the parents telling Jeffy not to be shy when they invited friends over, then picturing himself 25 years later as an outgoing late night talk show akin to Jay Leno
, or P.J. not wishing to be introduced to the toddler daughter of family friends, then to show 30 years later that they are now grown and are celebrating their wedding day.
The Family Car
For more than two decades, the family car had been a station wagon. In 1985, a year after the introduction of the Plymouth Voyager
and the Dodge Caravan
, the family is seen in a strip trading in its station wagon for a brand-new minivan, which they still get around in today. The family's minivan also bears a striking resemblance to the aforementioned Chrysler-branded vehicles, complete with the Chrysler pentastar logo on its hood.
The daily strip consists of a single captioned panel with a round border. The panel is occasionally split in two halves. One unusual practice in the series is the occasional use of both speech balloons within the picture and captions outside the circle. The daily strip does not generally follow a weekly story arc
, with the exception of family vacations.
The format of the Sunday strip varies considerably from week to week, though there are several well-known recurring concepts and themes. Some recurring concepts include a single picture surrounded by multiple speech balloons, representing the children's response to the given scenario, although the speaker of any given speech balloon is never explicitly shown (This format began on May 30, 1965
There are 89 compilations of Family Circus
cartoons. For a full list of book titles, see Family Circus collections
The Family Circus has appeared in animated form in three television specials: A Special Valentine with the Family Circus (1978), A Family Circus Christmas (1979), and A Family Circus Easter (1982).
- For a list of sites containing Family Circus parodies, see Dysfunctional Family Circus#External links
The Family Circus has been widely parodied/satirized
in film, television, internet media, and other daily comic strips. In an interview with the Washington Post
, Keane insists that he is flattered and believes that such parody "...is a compliment to the popularity of the feature..."
The official Family Circus website contains an archive
of syndicated comic strips from other authors which parody his characters.
Of particular note is the now-defunct Dysfunctional Family Circus website, which paired Keane's illustrations with user-submitted captions. While Keane claims to have found the site funny at first, reader feedback coupled with a trend towards double entendre and vulgarity inconsistent with Keane's Catholic values prompted him to request the site be discontinued.
The Family Circus characters are the most commonly mentioned characters from other comics in Stephen Pastis' Pearls Before Swine.
J. Robert Lennon wrote The Funnies, a 1999 novel about a family whose late patriarch drew a cartoon similar to The Family Circus.