11 Fun Facts About The Family Circus

King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

Since 1960, newspaper readers have found circular logic in The Family Circus, a single-panel strip about the misadventures of married couple Bil and Thelma and their four mischievous children: Billy, Jeffy, Dolly, and P.J. Known as the “Norman Rockwell of the comics page,” artist Bil Keane drew upon his own parenting experiences for the comic, which relies on misunderstandings and sibling rivalry to fuel its gags. Check out some things you might not know about Keane’s work, including some controversy over the strip’s title and why Keane wasn't always trying to be funny.

1. FAMILY CIRCLE MAGAZINE HAD A PROBLEM WITH IT.

Born in Philadelphia in 1922, Keane—who dropped one “L” from his first name while working on a satirical magazine project in the 1930s—pursued comic art as a vocation. In 1954, he created Channel Chuckles, a commentary on the new medium of television. While successful, Keane wanted to try his hand at something else. Drawing on his household experiences with five children, he created a slice-of-life strip titled Family Circle in 1960: The name was a reference to the circular panel Keane used. The house tips magazine Family Circle objected, thinking it might confuse readers. Keane obliged them, changing the strip to The Family Circus.

2. THE CIRCLE HAD A POINT.

Prior to Circus, Keane had an idea for a strip called Spot News, which would provide commentary on world events. Due to the six-week lead time of cartooning, it didn’t go well. But one element of the strip stuck with him: He decided to draw it inside of a circle because some newspapers would use it as a spot illustration above their masthead, guaranteeing a wide audience. Though it migrated to the comics pages, Keane kept the circle for Circus.

3. BIL KEANE BASED THE MOM ON HIS WIFE.

While serving in the Army in Australia during World War II, Keane met his future wife, Thelma Carne. Returning stateside and working on the strip, he modeled the cartoon Thelma (or “Thel”) on his real-life wife. The likeness was apparently uncanny, as Thelma would sometimes get recognized out in public. “When the cartoon first appeared, she looked so much like Mommy," Keane said, "that if she was in the supermarket pushing her cart, people would come up to her and say, 'Aren't you the mommy in Family Circus?’”

4. THE STRIP WASN’T ALWAYS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.

Keane’s sentimental observations of an American nuclear family were sometimes criticized for being too saccharine. According to Keane, that’s exactly what he was looking for. “I don’t have to come up with a ha-ha belly laugh every day,” Keane said, “but drawings with warmth and love or ones that put a lump in the throat or tug at the heart. That’s more important to me than a laugh. I would rather have the readers react with a warm smile as they recall doing the same things in their own family.”

5. IT USED TO BE A LITTLE RISQUE.

Keane’s approach wasn’t always so family-friendly. In the early days of the strip and while searching for the proper tone, Keane took a more cynical view of parenting, depicting the father drinking and having a wandering eye for passing women. Keane changed the direction after one mid-1960s strip—Billy wandering into a room asking for a hug—resulted in several reader letters saying the sentiment had struck a chord.

6. THELMA’S HAIRCUT MADE HEADLINES.

Sporting a distinctive bob for nearly 40 years, in 1996 Thelma made newspaper headlines when Keane decided to give her an updated style. The artist made the change after a reader complained the cut was too old-fashioned. Solicited for comment, celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber said he “would have made it sexier.”

7. IT GOT THREE CARTOON ADAPTATIONS.

Like many popular strips, The Family Circus made the jump to animation. ABC produced three primetime specials: A Special Valentine with the Family Circus (1978), A Family Circus Christmas (1979) and A Family Circus Easter (1982).  A live-action feature film has been in development at Fox since 2010.

8. IT WAS THE BASIS FOR AN EARLY WEB MEME.

Dysfunctional Family Circus began online in 1995 as a wry commentary on the original’s earnest approach: Readers could submit their own (often morbid) captions to substitute Keane’s own. After 500 submissions, webmaster Greg Galcik got a cease-and-desist letter from King Features Syndicate, which co-owns and distributes the strip, and discontinued the parody in 1999.

9. THE STRIP CROSSED OVER WITH ZIPPY THE PINHEAD.

Artist Bill Griffith’s subversive strip Zippy the Pinhead was the alt-rock of the comics pages, a dive into the surreal world of eraser-headed Zippy and his trippy adventures. When Griffith decided to have Zippy inhabit The Family Circus world, he called Keane and solicited his collaboration. Griffith drew several daily strips in 1994 featuring Zippy interacting with the Circus cast, which Keane would then finish by illustrating his own characters. “Life is a circus, Zippy!” Billy admonished him. “It can be a circus of pain or a circus of delight!” The following year, Billy had a dream about Zippy—with Griffith contributing art—in the Circus strip.

10. THERE’S A STATUE DEDICATED TO THE STRIP.

In 2013, city officials in Keane's adopted hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona unveiled a tribute to one of their most famous residents. A nine-foot-tall statue of Keane with some of The Family Circus kids riding piggyback went up at the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park. Keane, who died in 2011, had made several donations to town projects in Scottsdale and nearby Paradise Valley. When it came time to raise the estimated $75,000 cost of the tribute, donors quickly contributed $85,000.

11. KEANE HAD A DECEPTIVELY SHARP SENSE OF HUMOR.

Though The Family Circus may be dismissed by some as unchallenging, Keane possessed a very sharp and biting wit. Interviewed by journalist Jud Hurd, Keane heard himself described as an “unqualified success” and mused, “Think what I could do if I was qualified.”  

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