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Bil Keane's Family Circus

By Christopher Gunty

Bil Keane, the creator of the comic strip The Family Circus, discusses faith, family and the future of one of America's most-loved cartoons.


Art Imitates Life
A Broad Appeal
A Family Affair
The Religious Aspect of The Family Circus
Colleagues on the Comics Page
'The Last Frontier for Clean Humor'
Looking Toward the Future
The Loss of Friends and Colleagues
Family Circus Is His Life

Bil Keane

Photo by Christopher Gunty

IF THE CHILDREN of the wealthy are said to be born with a silver spoon in their mouths, then Bil and Thel Keane's children could be said to be born with a drawing pencil in their hands.

Bil Keane is the creator of the syndicated panel cartoon The Family Circus, which is carried by more than 1,500 newspapers each day. Now in his 42nd year as a cartoonist, Keane has come up with about 15,000 daily circles and Sunday rectangles.

Bil, 79, talks enthusiastically about the cartoon, like any creator or artist would. But when he talks about his family, the father of five and grandfather of nine positively beams. When he discusses the children, their careers and their accomplishments, a smile comes across his face and his eyes twinkle a little more brightly behind wire-rimmed glasses. As he sits at his drafting board in a well-worn, tan leather chair, Bil talks about The Family Circus, his own family and family values. Clearly, he treasures all three.

Art Imitates Life

Loyal readers have long known or suspected that the family featured on the funny pages (Mom, Dad, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ) is based upon the lives and laughter of Keane's own circus: daughter Gayle and sons Neal, Glen, Christopher and Jeff.

Gayle Keane wore her hair in a ponytail growing up, and they did call her "Dolly." "That was Mom's pet name for me," she says.

Gayle and Dolly are the only girls in their respective families. Gayle is the oldest real-life Keane, while Dolly is second oldest in the fictional family. Growing up with the comic didn't seem odd, Gayle says; she was in fourth grade when the panel started in 1960.

"By the time it became a big deal, I was moving out the door," she recalls from her home in Napa, California. "I don't think I realized how closely it was connected to our family until we did the book where each of us picked our favorites," she says of the 1990 collection, The Family Circus Is Us, featuring cartoons and commentary by each member of the real-life Keanes.

The cartoon family has two dogs and a cat, and a few assorted other creatures, as did the Keanes' real home. They had ducks, birds, hamsters, snakes and turtles. "The turtles were Eeny, Meeny, Miney and Moe. They were the last ones left at home after all us kids had moved on," Gayle says.

A Broad Appeal

Growing up, the Keane kids "always thought our dad really enjoyed being around us," Jeff says. "Later we realized he was getting ideas all the time."

Jeff, the model for the cartoon Jeffy (no surprise there—but he's now in his 40's), said he recognizes himself in the panels as he looks back at them, although he didn't always see the connection while he was growing up.

But the cartoons are not about just the Keanes; they are about a fairly typical American family. "It stays true to life," Jeff says, and that universality is the key to the success of The Family Circus. As a result, this comic appeals to all ages better than most others.

In a time when all kinds of entertainment—including the daily comics—have taken on more of an edge, The Family Circus "has a wholesomeness you can count on," he says.

"I think it does have a lot to do with values. Some people look at it as the values they wish they had." It also has something to do with nostalgia; some people remember when the kind of family values that the strip features were commonplace and they miss those times.

A Family Affair

When cartoonist Bil takes a "vacation," the character of son Billy in the panel takes over the task. With the seven-year-old "at the drawing board," Keane is able to pull out some of the best—or worst—puns around.

While the comic-strip son may not be much of an artist, the actual Keane offspring have plenty of artistic talent. Youngest son Jeff is now Dad's assistant on the feature. Jeff inks the cartoons after Bil has drawn them; he also colors the Sunday panel for newspapers that use color. He even sometimes works off an idea and rough sketch from his dad and creates the panel himself. The feature now carries both father's and son's signatures.

Another son, Glen, the third of Keane's five children, also makes a career of cartoon drawing, but his are animated and have been seen by millions in theaters and on video over the last two decades. Glen is a directing animator for the Disney studio. His work includes Beauty and the Beast (he created the characters and did all the animation of Beast), Ariel in The Little Mermaid and the title characters in Pocahontas and Tarzan.

"His work on Tarzan has been praised all around the world in the animation industry," Bil says.

And Jeff's children have been smitten with the pencil, too. "Now I have three kids of my own," he says. "They all draw as bad as 'Billy.'"

The inclination toward art isn't just in the genes, Jeff figures; it must also be learned by example. "They see me drawing, they see their granddad drawing. They pick it up."

The Family Circus is a family affair in other ways, too.

Daughter Gayle handles the fan mail that comes to the feature via its distributor, King Features, requests from the Web site (, and the sale of Keane cartoon books and original drawings or prints of published works.

She travels from Napa Valley to her mom and dad's home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, about once a month for a week to handle the on-site tasks, and covers the rest by mail, e-mail and phone.

"I'm in a unique position of knowing my parents in a way many people don't. In some ways, we're better friends now," Gayle says.

Gayle realizes she might not enjoy the relationship as much if she were in the same city, working day after day with her folks. However, without the connection of the feature, "I'd never be as close to them as I am. I'm involved in the intricate things of their lives as well as the work," she says.

Jeff echoes that sentiment. "It's great to have the opportunity to work with my dad," he says. "I didn't start out doing this. I graduated from college as a theater major. I worked for Dad to have a free schedule."

Jeff communicates often with his dad as they collaborate on the panel between Bil's home in Arizona and Jeff's in Laguna Niguel, California.

For Jeff, working at home—as his father did and still does—is the best and worst part of the job. "It gives me the opportunity to be home with my family. But the worst part, too, is that I'm always home with the distractions." He learned a lot from the way his father worked. "We usually left him alone, but if we knocked [on the studio door], he always put his stuff aside to help us."

And Thel, Keane's wife of 52 years, is the first reader of each comic Bil draws, well before they make their way to the syndicate or the pages of your local newspaper.

The Religious Aspect of The Family Circus

The religious aspect of the comic also makes a difference and helps keep it real. Elements of faith crop up often in the panel, but not so much that it is a "religious" strip. Religion is part of The Family Circus, however, because it is part of the experience of the real Keane family—and millions of other families.

Jeff thinks that religion shouldn't be injected into a comic if it doesn't belong. "I don't think every family cartoon has to do all that. You shouldn't just throw it in." Cartoonists, like writers, work with what they know. "It grows out of the experience of the creator. It works for us because that's who we are," Jeff adds.

Bil agrees that faith and values are extremely important to family life. Most cartoonists usually focus on the negative side of an issue to make a point. "Editorial cartoonists do it all the time," Bil says. Instead, he stays away from controversy and brings faith into the strip in a gentle or subtle way.

"With religion and praying, sometimes it's poking fun," he says, like when Dolly kneels to say her night prayers and begins, "Hail Mary, full of grapes..."

A recent circle showed Daddy in his pajamas walking through an obstacle course of toys, saying, "If God meant for us to go barefoot, He would never have invented Legos." Keane admitted he could have eliminated the religious reference and written the gag with "If we were meant..." but that he wanted the perspective the reference to God brought to the panel.

"When I first ran [religious references] back in the '60s, I got letters from the Bible Belt, saying I was being sacrilegious. Now they thank me," he says.

The "Family" isn't necessarily Catholic, although their worship experience is obviously Christian. But the Keanes' experience comes from their long connection to the Catholic Church. "I draw out of my lifestyle," Bil says. "I grew up Catholic, my kids grew up Catholic."

Jeff echoes the sentiment: "The religious aspect shows the way I figure things out."

Colleagues on the Comics Page

Not all comics can add faith or religion to the feature and make it work.

Bil says that Johnny Hart, creator of the comic strips B.C. and Wizard of Id, "does some very good philosophical and religious themes," especially around the Christmas and Easter seasons in B.C. "It's his version of Scripture and commentary," Bil says.

However, "sometimes editors object to those strips because they don't fit with the whimsical nature of the comic all the other days." Editors and readers particularly objected to a B.C. cartoon around Palm Sunday 2001, and some newspapers dropped the feature altogether as a result of the fracas.

Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse also features a realistic family encountering the joys and struggles of living with each other, extended family, pets and neighbors. But that strip doesn't often show the Patterson family attending Church services. "Lynn Johnston draws out of her lifestyle; I draw out of mine," Bil notes.

Even so, Bil says he doesn't include religious themes all the time because that's not the central message of the panel. "Editors are not buying a religious feature; they're buying a family feature and religion is a part of it."

With that understanding, Bil doesn't have a problem with editors or his syndicate, King Features. "The syndicate never questions my years of experience. They respect it. That's one of the nice things about being 79."

'The Last Frontier for Clean Humor'

Bil laments, however, that some of today's comics stretch the bounds of good taste. "Some of the panels running today are funny, but they try to outdo each other by becoming almost sick," he observes. "The comic page is the last frontier for clean humor," Bil says, noting that sitcoms, movies and music lost their hold on clean material quite a while ago.

"Most cartoonists have confined their humor to decent things. Occasionally they push the envelope and people say, 'That shouldn't be on the comics page.' Kids are more sophisticated today than when I started. But I'm always afraid that if you let down your standards, it will all be lost," he says.

On the other hand, some people find his simple formats and wholesome messages almost too sweet. When that happens, The Family Circus becomes an easy target for satire and parody.

For example, a Web site called the "Dysfunctional Family Circus" sprouted up on which old The Family Circus cartoons were posted and readers were invited to submit new captions. Keane says he knew about the site early on and didn't mind it much.

"Some of their captions were funnier than mine," he says. He did object, though, when the captions started including double entendres and finally got outright dirty. Readers were calling the site to his attention and he finally decided he needed to respond.

"The fact is that The Family Circus is popular and has such wholesome, family values. So if you're going to satirize those values, Family Circus is the one to pick on," Bil says.

When his syndicate's lawyers sent "cease and desist" letters to the site's operator, some media started making the case into a David vs. Goliath match, with Keane as the giant.

Somehow, the Dysfunctional Family Circus's Webmaster got Keane's telephone number and called him one night. The cartoonist and the Web site creator talked for an hour and a half, and the Webmaster said he had not realized that Keane was offended by some of the risqué humor.

"At the end of the conversation, he said he would take the site down," Keane recalls.

Looking Toward the Future

Usually, when you ask Bil Keane when he's going to retire, he'll come back with a snappy: "I'll retire at about 10 o'clock tonight, but I'll get back up again tomorrow." Even now, when asked about it, he'll say, "It's fun. My biggest problem is that it's so much fun I haven't thought about retiring."

But these days, it's clear that he has thought about retiring and is making preparations. He talks about the possibility—or eventuality—that he will get out of the day-to-day feature. He notes that Jeff's involvement, and the inclusion of Jeff's name in the feature's byline, are preludes to the continuation of The Family Circus for many years into the future.

And Gayle says that she is doing more of what Thel used to do in the management of the comic. "I'm getting ready to help Jeff when he takes over," she says.

She notes that her parents would like to travel more and continue their enjoyment of jazz music. Regular trips to Dixieland jazz festivals have been part of their relaxation over the years. "We've all become jazz aficionados as a result of Dad's interest,"Gayle says.

Bil also enjoys tennis when he can sneak away from the drawing board, he says, but there aren't enough opportunities with the requirements of a daily strip.

The Loss of Friends and Colleagues

The recent deaths of close friends and colleagues such as Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, humor writer Erma Bombeck and Shoe cartoonist Jeff MacNelly have affected Keane as one might expect.

"In Snoopy, Charles Schulz created an enduring character; that's unusual in cartoons," he says. "I always said we had a lot in common: We both did a feature about kids and family values. He had five children; I had five children. He was born in 1922; I was born in 1922. He made a million dollars a week; I was born in 1922."

MacNelly, who also drew editorial cartoons, was the first editorial cartoonist from whom Keane requested an original drawing. "Many, many young cartoonists imitated him. He was well-respected and a great guy."

At a Rueben Weekend gathering of cartoonists in 1999, both MacNelly and Schulz presented workshops. During the next year, both passed away.

Bombeck's death came as a shock. "I thought she was getting better. She had gotten a kidney," and seemed to be improving, Bil says. Bombeck and Keane were especially close, of similar age and Catholic background. The two had collaborated on a book, titled Just Wait 'Til You Have Children of Your Own!, combining Bombeck's written commentaries and Keane's cartoons shortly after both began to make it big. Bil and Thel were instrumental in Erma and Bill Bombeck's decision to move to Arizona, and their families grew up spending a lot of time together.

"Our whole family and the Bombeck family and a few other neighbors would gather for Mass at our house on Christmas Eve," Bil recalls. Erma once wrote, "Leave it to Bil Keane to find a priest who makes house calls."

Bil reflects: "You miss people, but it makes you realize that no matter how important you are, we're all coming to our mortality.

"We're all on stage for a short time. You try to do what you think is best. And if everybody tries to do his or her best, the world is better off," Keane says.

Family Circus Is His Life

And as he looks at the mortality of others, "I think maybe we [he and Thel] should be traveling more or using these days for other things. I'm in good health, and I'm shifting more duties to Jeff."

Bil and Thel would like to visit her family in Australia more often. "Thel goes about once a year, but I haven't been there for a couple of years," Bil says. And the pair would like to see more New York shows.

No matter how much he cuts back or delegates, The Family Circus will always have a part of Bil Keane in it. "Thel told me the other day that she believes I'll never retire from being involved in the feature. She's right. It's my life."


Christopher Gunty is the associate publisher of The Catholic Sun, in Phoenix, Arizona, and still opens the daily newspaper first to the comics, as has been his habit since he was about 10 years old.


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