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
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
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
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
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 therebut
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 entertainmentincluding
the daily comicshave taken on more of an edge, The
Family Circus "has a wholesomeness you can count on,"
"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 bestor worstpuns 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
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,
Daughter Gayle handles the fan mail that comes to the feature
via its distributor, King Features, requests from the Web
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
"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 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
For Jeff, working at homeas his father did and still
doesis 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 familyand
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
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,"
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 possibilityor
eventualitythat 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
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
"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
"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.