Claire: Then why don't you just not read it?
Todd Gaines: I hate it, but I'm compelled to read it.
Bil Keane's The Family Circus (originally The Family Circle) is a long running (since 1960) Newspaper Comic about the innocent childhood adventures of young siblings Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and infant P.J. Occasionally, parents Bil and Thel will contribute some insightful comment about the children's exploits, like when they all were imitating Wayne's World and Bil says: "Makes sense to me. NOT!"
Other characters include random neighbor children, pets, extended family members (many of whom are dead), and various ghosts representing childhood excuses. A standard Family Circus trope is for a parent to ask the children who broke something, only for them all to say: "not me"... Just as a ghost named "Not Me" flees the scene, damning evidence of the crime in hand.
Family Circus Sunday strips are notable for generally sticking to the single-panel format of the weekday version, albeit far more elaborately drawn. Some of these Sunday strips have a gimmick where, through the usage of a dotted line arrow, you can see the path taken by Billy or another of the Keane children, through a heavily detailed map of a neighborhood, usually done to show how kids can get distracted while running simple errands. The 1990's added another set of themed strips ("It's Apparent You're a Parent"), which expands the Sunday strip to multi panel (or in this case, circle) format to showcase how parenthood, through Bil and Thel, affects their everyday lives when dealing with their fellow adults.
Occassionally, the strip will go on a week long "hiatus" as Bil Keane allowed his then young son, and later his grandson, to contribute rather crudely drawn "fill-in" strips when their father and grandfather needs to take a breather from work.
Besides little kids, the sincere fanbase for the comic consists of parents and grandparents who love the domestic slice-of-life humor of writers like the late Erma Bombeck; in fact, she and Keane were friends. One of Keane's sons, Glen, became a top animator at Disney (where he was the lead character animator for Ariel, the Beast, Pocahontas, and John Silver, among others). Another son, Jeff, began assisting his dad with the comic in the 2000's, and has taken over following Bil's death in November 2011.
While it's ostensibly a humorous comic strip with a wide circulation, The Family Circus has been more popular as the butt of jokes at least since The '90s.
The early days of the Web (1995-99) saw a Web Original feature called Dysfunctional Family Circus. Family Circus strips were posted without the original caption, inviting readers to submit alternate interpretations of the scene. Hilarity ensued. Dysfunctional Family Circus's creator said: "A number of people have told me they don't like The Family Circus because they don't think it applied to them — they never experienced anything remotely like it." One newspaper called the Dysfunctional Family Circus a "twisted Rorschach test." Perhaps this explains why Todd Gaines, the cynical drug dealer from the 1999 film Go, was compelled to read Family Circus every day.
For all the abuse it gets, it's clear that The Family Circus speaks to a lot of people. As another newspaper observed at the height of the Dysfunctional Family Circus controversy, no one would bother making a Web site called The Dysfunctional Fusco Brothers. In addition, The Far Side was often paired with The Family Circus in many newspapers, providing a surreal Foil to the Circus domesticity.
This comic provides examples of:
- All Just a Dream: As part of a 1997 April Fools' Day project in which many newspaper comic writers/artists swapped strips for the day, Dilbert's Scott Adams did that day's Family Circus, with Mom in the role of Pointy-Haired Boss encouraging Billy to "work cuter, not harder." (See Self-Deprecation below for the counterpart comic.) The following day's Family Circus explained this as one of the kids having a nightmare.
- Animated Adaptation: Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter specials were made in the late 1970s and early '80s.
- Art Evolution: Though most is explained in Early Installment Weirdness below, up through the mid-1990s Mommy had puffy Olive Oyl-ish hair and a completely round face like the kids, as opposed to the very broad chin she has now. (Though her mother still has the hair)
- Bathtub Scene: Thel gets these sometimes. At least one has her laying in the tub with Absolute Cleavage visible.
- Characterization Marches On: In the earliest years, the dad was more buffoonish and deadbeat he was overweight, wore a hat, drank, smoke, pounded on the table when Thel tried to nag him, etc. About 10 years in, he was overhauled as the trimmer, more competent and sympathetic dad he is today.
- Christianity Is Catholic: Many of the strips contain religious subject matter, implied to be of the Catholic variety. Bil Keane was Catholic himself, so it may have been on purpose, or it may have simply been what he was familiar with.
- A Dog Named "Dog": The family cat is named Kittycat.
- Early Installment Character-Design Difference:
- The dad was originally a gruff, overweight, slouched-over, balding buffoon who usually wore a hat and trenchcoat and smoked cigarettes.
- PJ was originally completely bald instead of short-haired.
- Early Installment Weirdness: The art used to be a lot less "round", the dad had a radically different design and personality, and PJ didn't exist until several years in.
- Full-Name Ultimatum: Dolly overhears Thel giving a lecture to Billy and Jeffy:Dolly: (to PJ) Mommy must really mean business. She called the boys William and Jeffrey.
- Got Me Doing It: Of course, the kids all address Thel as "Mommy." In one strip, Bil introduces her to someone by saying, "I'd like you to meet my mommy — MY WIFE!"
- Grandfather Clause: There have been a lot of suggestions that newspapers only continue to run the comic because of how old it is.
- How Can Santa Deliver All Those Toys?: This is discussed in the Christmas Special (Billy chalks it up to Santa having a time-stopping watch).
- Implausible Deniability: Thel finds PJ hiding in a closet devouring a bag of stolen cookies. PJ cries, "I not here! I with Daddy!"
- Kids Prefer Boxes: One strip shows the living room filled with new toys on Christmas morning and Jeffy asking Thel if he and PJ can go outside and play with the boxes.
- Lampshade Hanging: This comic's punchline seems to only exist to lampshade the fact that they've been kids for 50 years.
- Malaproper: The kids: e.g, "This is the dawning of the age of asparagus", "A washed pot never boils", etc.
- Menace Decay: Back in The '60s, the kids were the typical comic portrayal of overexcited tots; since their behavior hasn't kept in step with the times, it's hard to see this family as a metaphorical wacky circus.
- Ms. Fanservice: Thel. In some of the older book collections, check out some of the two-piece bikinis and tight-fitting clothes she wears!
- Naked People Are Funny: In one strip, Jeffy answers the door naked and suggests that the visitor come back later because "Mommy's tryin' to give me a bath."
- Never My Fault: The kids have been known to blame inanimate objects for their misbehavior.
- Jeffy hits PJ with a stuffed monkey, PJ cries, Thel gets mad, and Jeffy says, "My monkey did it."
- Billy's explanation for how a flower bed got flattened is, "My bike did something dumb."
- Never Say "Die": Averted in the Christmas special. Thel tells the kids that her father-in-law is in Heaven, and Billy explains to Jeffy that this means he's dead.
- Not Allowed to Grow Up: None of the characters have ever aged, though they are occasionally shown celebrating each others' birthdays.
- Panty Shot: Dolly originally. Notably in an early '70s installment where Billy gets upset because Dolly is lifting her skirt and flashing her panties at the family's houseguests.
- Peeve Goblins: There's an intangible creature called "Not Me" who lives to sabotage the grownups' day to make the kids look bad.
- Present Peeking: The children frequently manage to find their hidden Christmas presents. Needless to say, their parents are not happy when it happens.
- Rain Dance: The family goes on a beach vacation and it rains. Dolly claims that this is Billy and Jeffy's fault because "they were doing their Indian rain dance."
- Remix Comic:
- Pearls Before Swine consistently and constantly makes fun of Family Circus, occasionally in the form of Gag Dubs. The storyline where the family accidentally harbors Osama bin Laden (It Makes Sense in Context) is an example. On at least one occasion, there's been a deliberate crossover — Rat dropping oatmeal into the Circus strip below him, where Billy insists he didn't make the mess. Another crossover comes when Pearls (In-Universe) is running out of money, so the characters have to temporarily move to other comics. The strip ends with Jeffy yelling "Mommy! There's a rat in our fridge!"
- In one of the last Bloom County strips, African-American character Oliver was being 'intergrated' into The Family Circus, his head already morphed into the FC standard oval.
- Running Gag:
- Excuse ghosts. A form of Visual Pun, with one for every childhood excuse under the sun. The kid says it, a ghost with that name is seen fleeing the scene of the crime. "Not Me" is the best known, but "Ida Know", "Nobody" and "O. Yeah!", among others, have also made appearances. (While this may not have been Keane's intention, it could be argued that the ghosts actually exist in the universe of the strip even if they can't be seen, which would also make them a variation of Not-So-Imaginary Friend.)
- Billy's infamous Dotted Line is the perfect representation of at least a walking one.
- Self-Deprecation: The official Family-Circus/Dilbert Crossover note in which Billy annoys Dilbert to the point of calling security on the kid! (See All Just a Dream above for the counterpart.)
- Sequential Art: Unlike many other newspaper comics, The Family Circus is not really sequential, at best sometimes using the Dotted Line Path mentioned above.
- Shout-Out: On Halloween 2012, this strip ran a comic that made a reference to Warhammer 40,000. No really. It did.
- Bill Keane's son Glen — the model for Billy — went on to become one of the most respected animators alive today, working at Walt Disney Animation Studios from 1974 to 2012. He got a nod from dear old Dad in the July 5, 1999 strip, when Billy marches out into the yard in nothing but a loincloth◊, imagining himself as Tarzan.
- Signs of Disrepair: A variation on this occurs when Thel puts up a sign for the family's garage sale; someone adds a letter during the night to make it say "Garbage Sale."
- Terrible Artist: Billy occasionally fills in for his dad, who is a cartoonist, with the expected results.
- Unnamed Parent: Averted with Bil and Thel who have referred to each other by their first names.
- Visual Pun: "Billy's" Sunday strips consist of illustrated puns. "Dolly is Ruthless", for example, is illustrated with her losing a doll named Ruth when she pulls the wagon too fast on which it's seated.
- You Say Tomato: The children, most often Jeffy, pronounce some words in a nonstandard way.