Growing up, I always thought Family Circus was terrible. I’d pull up to the breakfast table, getting ready to peep the funny pages, looking for some great goofs. There was always good and bad, that’s just the system. But Bil Keane’s comic strip about family life was the most frustrating with what I considered its non-jokes. This is probably partially because at this time in my life I was really leaning into edgelord comedy, which is of course, the antithesis of Family Circus. And I always wondered: how is Family Circus still being published? It’s not funny, nor is it particularly interesting. But as an adult, wow, that question is so easily answered. It’s exactly why it’s still being published fifty-eight years after its release in 1960: it’s vanilla as hell. That shit is so relatable with its traditional family values and Christian overtones, it’s the dream palette for white bread Americans.
Recently, for some godforsaken reason, I became a little obsessed with the strip (I guess it’s more so a panel), that was the butt of so many jokes for me as a teenager (and many others, everyone talks shit on Family Circus). I found myself wondering, as you definitely might, “wow, is Family Circus better than I’ve always given it credit for? Maybe it’s just an Americana slice of life comic where we can all enjoy kids saying the darnedest things.” So I did what any normal person would do, and read a shitton of family circus comics. We’re talking post & pre the death of Bil Keane, but all mostly from the mid-2000s. Jeff and Bil began working on the strip together before Bil’s death in 2011, and their dual byline remains today. After grinding through panels, your boy really hit the slopes by watching some pretty old TV specials. And I’ll be the first to admit, it’s definitely funnier than I remember. This includes both Jeff and Bil’s stuff, they’ve got some chops. Ultimately, though, I still don’t love it. As an adult kids saying dumb or weird shit resonates a lot more with me than it did as a kid. But when you imagine a middle aged man sitting at a desk coming up with that stuff, and then you read a couple of strips decades apart that have the same joke it loses a most of its charm. I say this because Bil’s original inspiration, including Family Circus’s current author, Jeff, is all grown up. Who’s to say really, but there’s no feasible way you could squeeze a joke daily out of the dumb shit your kids say. The reason we’re all here though, is to discuss when Family Circus gets sentimental. And it really only gets sentimental about one fucking thing. And that’s GRANDAD, baby.
To fully clarify, we have to fucking get into it, so I guess let’s fucking get into it. Family Circus has five main characters: Daddy, Mommy, Billy, Jeffy, Dolly and PJ. The more secondary characters include pets Barfy, Sam and Kittycat, and grandparents, Grandma Carne and, you guessed it, Grandma & Grandad Keane. I’ll also quickly point out Morrie, who’s the only black character in the strip. I’ll discuss him more later, but he was created by Keane as a shout out to his contemporary, and the creator of Wee Pals, Morrie Turner. As far as I can tell, Grandad has always been dead canonically. This is Daddy’s, aka Bil’s, father, and Grandma Keane’s loving husband. It’s possible he was alive in early versions of Family Circus, but as early as 1979 he is no longer with the cast. Not to be misleading though, because Grandad makes appearances all the fucking time as an MF angel.
To clue you in, in the canon of Family Circus we experience both heaven and angels interacting with our earthly characters. There are plenty of scenes where one of the kids has something silly to say about church or prayer or heaven, but we definitely get a taste of the real deal, too. And I’m also not talking about the notorious “NOT ME” ghost who is responsible for various acts of mayhem in the Keane household.
It’s possible that I’m the only one, but I actually think this shit is bonkers. Of course it could be said that Family Circus is fun and silly and why not just throw some angels in for a couple fun bits with our faves Dolly & Jeffy? It sure is fun times, remember when we had a laugh with 1979’s A Family Circus Christmas where Daddy can’t find the Christmas tree topper that his father made and nearly cries at the thought of a Christmas without it? Me too! Fortunately, Jeffy calls Grandad’s ghost down from heaven who tells him where the tree topper is, saving Christmas.
Bil Keane was quoted in the 90’s as saying, “I don’t just try to be funny. Many of my cartoons are not a belly laugh. I go for nostalgia, the lump in the throat, the tear in the eye, the tug in the heart.” I wish this were more true. The ratio is about 85% traditional kid jokes to 15% Grandad’s dead or I feel bad for Grandma. The heart tugs are incredibly personal, which I like, but that’s the only tug he seems capable of.
The strips featuring angels vary piece by piece on how much they bum me out. Some are flat out jokes of course, but plenty of them are just, “Mom and I miss dad and I wish he would come to us the only way he reasonably could: as an angel.”
Let’s lean into sad Grandma.
Bonus round. Here’s a Family Circus strip from the anniversary of MLK Jr.’s assassination in 2018:
Clearly there’s some stuff that I’m not feeling too good about.
Wildly enough, I think the comic has become, or maybe always was, Keane’s perfect optimistic paradise. A place where dead relatives are still around, a place where white kids are having a blast in suburbia, a place where mommy cooks and looks after the kids while daddy works. It’s amazing to me how much it feels like comic hasn’t changed. In more recent strips written by Jeff Keane, Ghost Grandad is still a real staple, somehow staying true to Bil’s 85-15 ratio that I made up. I can only assume that with the family line of succession, even though the art and character design has remained the same, that Bil Keane, creator of Ghost Grandad, has become Ghost Grandad himself. What was once personal for Bil, is now personal for Jeff. And ultimately, as much shit as I might talk, that’s exactly what I appreciate and respect about the legacy of Family Circus. After Bil Keane’s death, he unknowingly (or did he?!) inserted himself into strips he had written a decade prior.