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Todd Gaines: There you are, enjoying your comics, when all of a sudden there's the Family Circus just waiting to suck, and ruin your whole experience.Todd Gaines: I hate it, but I'm compelled to read it.
Claire: Then why don't you just not read it?
—Dialogue from the movie Go
In its literal form, Bil Keane's The Family Circus (originally The Family Circle) is 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.
Rather than creating a multi-panel story, Family Circus Sunday strips often feature single drawings of long, meandering paths that one of the children took to achieve some end (the dotted lines also periodically show up in the daily "circle" panels as well, again denoting a path). It's been parodied rather frequently in other comics.
Besides little kids, the sincere fanbase for the comic consists of moms and grandmas 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 (the lead animator on Ariel, the Beast, Pocahontas and John Silver, among others). Another son, Jeff, began assisting his dad with the comic in the 2000s, 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 Nineties. Amazon.com's user-contributed book reviews are infamous for containing snarky reviews of the printed collections of panels. Such reviews usually fawn over the tremendous symbolism and deep philosophical meaning in its plain single-panel storylines, often discovering hidden Freudian or religious symbolism. The Comics Curmudgeon blog takes particular delight in mocking the strip and its characters. In the Diary of a Wimpy Kid novels, which are aimed at preteens, it's parodied as Li'l Cutie.
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. DFC'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 DFC 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 DFC controversy, no one would bother making a Web site called The Dysfunctional Fusco Brothers.
Provides examples of:
- Animated Adaptation: In the late 1970s/early '80s, Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter specials were made.
- Black Bead Eyes
- 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.
- Cheerful Child: All the kids.
- Children Are Innocent: Played straight. Between this and its strictly G-rated approach, this means that fresh humor to be mined from the "kids say/do the darndest things" premise is now extremely limited.
- Constantly Curious: All the kids who can talk.
- A Dog Named "Dog": The family cat is named Kittycat.
- Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Played straight.
- Grandfather Clause: There have been a lot of suggestions that newspapers only continue to run the comic because of how old it is.
- Hot Mom: Thel.
- How Can Santa Deliver All Those Toys?: Brought up in an animated Christmas special.
- Implausible Deniability: Thel finds PJ hiding in a closet devouring a bag of stolen cookies. PJ cries, "I not here! I with Daddy!"
- Innocent Swearing: Jeffy does this, and gets spanked for it.
- Long Runner: Fifty years, as of 2010.
- 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 Sixties, 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.
- Not Allowed to Grow Up
- Bil's creepy Opaque Lenses.
- Remix Comic: The aforementioned Dysfunctional Family Circus, which despite being taken off the web at Keane's request in 1999, survives to this day in various archives.
- There is an even newer example, Scott Meets Family Circus, which still updates now and then.
- Less well-known, perhaps because it is not for the faint of heart, there's the comic The Other Family, which can be found here. Warning: may make you unable to read Family Circus ever again. I mean, uh... warning: may disillusion you forever.
- 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.
- When you gaze too long into The Nietzsche Family Circus, the Nietzsche Family Circus gazes also into you.
- OH GOD I CAN SEE FOREVER
- In one of the last Bloom County strips, African-American character Oliver was being 'intergrated' into the Family Circus strip, his head already morphed into the FC standard oval.
- And Jersey Circus.
- Running Gag: Excuse Ghosts. A form of Visual Pun, 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.
- And speaking of Running Gags, Billy's infamous Dotted Line is the perfect representation of at least a walking one.
- Sequential Art: Unlike many other newspaper comics, The Family Circus is not really sequential, at best sometimes using the Dotted Line Path mentioned above.
- Terrible Artist: Billy occasionally fills in for his dad, who is a cartoonist, with the expected results.
- A Worldwide Punomenon: 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 on which it's seated too fast.
- You Say Tomato: The children, most often Jeffy, pronounce some words in a nonstandard way.