The Family Circus

The Family Circus

An early strip featuring (L to R) Daddy (Bil), Dolly, Billy, Mommy (Thel), and Jeffy. A fourth child, P.J., was introduced in 1962.
Author(s) Bil Keane
Jeff Keane
Current status / schedule Running
Launch date February 29, 1960
Syndicate(s) King Features Syndicate
Genre(s) Humor, gag cartoon, Family values, Religious

The Family Circus (originally The Family Circle, also Family-Go-Round) is a syndicated comic strip created by cartoonist Bil Keane and currently written, inked, and colored by his son, Jeff Keane. The strip generally uses a single captioned panel with a round border, hence the original name of the series, which was changed following objections from the magazine Family Circle. The series debuted on February 29, 1960, and has been in continuous production ever since. According to publisher King Features Syndicate, it is the most widely syndicated cartoon panel in the world, appearing in 1,500 newspapers.[1] Compilations of Family Circus comic strips have sold over 13 million copies worldwide.



The central characters of Family Circus are a family whose surname is rarely mentioned (although the cartoon of August 26, 2013, in which Billy refers to "Grandma Keane" and "Grandma Carne" indicates the same surnames as the author's family). The parents, Bil and Thelma (Thel), are modeled after the author and his wife, Thelma Carne Keane.[2][3][4] Their four children, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and P.J., are fictionalized composites of the Keanes' five children. With the exception of P.J., no characters have aged appreciably during the run of the strip.

Bil (named Steve in the early years of the strip) works in an office, and he is believed to be a cartoonist, most likely based on the writer of the strip because he draws big circles on paper, presumably a cartoon version of the Family Circus. Some early panels referred to Bil as a veteran of World War II.

Thel is a college-educated homemaker. The Los Angeles Times ran a feature article on the Thelma character when Keane updated her hairstyle in 1996.

The oldest child is seven-year-old Billy. A recurring theme involves Billy as a substitute cartoonist, generally filling in for a Sunday strip. The strips purportedly drawn by Billy are crudely rendered and reflect his understanding of the world and sense of humor. The first use of this gag by Keane was in This Week magazine in 1962 in a cartoon titled "Life in Our House" which attributed the childish drawings to his six-year-old son, Chris.[5] Keane also modeled Billy after his oldest son Glen, now a prominent Disney animator.

The character of five-year-old Dolly was modeled after Keane's daughter and oldest child, Gayle.[6] Dolly was a nickname that Thelma Keane called little girls.[6]

The character of three-year-old Jeffy was named and modeled after Keane's youngest child, Jeff.[6]

The comic family's youngest child P.J. (Peter John) was introduced into the strip through a series a cartoons about the Family Circus Mommy's pregnancy which culminated in the baby's birth on August 1, 1962.[7] P.J. gradually grew to be about one-year- old. P.J. rarely speaks.

Extended family

Bil's mother (Florence, but usually called Grandma) appears regularly in the strip and apparently lives near the family. Bil's father (Al, called Granddad by the kids and Bil) is dead but occasionally appears in the strip as a spirit or watching from up in heaven. Bil's father (as a spirit) plays a prominent role in the TV special A Family Circus Christmas. Al died after the launch of the feature however on November 25, 2012, reference is made to his having died before Jeffy was born even though the character Al was featured in strips prior to his Granddad's death.

Thel's parents are both alive but apparently live several hundred miles away in a rural area. Strips in the past have mentioned them living in Iowa, but one 2007 strip mentioned Florida. The family occasionally visits them for vacation.


The family pets are two dogs—a Labrador named Barfy and a shaggy-haired mutt named Sam, a stray the children brought home on January 26, 1970—and an orange tabby cat named Kittycat.

Other characters


The Family Circus takes place in Scottsdale, Arizona. They often visit a popular ice cream parlor named the Sugar Bowl, and Jeffy once went to St. Joseph's Hospital for a tonsillectomy. Thel was seen playing tennis with a racket marked "Scottsdale Racket", and Bil mentioned moving up to B class at Scottsdale Racket Club in a 1984 strip. Also, a sign for Paradise Valley, where Bil Keane lived the latter part of his life, is seen in one 1976 strip. Sometimes the family is depicted enjoying snow at their home in the strip, whereas Scottsdale gets very little snow in the winter. Bil Keane commented that he took scenes from his boyhood in Pennsylvania, such as snow, and added them to the strip.



One distinguishing characteristic of the Family Circus is the frequent use of Christian imagery and themes, ranging from generic references to God to Jeffy daydreaming about Jesus at the grocery store. Keane states that the religious content reflects his own upbringing and family traditions.[9] Keane was Roman Catholic, and in past cartoons the children have been shown attending Catholic schools with nuns as teachers and attending Catholic church services. Keane was a frequent contributor to his high school newspaper, The Good News, at Northeast Catholic High School for Boys in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he graduated in 1940.[10] Some of his comics with scenes in Billy's bedroom depict an NC pennant hanging on the wall, a tribute to his alma mater and his Catholic education.

Dotted lines

One of the best-known features of Keane's work is the dotted line comics, showing the characters' paths through the neighborhood or house with a thick dotted line. The earliest appearance of the dotted line was on April 8, 1962 (an un-dotted path had first appeared on February 25). This concept has been parodied by other comic strips, including Pearls Before Swine, For Better or For Worse, FoxTrot, Garfield, Liō, and Marvin. In an interview, Jeff Keane, who now produces the strip, described how he creates the line: by drawing one continuous black line and then breaking it into segments with white.[11]


In April 1975, Keane introduced an invisible gremlin named "Not Me", who watches while the children try to shift blame for a misdeed by saying, "Not me." Additional gremlins named "Ida Know" (in September 1975), "Nobody," "O. Yeah!," and "Just B. Cause" were introduced in later years. Although it is clear that the parents do not accept the existence of the gremlins, they did include them as members of the family, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, when being interviewed by a member of the U.S. Census Bureau. Another time when Thel was sick of hearing about the gremlins from the kids ("Who's been rummaging in Gramma's purse?" "Not me!") she asked her mother-in-law if she ever dealt with such absurdity, causing Florence to remark, "Well, I'm sure that he has been around at least since I was a little girl," in which there is a flashback to Florence's childhood with her father demanding to know, "Who scratched my new Glenn Miller record?," and "Not Me" smugly standing by.

Grown children

One theme Keane tried from time to time was picturing the children as adults, or what might come of it. One time when Billy had been asked by Thelma not to leave the house until he finished his homework, she told him, "One day when you are grown up you will thank me for this!," causing Billy to imagine the absurdity of himself as a full grown man paying a visit to his elderly mother just to thank her for telling him that as a child. Other adult ideas included the parents telling Jeffy not to be shy when they invited friends over, and then he is pictured 25 years later as an outgoing late night talk show host akin to Jay Leno. Another example was P.J. not wishing to be introduced to the toddler daughter of family friends, only to show 30 years later that both are now grown and are celebrating their wedding day.

Family car

For the first 25 years, the family car was a station wagon, first based on Keane's own 1961 Buick.[12] In 1985, a year after the introduction of the Plymouth Voyager and the Dodge Caravan, the family appears in a series of cartoons trading in the station wagon for a new minivan (when the salesman assures Mom and Dad that "Lee Iacocca stands behind every vehicle we sell," the children scuttle around and look behind the van to see if Mr. Iaccoca is back there). The family's minivan resembles Dodge/Plymouth twins and includes the Chrysler corporate pentastar logo on its hood. The children enjoy showing off the new van to their friends: “And it has a sliding door, like an elevator.” Early strips also showed the family in a small convertible, a caricature based on Keane's Sunbeam Rapier.[12]


Daily strip

The daily strip consists of a single captioned panel with a round border. The panel is occasionally split in two halves. One unusual practice in the series is the occasional use of both speech balloons within the picture and captions outside the circle. The daily strip does not generally follow a weekly story arc, with the exception of family vacations.

Sunday strip

The format of the Sunday strip varies considerably from week to week, though there are several well-known recurring themes. One recurring theme is a single picture surrounded by multiple speech balloons, representing the children's response to a given scenario, although the speaker of any given speech balloon is never explicitly shown (this format began on May 30, 1965).

Other media

Book collections

There are 89 compilations of Family Circus cartoons. For a full list of book titles, see Family Circus collections.


The Family Circus characters appeared in animated form in three television holiday specials, all broadcast on NBC: A Special Valentine with the Family Circus (a.k.a. A Family Circus Valentine) (1978), A Family Circus Christmas (1979), and A Family Circus Easter (1982).[13] The Easter special featured jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie as the Easter Bunny.[13]

Feature film

In October 2010, 20th Century Fox and Walden Media announced that they had acquired the film rights for a live-action feature film based on the Family Circus cartoon.[14] Nichole Millard and Kathryn Price have been hired to adapt the comic strip as a live-action project.[15]

Video Game

An educational video game was released for home computers in 1992. Called Our House featuring the Family Circus (a.k.a. Now and Then), the game compares life in modern times to those when the parents, grandparents and other ancestors of the comic were young.


The Family Circus has been widely satirized in film, television, and other daily comic strips. In an interview with The Washington Post, Keane said that he was flattered and believed that such parody " a compliment to the popularity of the feature..."[16] The official Family Circus website contains a sampling of syndicated comic strips from other authors which parody his characters.[17]

Some newspaper comic strips have devoted entire storylines using Family Circus characters. In 1994, the surreal Zippy the Pinhead comic strip made multiple references to the Family Circus, including an extended series during which the titular character, a pinhead, sought "Th' Way" to enlightenment from Bil, Thel, Billy, and Jeffy.[18] Bil Keane was credited as "guest cartoonist" on these strips, drawing the characters exactly as they appear in their own strip, but in Zippy's world as drawn by Zippy creator Bill Griffith.[18] Griffith described the Family Circus as "the last remaining folk art strip." Griffith said, "It's supposed to be the epitome of squareness, but it turns the corner into a hip zone."[19]

For the 1997 April Fool's Day Comic strip switcheroo, Dilbert creator Scott Adams swapped cartoons with Keane;[20] and Stephan Pastis drew a series in which Family Circus "invaded" Pearls Before Swine in 2007.[21]

The Dysfunctional Family Circus was a satire website which paired Keane's illustrations with user-submitted captions. Keane claimed to have found the site funny at first. However, disapproving feedback from his readership, coupled with the website's use of double entendre and vulgarity, prompted Keane to request that the site be discontinued.

The webcomic Jersey Circus is a mashup of artwork from The Family Circus and dialogue from the reality show Jersey Shore. It juxtaposes the innocent artwork of the comic with the often adult dialogue from the show to parody both media phenomena.[22]

The 1999 novel The Funnies, by J. Robert Lennon, centered around a dysfunctional family whose late patriarch drew a cartoon similar to The Family Circus. Lennon later said, although there was a "resemblance", he did not "know anything about Bil Keane and made up my characters from scratch."[23]

The cartoon has been the subject of gags on many television sit-coms including episodes of Pinky and the Brain, Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Simpsons, Drawn Together, an episode of Family Guy ("Dog Gone") [24][25] and the movie Go (1999 film).

In the Diary of a Wimpy Kid book series, there is a comic the main character despises called L'il Cutie which shares similarities to Family Circus, including a child saying naively innocent things, the writer inspired by his child, and the son working on the comic as an adult.

Some Pearls Before Swine strips include appearances by the Family Circus characters or parodic Family Circus strips. In one series of strips, Rat is captured by Family Circus fans after poking fun at the Family Circus. In the week of June 27, 2005, Stephan Pastis portrayed the cartoon Keane family inviting Osama Bin Laden into their house. Bin Laden is captured by the police while following Billy's dotted lines, and the whole family is imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for harboring a terrorist.

The 2016 graphic novel The Fun Family by Benjamin Frisch tells the dark story of the family of the creator of a "Family Circus" - like strip. [26]


  1. The Family Circus, King Features Syndicate,
  2. "Inspiration for 'Family Circus' Mommy dies". Archived from the original on 2008-05-27. Retrieved 2008-05-26.
  3. Meyers, Amanda Lee (2008-05-27). "Thelma Keane; Wife Of Cartoonist Bil Keane". Associated Press Obituaries. Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-05-29.
  4. Inspiration For Circus Mom Dead at 82, United Press International,, May 26, 2008
  5. This Week, January 7, 1962 Issue, Last Laugh Page
  6. 1 2 3 Keane, Christopher (November 2009). "Raising the Big Top". The Family Circus: Daily and Sunday Comics 1960-1961. The Library of American Comics. 1. IDW. pp. 22–23. ISBN 9781600105487.
  7. Keane, Christopher (June 2010). "Adding to the Act". The Family Circus: Daily and Sunday Comics 1962-1963. The Library of American Comics. 2. IDW Publishing. p. 10. ISBN 9781600106576.
  8. Chang, Jeff (2009). "Morrie Turner and the Kids". The Believer (November/December). Retrieved 2013-03-18.
  9. Gunty, Christopher, Bil Keane's Family Circus, Saint Anthony's Messenger, November 2001
  10. Northeast Catholic High School
  11. "All in the Family: A Cartooning Roundtable," Hogan's Alley, 2009
  12. 1 2 Keane, Christopher. Adding to the Act. The Family Circus: Daily and Sunday Comics. 1962-1963. IDW Publishing. pp. 7–18. ISBN 978-1-60010-657-6.
  13. 1 2 Spurgeon, Tom (January 1, 2012). "Bil Keane, 1922-2011". The Comics Reporter. Retrieved 18 April 2015.
  14. Fleming, Mike. "Fox, Walden Media Win 'The Family Circus'". Retrieved 2012-12-27.
  15. "Fox, Walden set writers for 'Family Circus' film," Variety, October 18, 2012
  16. "Comics: Meet the Artist", Washington Post Online, March 1, 2002
  17. archive "Take-Offs,, retrieved 2009
  18. 1 2 Bill Griffith, Still asking, "Are we having fun yet?", Interdisciplinary Comic Studies, Vol. 1 No. 2, 2004, ISSN 1549-6732
  19. Pat Seremet, "Zippy and The Family Circus--Together again!!", The Hartford Courant, July 11, 2002
  20. Zitz, Michael (April 1, 1997). "April Fools: This is some funny business". The Free Lance Star. p. D1.
  21. "Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis", Live Journal, retrieved January 19, 2009
  22. Friedman, Megan (August 30, 2010). "Jersey Circus Gives Family Values Some GTL". Time. Retrieved August 31, 2010.
  23. J. Robert Lennon, Comment, Rakes Progress, September 29, 2006
  24. Haque, Ahsan. "Family Guy: "Dog Gone" Review". IGN. Retrieved 2009-12-01.
  25. "The TV - Episode 8 - Dog Gone Review". The TV Retrieved 2009-12-02.
  26. Frisch, Benjamin. The Fun Family. Marietta: Top Shelf Productions, 2016. Print.
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