Bil Keane, Creator of The Family Circus

28 June 2002

   Families get themselves into a lot of funny situations. The interaction between parents, kids and grandkids may even seem humdrum and boring. But not to a cartoonist’s eye!

    Bil Keane has found the “funny” in families and has shared the chuckles in the creation of his comic panel, The Family Circus. Having a family of five kids under his own roof has provided years of inspiration.

    As a teenager attending Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia, Bil Keane taught himself to draw and cartoon. (He was born in Philadelphia, PA on October 5, 1922.) He copied the work of cartoonists, such as Robert day, Whitney Darrow and others appearing in the "New Yorker" in the 1930s, until he became skilled in the art of cartooning. Around that time, he decided to drop the second “l” in Bill, just to be different.

    The Philadelphia Bulletin hired Keane as a messenger, his first job after high school. Cartooning was in his blood, though. He drew comics for Yank and created features for "Stars and Stripes" magazine while he served in the military from 1942 to 1946. He continued to submit caricatures and other cartoons for the Philadelphia newspaper. While stationed in Australia, he met his bride-to-be, Thelma Carne. They married in Brisbane, Australia in 1948 and moved to Pennsylvania. He returned to the "Philadelphia Bulletin" and worked as a staff artist for 15 years. Keane developed “Silly Philly,” a feature for the Sunday comics based on the founder of Philadelphia, William Penn. *(1)

    Always inventive, Bil Keane created "Channel Chuckles", debuting in 1954. The newspaper cartoon poked fun at the new and burgeoning television industry and made readers laugh for 23 years. The comic was such a success that he could leave his newspaper job behind to move his growing family to sunny Arizona.

   A houseful of kids inspired the imaginative cartoonist to create another strip. Bil would make notes of their funny sayings and actions on recipe cards. Later in the 1980’s, he said he still had enough funny stuff to keep him cartooning “for maybe another 50 years.” *(2)

    Scampering onto the pages of 19 newspapers in February of 1960, The Family Circus began with characters of parents, pets, neighbours and three kids. Billy, Dolly and Jeffy were patterned after Bil’s own kids, Glen, Neal, Gayle, Christopher and Jeff. The parents were, of course, based on the cartoonist himself and his wife, Thelma. The angelic grandparents are portrayals of Bil’s parents, now deceased. Baby PJ, the fourth cartoon child, was added in 1962. Keane has built features into his cartoon that immediately mark it as his work. The children’s dotted meandering around the neighbourhood, Billy’s placement as substitute artist “while Bil is away” and the panel’s base of a circle rather than the usual rectangular format all scream “Keane” to his readers.

family circus

    The amusing comic was originally, and briefly, entitled "The Family Circle". The popular women’s magazine "Family Circle" challenged the cartoon name, and so the panel became The Family Circus.

    Bil Keane has suffered criticism for the lack of daily hilarity in his cartoons. He responds to the disparaging comments by noting that he would rather see “the readers react with a warm smile, a tug at the heart or a lump in the throat as they recall doing the same things in their own families.” *(3)

    The Family Circus is one of the most popular panels around the world, appearing in over 1,500 newspapers. Keane was awarded two of the National Cartoonists Society’s honours in 1982: The Reuben for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year and the Elzie Segar Award. He received the Best Syndicated Panel Award in 1967, 1971, 1973 and 1974. He was elected president of the National Cartoonists Society in 1982 – 1983 and occasionally emcees the annual event.

    The popular comic panel has been published in over 60 books, with more than 14 million copies in circulation. NBC ran animated specials of The Family Circus in 1978, 1980 and 1981. The memorable characters have been used on a variety of merchandise, such as beach towels, calendars and t-shirts. Prints and originals of the cartoon are available at The Family Circus home website.

    Keane’s talented streak for cartooning has carried on to the next generation in his family. His son Jeff is his assistant and being groomed to one day take over as cartoonist of the panel. Son Glen is a major Disney animator, with famous characters springing from his pen. Ariel of "The Little Mermaid", "Tarzan" and "Pocahontas" are just a few of his creations. Keane’s daughter Gayle handles much of the administration duties for The Family Circus (including charity requests and fan mail) for the admired cartoon.

    After more than 42 years, The Family Circus continues to be relevant and to touch hearts and lives. To keep up-to-date and modern, Bil examines family and children’s magazines, and fan mail. And he has another handy source of fresh ideas: Nine busy grandchildren.

Cartooning News: The Silver T-Square Award was given to Bil Keane at the May 25th, 2002 awards ceremony of the National Cartoonists Society for Extraordinary Service to the NCS and the Cartooning Profession.

The home website is great website with puzzles and games, and a warehouse of The Family Circus cartoons: *(1)

*(2) The Encyclopedia of American Comics from 1897 to the Present Edited by Ron Goulart, Published by Promised Land Productions, 1990.


Bil Keane in a chat on the Washington Post site:

© Susanna McLeod 2002  
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on