Bil Keane's warm, humorous portraits of the intimate moments in family life, based on his own real-life family circus, have charmed readers around the world since 1960. Today, The Family Circus is the most widely syndicated comic panel in the world, appearing in nearly 1,500 newspapers. The daily panels are routinely drawn within a circle, meant to underscore the sense of closeness between the characters. More than 70 collections of the cartoons have been published, and the panel's characters have inspired three TV specials and appeared in a wide variety of educational and public-service projects.
While Keane's cartoon kids have stayed the same age for decades, his real-life kids have grown up, and two followed in their father's creative footsteps. Glen is now a prominent animator for The Walt Disney Company, and Jeff worked with his dad for years in creating the comic panel until Bil's death in November of 2011. And today, Bil's family circus of nine grandchildren and one great grandchild provide a whole new generation of ideas.
Jeff Keane was born in 1958. Two years later, his father, Bil Keane, started chasing him around the house begging him to do something funny. So began his career as a cartoon model for The Family Circus. Today, the popular cartoon panel appears daily in nearly 1,500 newspapers worldwide, making it the most widely syndicated panel in the world.
As the inspiration for the Jeffy character, Keane worked alongside his father for years, seeking out Bil's invaluable guidance and advice. When his father died in November 2011, Jeff was already firmly at the helm of the great feature and in position to continue his father’s tradition of putting a smile on readers’ faces every day.
Raised in Arizona, Keane moved to California to attend the University of Southern California where in 1980 he received his bachelor of fine arts degree in drama. After graduation, in an attempt to have a freer schedule for activities such as auditions, he returned to his cartoon roots and began to assist his father. Jeff started out just answering mail and compiling books, but his duties were soon expanded to consist of all aspects of creating the daily cartoon: writing, penciling, inking and coloring.
In 2007, Keane was elected President of the National Cartoonists Society, recognized as the premier cartoonists’ organization in the world and was reelected in 2009, becoming only the fourth two-term president in NCS history. Along with other members of the NCS and the helping hand of the USO, Jeff has made numerous visits to military bases and hospitals around the world, including both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jeff and his wife, Melinda, live in California where they created three cartoon characters of their own: Spencer, Matilda and Olivia. Keane now chases his kids around begging them to do something funny, proving that The Family Circus really does keep going around in circles.
Bil Keane never formally studied art, but by faithfully re-creating the world around him, he developed the phenomenally successful cartoon panel The Family Circus. The first Family Circus cartoon, in February 1960, showed Mommy surrounded by a roomful of toy clutter, answering the door to a survey person who asked, "Any children?"
The panel records the lives of an average American family, made up of Mommy and Daddy, and their four children: Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ. Rounding out the beloved cast are two dogs, Barfy and Sam, and Kittycat.
Keane, who routinely drew the panels within a circle to underscore the sense of closeness between the characters, believed that the family is the source of a lot of happiness, a lot of love and a lot of laughs. "I like to feel that what I'm doing portrays this: a family where there is love between mother, father and the kids. It's a subject that is dear to me," he said.
Through the years, Keane made his family life the center of his professional world and always tried to portray the typical American family. His Family Circus characters were based on his own family: himself, his wife, Thel, and his five children, Gayle, Neal, Glen, Christopher and Jeff.
Keane did not always try to make his cartoons especially funny. "I would rather have 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," he said.
The popularity of The Family Circus is found in the fact that the cartoon reminds people of all ages about themselves, their kids and their parents. The panel has been embraced by people the world over, as The Family Circus continues to show us how the American family lives now. King Features Syndicate distributes the panel to more than 1,500 newspapers around the globe, making it the most widely syndicated panel in the world today.
"If The Family Circus has any social value," Keane said, "it shows parents that their children are normal. And if there is a philosophy behind the feature, it's this: A home filled with love and laughter is the happiest place in the world."
Bil died in November 2011. His son, Jeff, who worked with his father for years, remains at the helm of the great feature and continues his dad's tradition of putting a smile on readers’ faces every day.
Mommy is the glue that holds this brood together. She is a loving wife and mother who derives great comfort and pleasure from her family. Although she doesn't live a "glamorous" life, and may never drive anything better than the family station wagon, she has something that is beyond any price: a home filled with love and laughter, making it the happiest place in the world.
When he's not at work as a cartoonist with the local newspaper, Daddy is usually at home with the family. He likes nothing better than spending time with them; sharing memorable moments with Thel, and watching their children grow. Sometimes, Daddy lets oldest son Billy "take over" the comic panel. This usually leads to outlandish results, as the inexperienced Billy skewers the meanings of commonplace phrases and euphemisms.
Billy takes the responsibility of being the oldest very seriously, and is more than happy to “teach” his siblings. Sometimes, Daddy lets Billy "take over" his comic panel. This usually leads to outlandish results, as the inexperienced Billy skewers the meanings of commonplace phrases and euphemisms.
Dolly will have none of Billy's domineering ways, and she can be more than a match for him in the bossy department. Dolly has all the best instincts of a big sister to Jeffy and PJ and often explains how things work to her kid brothers.
As the third child, Jeffy looks up to Billy and Dolly and relishes his role as PJ's big brother.
PJ, the baby, keeps a close eye on all three of them, usually amused by their antics.
When the kids can't get what they want from Mommy and Daddy, the first person they run to is Grandma, a widow who happily obliges and is always willing to impart a little well-learned wisdom.
No family is complete without at least one pet scampering around and getting under-foot. So, with Barfy (named by the kids, of course), Sam (a rescued stray), and Kittycat, the whole family has plenty to keep an eye out for.