“Family Circus” was perhaps the most wholesome of all comics — which made it the biggest target for parody artists, eager to insert some mayhem, or even some sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in an otherwise pristine suburban livelihood. Creator Bil Keane, who passed away Nov. 8, was famously tolerant of parodies of his comic strip, which was the most widely-read syndicated panel in the world.
Mainstream cartoonists, such as Scott Adams (“Dilbert”) and Stephan Pastis (“Pearls Before Swine”) spoofed his work, but in recent years, some web cartoonists have been putting a darker spin on the idyllic family of six.
Scott Gairdner, a Los Angeles comedy writer, created Scott Meets Family Circus, in which he inserts himself as a wisecracking and sometimes menacing figure who crushes the children’s self-esteem and lures the character of Mommy, based on Keane’s own wife, away from Daddy for liaisons in hotels.
Scott even visits the 1979 animated special, “A Family Circus Christmas,” ruining the holiday for the children:
There’s also the Nietzsche Family Circus, which turns the series’ four children — Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and P.J., all composites of Keane’s kids — into quasi-existentialist sorrowful geniuses. The blog Losanjealous pairs a randomized Family Circus cartoon with a randomized Nietzsche quote, and the pairing produces instances of Mommy disciplining Billy with the caption, “The growth of wisdom may be gauged exactly by the diminution of ill temper.”
One of the best-known Family Circus spoofs dates back to before the Internet. “The Dysfunctional Family Circus” was first distributed anonymously by mail beginning in 1989, and began to appear online in the mid-90s. Many of the dozens of captions for each Dysfunctional Family Circus were pretty horrific — dealing with alcoholism, death, and sex — and once the comics became too blue, Keane shut it down. But some of the funniest cartoons involved the characters breaking the fourth wall and criticizing the way that they were drawn.
For what it’s worth, Keane maintained a good sense of humor about his artistic skills, as well. He used to say, “Taught myself to draw, so I can't blame anyone but me.”