Keane KO's Family Circus Parody
Cartoonist-Webmaster Summit
Published September 30, 1999 in Scope

The Dysfunctional Family Circus site will close in one week -- for a surprising reason. Tuesday night, for 90 minutes, the 77-year-old creator of The Family Circus spoke to the 29-year-old Web developer behind the site and convinced him to take it down.

See also...
... by David Cassel
... in the Scope section
... from September 30, 1999

"Amongst other things, it's surprising to hear Bil Keane say the word 'nipples,'" Web developer Greg Galcik reports. But more importantly, Galcik writes in an announcement on his Web site, the conversation brought a change of heart. "When you're the guy who runs The Dysfunctional Family Circus, and you talk to Bil Keane on the phone for an hour and a half, it really takes the wind out of your sails."

Twelve days ago, lawyers from Bil Keane, Inc. sent a letter demanding that the copyrighted images posted on the DFC site be removed -- but Galcik hung tough, posting additional images and exploring his legal defenses. Just Tuesay night, he wrote that "I'm not convinced that the DFC is on the wrong side of the law."

But there were other factors. "I haven't run this thing for four years because it's a bastion of the First Amendment, you know? I ran it because it was fun for me." And reading of Keane's displeasure changed that.

"[K]nowing now that he's upset about it, I had to think: what say this did go to court, and what say I did win. Would it still be fun for me? I don't think so."

Galcik has operated the site for four years, placing his faith in stories about Keane's sense of humor and good nature. Last week Keane conceded to The Arizona Republic that when it came to parodying his work, "Almost every cartoonist has done it."

But Keane also told CBS his opinion of the raunchier captions on Galcik's site. "It hurts."

And when the conflict was personalized, Galcik wrote, it spelled the end. "[A]s we got further into the conversation, I just realized I couldn't really go on doing what I'm doing," Galcik's announcement notes. Bil Keane had surprised him. "He's actually a nice guy...."

Though Galcik has often complained that it's hard to make him (Galcik) laugh, he noted that Keane had done just that on the phone. And he offered other insights from this cartoonist-meets-Webmaster summit. "He goes running every other day! Damn! He probably gets more exercise than I do."

This may disappoint some of the site's fans, Galcik acknowledges -- but he offers them the same response he's always had for his critics. "If you don't like what I'm doing, do it yourself... Let me know the URL and I'll even send some captions."

Galcik is right. Not only is it easy -- but it's a phenomenon that goes back nearly a decade. The concept of The Dysfunctional Family Circus began years ago as a printed zine, circulating as xeroxed copies of self-published booklets. "It's been around forever," remembers Seth Friedman, who published the zine directory Factsheet Five. "It was originally created uncredited," he notes -- which was common for zines. "We were kind of surprised at the time to hear that there was no legal action coming down. I think the anonymity of it really helped."

Re-captioning Keane's drawings became an irresistible meme. "It almost seems like parodying Family Circus strips became a genre in itself," remembers Fantagraphics publicist Eric Reynolds. Underground cartoonist Ivan Brunetti even parodied a Family Circus panel in the Fantagraphics book Dirty Stories. Reynolds remembers: "There's a group of cartoonists -- a few in Austin, Texas and California and in the Northwest -- who have made their own booklets. They just don't usually include their credits or anything. They've just made their own little pamphlets defiling Keane's pictures. They're not for profit, they're usually things cartoonists do on the side, just to amuse themselves."

The zines circulated, with titles like I'm Not Wearing Any Underwear and Grandma's Not Dead Yet, until they intersected the early days of the Internet. A MacWorld columnist remembers the legend that "if you went to one of Usenet's comics newsgroups and posted your mailing address, this would set into motion a complex and mysterious chain of events that would ultimately result in an unmarked envelope with no return address arriving in your mailbox... and inside you'd find a handmade mini-comic entitled The Dysfunctional Family Circus. Mine arrived within a week."

The next link in the chain was Webmaster Mark-Jason Dominus. On his Web site, Galcik published a note he says he received from Dominus, in which Dominus recalls the frequent requests for the zines back in the mid-'90s on the rec.humor newsgroup. The requests annoyed him -- since the zines were so easy to make. "To satisfy the pent-up demand, I went out and bought a secondhand collection of When's 'Later,' Daddy, scanned in three of the cartoons, replaced the captions, and posted them to rec.humor and talk.bizarre...." Dominus remembered. "I probably put up the captioning program soon afterwards."

After 1688 alternate captions, he pulled the plug -- but Galcik liked the idea so much, he resurrected it for his own site in June of 1995. In the years since, at least 2500 people have submitted captions, and in the last week, a few have posted their own nostalgic tributes to the Dysfunctional Family Circus experience on the web. And then there's a Web game whose objective is to kill Bil Keane. ("This sick, perverted, and twisted cartoonist is on vacation in a hotel. This will make him an easy target for our professional sniper....")

And finally, there's the official Family Circus site. Ironically, its "About the Cartoonist" page notes that Keane's cartoon began with a trademark dispute of its own. "For six months the feature was called 'The Family Circle,'" the page notes. "Then the magazine of that name objected, and the 'le' was changed to 'us.'"

Galcik was always surprised that his site lasted as long as it did. Last April he saw Keane mention various parodies to a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette."If Bil knows, I'm sure King's lawyers know," he told GettingIt earlier this month. "I'd expect them to be much more rabid," he commented -- just three days before the lawyer's letter arrived.

For the record, Galcik believes the parody defense might have worked, had he chosen to pursue it. Ironically, the announcement coincided with an approaching vacation for his wedding anniversary, which was Wednesday. ("I have somebody I'd much rather be spending my time with.")

The site's fans are left with the final picture of P.J. crying in front of a TV set showing a circus clown. And the last words in Spinn's announcement:

"So, to everyone: thank you, and goodnight."

David Cassel is GettingIt's Interactive Media Editor.

See also: Family Circus Brouhaha