Family Circus Specials

Celebrating holidays with the Keanes!
February 28, 2012

I'm pretty sure if you have touched a newspaper in the last 50 years, you know about a little comic strip called "The Family Circus". It is a one-panel, circle-shaped strip (symbolizing the closeness of the family) started by Bil Keane, based on his real life family. With the general idea of it being "Cute Things Kids Say", it's Slice-of-Life nature has it become recognized as one of the most widely syndicated strips in the world.

The principal characters are the kids. In order from left to right, they are Dolly, Billy, PJ and Jeffy. Other characters include the parents, who they refer to as Mommy (Thel) and Daddy (Bil), the grandparents, plus their pets: two dogs named Sam and Barfy (guess who named him) and the cat, Kittycat.

As recently as the 1990s (at least) it's become... something of the butt of a joke. Probably because it... just has not changed... like, AT ALL since it started... it's a bit hard to see it as something truly wild and out of control, like a circus would be seen. Now, Bil Keane doesn't constantly try to make it funny; sometimes he would see something heartfelt as all one would need.

That's all well and good. But sometimes... this leads us to the worst factor of the strip: sometimes it just isn't funny, no matter how you look at it. What's funny about something like "Barfy and Sam are coming in and Kittycat is thinking about it"?

On the other hand, you'll sometimes find one that is somewhat entertaining. All of this leads to an interesting question: what chance does something like this have of being animated?

Now, lots of different strips from the newspaper, past and present, have tried adapting to animation, usually a full-fledged series. But unless your strip is called "Peanuts" or "Garfield", chances are it doesn't last. Series about strips like "Dilbert" and "Baby Blues" simply failed and were cancelled after only a handful of episodes. I'll admit I hated the "For Better or For Worse" cartoons I remember seeing on TV and Berkeley Breathed holds a deep contempt for his animated "Outland" special, "Opus n' Bill in A Wish for Wings that Work". Thus far the only exception is Aaron MacGruder's "The Boondocks" (as part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim), and I'm not holding out for animated versions of "Funky Winkerbean" or "FoxTrot".

Oh yeah, and I'm also not waiting for an animated version of "Calvin and Hobbes", but that's due to the fact Bill Watterson refuses to license that strip for anything beyond it's original medium.

What chance did "The Family Circus" have? Well, I believe the original intention was a half-hour long TV special and not a full-blown series, but I remember constantly watching them on VHS and tuning in once they would air on the Disney Channel with my siblings and friends and they became something of a holiday tradition. For now, let's look, shall we?

Let me take you back to the year 1977. The first animated "Family Circus" special was...

The Christmas special. Only the greatest time of the year.

Christmas is coming, and the Keane kids are anxious to find out what Santa Claus is going to bring them. They decorate the tree with Mom (Anne Costello) and Dad (Bob Kaliban) and there's just one thing missing. happens to be Daddy's star that this father made and would go on top of the tree.

But no matter where anyone looks, it is nowhere to be found.

While Jeffy (Nathan Berg) wants to be good for his annual Christmas haul, he wants to try finding Grandpa's Christmas star and hopefully he can have Santa Claus have Grandpa come down from Heaven.

Seems like a very hefty goal for a kid that's not even five years old, but this is the Christmas season...

Now, I'll start by saying this: this special at least has the element of originality on it's side. As you may already know, a lot of cool things came from the 1970s but animated cartoon series definitely was not one of them. Likely due to Walt Disney's death in 1966 and the limited new direction of animation, there just was not many memorable 1970s cartoons. Probably the only exceptions that I can think of would be "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids", and Disney's all-animal version of "Robin Hood". The comic strip "Garfield" debuted in 1978 as well. There were some others like "Fritz the Cat" but let's be frank that's... that's really not a kids' cartoon.

I also know that many people consider "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!" as a 70s cartoon as well, but because it debuted in 1969 I don't think it should have to count.

One problem I tend to have is, for this special at least, the animation seems to be... well, rather jerky. I mean, a cardinal rule about animation is it is all about consistency, but some of it seems pretty rough. It very much looks like a product of its time and doesn't seem to have aged all that well.

Another running gag from the comic comes in through the theme of "Santa Claus is watching you" (I can hear this through Bart Simpson now: "If Santa is watching me, can he see me going to the bathroom?") and the deceased grandfather appearing amongst the living. Now, he's not a zombie but he's back in spiritual form. I understand it may be symbolizing "love never dies", even if the "Family Circus" method seems a bit cheesy.

The Christmas special I think of as the "Jeffy special" because Jeffy obviously plays the main role. For me, this has its advantages and disadvantages. For one, it focuses on the most obvious kid-appeal character, for young kids this will likely hold the greatest appeal. We all know what it's like being such a young child.

The problem I have is due to Jeffy's namby-pamby character status (he always tries to throw you the idea that he's such a cutesy little boy), well that doesn't stay interesting for very long. I got nothing against Jeffy but that only goes so far. If it's just a few minutes it's fine but while you can do more with him than someone like PJ, you'd probably expect this type of behavior from a true to life little kid.

I also have to give Billy mad props for having a unique answer about how Santa Claus goes around delivering presents to all the families in the world (a magic watch). I'm also going to add the voice acting is okay, although there are times I swear that Jeffy sounds a little like Linus on "A Charlie Brown Christmas".

PJ's reaction to Santa Claus is also realistic, which means it just could be more entertaining. If you wanted that kind of mentality you could just go to the mall and wait for a kid to sit on Santa's lap and start screaming because they just got scared, which makes it seem...a bit realistic, actually.

It might seem like I'm being a bit hard on this special. It's still got it's entertaining moments, like when the kids all want Daddy to go and add their own ideas for how to tell "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and don't get me wrong, I love Christmas. But while I may have to debate with myself on wheter the second or third specials is my favorite, the Christmas special I can rule out because this is easily my least favorite of the three.

At the very least, it's not yet another retelling of "It's a Wonderful Life" or "A Christmas Carol", and that has to mean something.

At the end, Dolly foreshadows that another special is coming...

Just not as promised. In the year 1979, there was another "Family Circus" special called...

"The Family Circus" made another leap to animation with their take on Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day is here, and that can only mean the Keane family is on the ball. Who's going to have the best Valentine to give Mom and Dad?

Jeffy wants to make one all by himself, and Billy (Mark McDermott) and Dolly (Missy Hope) both want to one-up each other by having a better Valentine.

That's not all... PJ gets caught up in the Valentine's Day fever and wants to make a Valentine too.

Too bad he gets laughed at...

Guilt catches up to Billy, Dolly and Jeffy, so they figure they should make the best Valentine ever, for PJ.

So in turn, can Billy, Dolly and Jeffy make this the best Valentine's Day ever?

Like I said before, the 70s and animation were anything but an ideal match. However this special is what I see as something "under-the-radar" because while many people laugh at the strip for reasons against it, it's actually not that bad.

You can also tell this special was made in the 1970s, if some of the music and the Mom's bell bottom pants are any indication.

I'll start by saying this special is pretty unique. Since I was a small child, I remember watching this one constantly. Being that as the box states is "For ages 3-8" there's really no objectionable material and still manages to be entertaining. I can't remember too many specials like it.

Probably the one sequence that might strike me as scary is when PJ is thought to have run away and the kids are worried about him but it's only for a few seconds.

There is also a little running joke about Dolly wanting to make sure a picture is "not upside down".

Now, do you know how I dubbed the Christmas special the "Jeffy special"? Well, I tend to dub the Valentine special the "Billy special" partly because Billy seems to play the central role. As you may expect, he and Dolly, being the older two kids, go about butting heads trying outdo each other and/or take the leadership role for themselves, but hey, kids are like that.

The other thing I am sure of is people probably remember what it is like trying to outdo Valentines with your siblings/friends. You'd probably be able to go and point out "Hey, that's like, me and my sibling/s right there!" Also in line with the strip, you'll probably be able to point out a few lines that you'll find mildly amusing like when PJ sits on Jeffy's Valentine he yells "Mommy! PJ is breaking my heart!"

One little thing that I know I just did not like about this special was early on when Dolly is riding the school bus home, there's a song that lasts a few minutes which features all the kids on the bus (and the driver) all singing a song about "If everyday were Valentine's Day". In addition to the regular animation there's shots of child-like drawings which I know is meant to emulate the running gag of "Billy drawing the cartoon for the day" but it just doesn't add much of anything and seems like it's here for no reason other than to have a random song.

Here is something that I though was undeniably a brilliant addition to the special: when Billy, Dolly and Jeffy go down into the basement to make PJ an immense Valentine.

It seemed like something that normal kids would be able to do and they have no help from their parents. You have no idea how much I wanted to do this back when I was a kid. Honest to God you don't!

Sure, I admit to having a soft spot for "A Special Valentine with the Family Circus".

And we would not see another "Family Circus" special...

That is, until 1982. For the final holiday go-around, the Keane family comes back. The first time was for the birth of Jesus Christ, the second was for a card-buying holiday, and the last one is for the day Christ saved the world from sin...


(Now, these specials have a neutral, secular celebration of the holiday. Just speaking from what the holiday is to mean from a Christian viewpoint)

Easter is coming, and the kids are helping Daddy paint Easter eggs. However, Dolly has one never before asked question: Why does the Easter Bunny hide eggs?

There's also a little plot device involving a kaliedoscope-like egg that will prove to be important later on in this special.

Dolly then gets an idea: she gets Billy and Jeffy to help her strategically place the eggs where PJ is sure to find them.

She then gets the idea that the Easter Bunny will take all their plans and ruin them, so to make it fair Billy, Dolly and Jeffy try to catch the Easter Bunny.

Did I mention there's a special guest appearance?

Being that this is a special that was released in the 1980s, the animation industry was still not in the best shape. During this time, because of the status of animation, and the fact there were lots of hot, have-to-have-it toys, a lot of companies would frequently use animators to make cartoons to promote the hot-selling toy. Granted, this was not a bad thing--lots of terrific animated shows were released at this time. He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers... those are only some of the best known.

That being said, the animation here is better polished than the prior two, though it may be from time and budget. I mean, some TV cartoons start with rough animation but it improves with time.

Now, the first special was about Jeffy, the second special was about Billy, so we know what is next right? Yep, this is the "Dolly special". As predicted, there's more conflict between Billy and Dolly and their aspiration to want get PJ as fair deal during the holidays. It may seem like a repeat from the Valentine's special, but it continues to work.

Another thing I will mention is the music. The song that Dolly sings I remember having written down and committed to memory. It's a song that Dolly sings about why the Easter Bunny makes Easter egg hunting so hard and wanting in on the fun. It's good for some laugh value, in mean seeing as how Dolly is performing like she's in a concert, isn't there some noise ordinance that she's breaking?

They also have a pursuit/chase sequence that can also be entertaining.

Now, do you remember how I said there was a special guest appearance? It's true, it's...

Dizzy Gillespie! Yep, the famous musician guest stars as the Easter Bunny! There's even a lengthly musical sequence where he tells the Keane kids in song about "the path to discovery" which I still find entertaining.

Ultimately, it is a bit hard for me to choose between the Valentine special from the late 1970s or the Easter special from the early 1980s as my favorite. I'd have to debate with myself to find an answer...

And with that, that turned out to be the final special for "The Family Circus" in cel animation. I wouldn't have minded seeing the Family Circus spin on Halloween (and they just had the 'dotted-line' running gag to go, though I suppose PJ wasn't the best idea for a new focus). This strip continues to run, but now it is being done by Bil Keane's son Jeff (the model for Jeffy). Ironically, I was writing this article for a few days when suddenly I heard that Bil Keane, who started the strip and was running ever since 1960, had died on November 8, 2011.

During the 1980s and even the early/mid 1990s, these specials were broadcast usually around the time when their respective holidays came close. It may help that Glen Keane, the model for Billy, is a major driving force for Disney's Feature Animation Unit.

All three of these specials are still floating around on VHS. I remember seeing my (now closed) Blockbuster Video had the Valentine special and my also closed mini-mall had the Easter special which I bought and still own. Just now I heard that there's going to be a live-action movie about the strip. I wonder what it will be like?

I don't regret seeing these specials and one day, I hope they will be out on DVD, even if they are bonus features on the home video release for the movie. They will likely be part of my holiday ritual far into the future.

And with that, this is TreyVore, signing off. I'll see ya in my next article.
More Articles From TreyVore
An unhandled error has occurred. Reload Dismiss