- I’ve had a bizarre attraction to Bil Keane‘s comic strip, The Family Circus. I was always sure that this strip might make a good animated show for television. In fact, A Family Circus Christmas directed by Al Kouzel was a good show. It came as a surprise when I first saw it, though there’s no reason I should have been. The story was first rate. The real surprise came years later when I learned that Bil’s son, Glen, had become one of the finest of the new-generation animators at Disney.
Bil Keane was interviewed in the Dec. 1975 issue of CARTOONIST PROfiles by the magazine’s editor, Jud Hurd, and I post it here:
BIL KEANE is one of those fairly rare cartoonists who is just as funny on the speaking platform as he is onpaper in the two panels, THE FAMILY CIRCUS and CHANNEL CHUCKLES, he creates for THE REGISTER & TRIBUNE SYNDICATE. We heard another of Bil’s great talks again recent-ly, which prompted us to ask him some questions ahout cartooning for our magazine. BU and his famih- live in Paradise Valley, near Phoenix, Arizona.
Q: Some time ago we did an interview with you that has caused a lot of comment. Your answers were hilariously funny, but not too informalive. l’d like this tobea serions interview that imparts to our readers the inner workings of Bil Keane.
KEANE: Fine. Which way to the X-ray machine?
Q: Seriously, could you give us a brief resumé of your art background?
KEANE: It’ll be quite brief because I never studied art. I taught myself to draw while I was in high school by imitating the cartoonists whose work I admired.
Q: Who were they?
KEANE: Each month I would have a different New Yorker magazine idol… George Price, Richard Decker, Peter Arno, Robert Day, Whitney Darrow, Barlow, Wortman… This was in the late thirties. l’d practice each style and technique until, in my mind, my drawings looked “similar” to the master. I still think this is an excellent way to develop a style. Eventually your own “thing” will emerge. I enjoyed studying cartoonists’ styles and learned to recognize them like handwriting. I used to play a game when Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, or American Magazine would arrive in the mail. As l’d turn a page on which there was a cartoon, l’d quickly cover the part of the cartoon bearing the signature and name the cartoonist who had made the drawing. Then, l’d lift my hand to see if I was right. I had a very high rate of accuracy. l’d be fooled only by a newcomer. I also became a fanatic cartoon clipper. I eut out every magazine cartoon I could find and pasted them in huge scrapbooks. I remember one time I was thrown out of a public library for slicing cartoons out of the current magazines with a razor blade. In fact, it was last week!
Q: Were magazine cartoons the only ones thaï interested you, or did you follow the newspaper cartoonists too?
KEANE: I never was an avid fan of the comic strip guys although I certainly admired most of the big ones. However, I had a real penchant for the newspaper panel cartoonists. George Lichty was my all-tirne favorite. I also liked H. T. Webster, Fontaine Fox, J. R. Williams, Gène Ahern and particularly Clare Briggs. Another genius to me was J. Norman Lynd who drew “Vignettes of Life.”
Q: Do you feel that most magazine gag cartoonists can develop a successful syndicated feature?
KEANE: Not necessarily. Some cartoonists are prolific and can turn out volumes of material from which a magazine editor may select the best. A syndicated cartoonist, for the most part, is his own editor. Unless he has the ability to discern which of his creations are good and which are poor, his feature will not hâve the batting average required to maintain success. I hâve seen highly successful magazine men fall fiât on their faces when attempting a 6 day a week feature done entirely by themselves.
Q: Some people write inspirations for cartoon ideas on the backs of old envelopes. Russell Myers carries a lape recorder and talks into it when he thinks of a “Broom Hilda” idea.
What system do you use for this?
KEANE: I don’t think of many “Broom Hilda” ideas, but when I do, I talk into the back of an old envelope.
Q: You promised this would he a serious interview.
KEANE: Frankly, for “Family Circus”, the only gimmick I use to think of ideas is thumbing through family type magazines where articles, pictures, ads, columns, etc., will suggest a setting or bring to mind one of the incidents that has happened in our home in the past. Given a specific setting or situation I can readily create a child’s reaction to it. I have a childish mind.
Q: Do you then write the caption or do the drawing first?
KEANE: It works both ways. Frequently the idea comes from a quote or phrase that is typical, or a youngster’s mispronounced word, or a childish musing such as: “Mommy, I need a hug.” Then all I do is create a cartoon that best fits with the line. At other times the picture depicts the identifiable scene such as a little girl dressed in her mother’s clothes, or a little boy running into the house with a bug in ajar, etc. Then I need to create a line to go with the illustration.
In most cases the caption is not really finalized till I am through with the drawing. As I am penciling the cartoon I keep saying the line over and over again to myself, changing it slightly to see how it sounds in various versions. I think it is terribly important in the kind of thing I do to have what a child says, or Mommy says, or whoever, sound natural, unmanufactured and clear.
Q: In “Channel Chuckles” you use a different type of humor than you do in “Family Circus.” Would you comment on this?
KEANE: “Channel Chuckles” humor is more satirical, zany and topical than “Family Circus.” The latter utilizes the identifiable, typical, “our kids have done the same thing” type of humor. Another entirely different field of humor that I like is the pun. I developed a solid background in this type of humor as a young boy when I was an avid collector of the old College Humor magazines that had been published in the 20′s and 30′s where piuis ran rampant. When I worked for the Philadelphia Bulletin in the late 40′s and during the 50′s I developed a Sunday color feature called “Mirth-quakers” which featured illustrated puns and the old “he-she” jokes (Sample: “Many big men born in this town?” “Nope, only little babies!”). For a few years, I drew a feature for the Saturday Evening Post “Pun-Abridged Dictionary. When my Sunday “Family Circus” page started in 1′ appended it with a weekly panel “Sideshow”, consisting of reader-contributed puns. The 25,000 letters a year that this feature drew, as well as the enthusiastic response other pun features convinced me that thi many pun-lovers in the country. (And quite few in the city, too, but they won’t admit it.)
KEANE: My first job was or, Philadelphia Bulletin as a messenger in the year I graduated from high school. / years in the Army where I drew for Yank, Pacific Stars & Stripes, etc., I came back to the Bulletin with a fist full of my published service cartoons. This landed me a job in the news art department drawing spot cartoons and caricatures for the entertainment section which eventually led into my syndicate feature “Channel Chuckles” in 1954. I drew magazine cartoons for most of the markets, did a weekly Sunday comic for the Bulletin called “Silly Philly” (a little Quaker character based on William Penn), and edited a 16 page weekly supplement in the Sunday paper called “Fun Book”. When the income from “Channel Chuckles” and my free stuff enabled me to leave the 9 to 5 job at the Bulletin, my wife Thel (who I had met in Australia during the war and returned down under to marry in 1948) and I, along with our five small children moved to Paradise Valley, Arizona (near Phoenix) in 1959. Working at home for the first time with our little people underfoot, I discovered that most of the magazine cartoons I was selling had to do with family life and small children. I then decided to produce a second feature for the Register and Tribune Syndicate and introduced “Family Circus” in 1960.
Q: Wasn’t it originally called “Family CIRCLE”?
KEANE: Yes. I felt the name and circle format were a perfect combination. However, Family Circle Magazine (the one you read while waiting at the checkout counter in the supermarket) objected to the use of what they claimed to be their title and forced us to change the name of the feature. Frankly, I think if my syndicate had fought a small legal battle, we could have retained the CIRCLE title. The conversion was simple: I changed the last two letters from L-E to U-S. And, many feel that the CIRCUS title is more indicative of what goes on in the cartoon.
Q: Would you give us a rundown on your average working day?
KEANE: On most mornings I get up about 7:30, hit the studio (which overlooks the tennis court in case somebody wants to play) about 9, and work through most of the day with a break for lunch. It seems that the creative juices flow best late in the afternoon and will continue into the evening. I occasionally work after dinner till about 10 P.M. A comfortable couch in my studio is put to good use for 20 minute naps when 1 grow weary. Some mornings, especially in the summertime, I awaken about 4:30 A.M. and work till the morning Arizona sun is drenching Camelback Mountain with yellow. I then go back to bed (about 8 A. M.) for another hour of sleep. After breakfast I return to the studio to answer mail and to the more mechanical chores of drawing. It seems that the very early morning and early evening are the best times for uninhibited creative work. Of course, this work schedule varies around our social engagements and fairly frequent tennis matches. Totally, I average about 45 hours of real work each week and love every minute of it.
Q: An interviewer once asked you if “Family Circus” was based on your real life, and you replied that, on the contrary, your real life is based on the cartoon. If a particular situation gets a laugh in the feature, you try to work it into your home the following week. Bit, is that true?
KEANE: No, but it’s a bit more amusing than the truth. My ideas are really based on our own family experiences and so are the characters. Our children aren’t as young as they once were, but, then who is? I have an excellent memory for detail and can recall vividly incidents from years ago. In fact, 1 even base a lot of the moods and childish attitudes in my cartoon on my own experiences as a small boy.
Bil and Thel review cartoons to submit.
Q: What are the ages of your five children now?
KEANE: The oldest is 25 and the youngest is 17. Glen, our 21 year old, is presently working in the animation department at Disney Productions in California.
Q: Do you get many cartoon ideas from reader mail?
KEANE: Well, not cartoon ideas per se. A young mother will occasionally write and say “Here’s something that happened in our house — maybe you can use it.” The incident she relates will form the nucleus of a situation to which I then apply my own family experience and whatever expertise I have as a gag creator. The result is usually a scene that took place in thousands of homes that very week. Basically, children never change and family life is universal and timeless.
Q: What advice would you give a young cartoonist aspiring to do a feature?
KEANE: I would highly recommend an art background. It is quicker in the long run than learning by your own mistakes. Also, stick to a subject with which you are familiar. This is the only way you will maintain high quality material. Don’t be a phony. Do what comes naturally.
Q: Obviously, since you live in Arizona, it has not been necessary for you to be close to the New York market to achieve success. Would you comment on this? KEANE: Even when I lived in Philadelphia I sold my cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post entirely through the mail and their offices were very close to the Bulletin Building where I worked. One of the beautiful things about this cartoon business is that it allows you to live anywhere there is a mailbox.
Q: How is your new cartoon book on tennis doing?
KEANE: It has only been out for a few months now, and already it’s selling into the dozens. Truthfully, the book (DEUCE AND DONTS OF TENNIS) is doing phenomenally well. Tennis is a popular subject and the $2.95 price is low enough to make it a hot item.
Q: What other books have you had published?
KEANE: Fawcett Gold Medal has published 12 paperback collections of my “Family Circus” cartoons. The newest, being released in October, is titled: “I CANT UNTIE MY SHOES!” The cover depicts Jeffy standing in a bathtub full of water. Several different publishing houses have put out books of my other cartoons. I collaborated with columnist Erma Bombeck on a book
_________I believe that’s Glen to the far left._______________for Doubleday: “JUST WAIT TILL YOU HAVE CHILDREN OF YOUR OWN.” Erma is a neighbor and a genuinely funny lady.
Q: Not many cartoonists are funny on their feet as well as on paper. You have quite a reputation as a stand-up comedian delivering side-splitting talks at a microphone. Is this a natural talent or something you learned?
KEANE: It’s another thing I’ve taught myself through the years. I love to make people laugh and just eat up the immediate crowd reaction and applause, which is a pleasant change from drawing a cartoon and waiting weeks or months till after it is published for any reaction. When I give a talk, I write every word in advance. I plan the comments and one-liners carefully, making the material as topical and intimate as possible for that audience. In addition to concise, fresh material, the two important things for a stand-up comedian are delivery and timing. While giving speeches can be profitable, it is terribly time-consuming. I limit my personal appearances to only the ones I really want to do.
Q: Thanks, Bit. Do you have a final word?
KEANE: Yes — ZYZZOGETON. It’s on the last page of my dictionary. Before I close, Jud, I would like to say something nice about CARTOONIST PROfiles. I’d like to, but I can’t think of anything. Seriously, folks — your publication is an excellent chronicle of every phase of cartooning. We have all learned a lot about each other through your meticulous efforts. You deserve a big round of applause. (Jud gets a sitting ovation.) A hundred years from now people will be talking about Jud Hurd — which will give you an idea of how dull things are going to be in a hundred years.
Bill, Thel and Paradise Valley.