Bil Keane was funny.
Maybe that comes as a surprise to those who see the Family Circus as primarily sweet, but it was true.
For years, he hosted cartooning’s annual Reubens banquet, which he would open by saying, “It’s more than a pleasure to be here tonight. In fact, it’s a damn inconvenience.”
At times during the event, he would purposely lapse into this odd gibberish in which he might say every other word in a sentence, causing you to either check your hearing or wonder if the PA system had broken down. It was awesome because he never gave any hint that it was a joke. You either got it or you didn’t.
And his work in the Family Circus could be edgy. That’s right. Edgy.
Consider this early strip from the 1960’s where two of the kids are arriving back home after attending a football game with their Dad. One of the kids says to their mother: “And we each had a bottle of soda. Daddy brought his own in his pocket.”
I was lucky enough to spend time with him on a couple of occasions, even interview him at his house for the Charles Schulz Museum. When I was there, we talked about the parodies I did of the Family Circus. He told me he didn’t mind them at all. “As long as they’re funny,” he added. “Just be funny.”
It was during that visit that he told me about his USO-sponsored tour of Vietnam, and I remember thinking to myself how much I would like to do something like that. And sure enough (with the help of his son Jeff), I was able to go on such a tour a few years later in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bil was my inspiration for that.
Sometimes I would call him at his house. I thought at first he enjoyed the calls, but at the end of one conversation, he said, “Well, great talking to you. Now my dinner is cold.” I would have been offended, but I was laughing too hard.
I parodied his comic because it was an icon. A status those in my generation can only dream of. And in parodying it, I saw what amazing care Bil took in drawing his strips.
But most of all, he was a kind person. Every year he sent me (and surely dozens of other people) a signed Christmas calendar. It was a small thing, but it made me feel like a big shot to get a signed calendar from Bil Keane.
Through his own conduct, he showed each of us in the profession how we should act toward each other, and how we should act toward those just starting out.
And his low-key, friendly reaction to my parodies taught me more about class than any lecture ever could have.
I’ll miss him.