The legendary Bil Keane passed away last week at the age of 89. His comic, THE FAMILY CIRCUS is perhaps the most famous single-panel comic in history – and if it’s not the most famous, it certainly wins the distinction of being taped to more refrigerators than any other comic in history. Even though Bil has left us, THE FAMILY CIRCUS isn’t going away – Bil’s son, Jeff has been at the helm of the classic for a few years now, and he’ll continue to provide refrigerator-worthy gems every day.
I remember the first time I attended the Reuben Awards, and Bil took the stage to present one of the awards. Bil had emceed the awards many times in past years, and apparently done so to great fanfare from the crowd, so it was expected that he would do more than simply present the award he was called up to present. I should mention that I didn’t know Bil very well back then – I was new to the business, and my few meetings and phone calls with him had been congenial. My impression of him up to that point was mostly formed by what I knew of his work. His work being sweet and gentle and familiar, I just assumed this guy must be one of the sweetest, most tender grandpa-types on earth. Well, you can imagine my surprise when he took that stage and greeted the crowd with this: “It’s more than a pleasure to be here with all of you tonight… It’s a goddamn inconvenience.”
Of course, the crowd erupted in laughter. And my image of Bil Keane forever changed. What a character. Later during his antics at that podium, he started in with his famous double-talk routine – it was hysterical. It’s hard to explain in words – God, there must be video of his double-talk routine somewhere.
Anyway, in my mind, Bil Keane was a legend. And more than that – for me personally he represented a link to the rich past of comics, a past that I’ve obsessed about my whole life. What a reward to have known Bil, even just a little bit. And the truth is, I didn’t know him extremely well – he had been frail the past few years, and most of my dealings have been with his son, Jeff. And because I didn’t get to know Bil as well as some others might have, I figured I better seek out some deeper perspective if I was going to write about him for this week’s post.
A day after I learned of Bil’s death, I decided to call Mort Walker, the dean of American comic strips, and creator of BEETLE BAILEY. I figured if I was going to write about Bil Keane, I thought I’d better call Mort, and maybe gain some perspective on Bil’s place in comics history – plus, Mort’s a great storyteller and I knew I was bound to hear one or two memorable and funny anecdotes about the man.
Mort mentioned that he first met Bil some time in the 1950s at a party at Fred Waring’s house. I immediately perked up with envy – I’m a real nerd for old pop tunes and dance band orchestras, and Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians are one of my faves (I may be admitting too much here). Apparently, Waring used to host parties, and would often invite his cartoonist friends. Mort said Bil was working at the Philadelphia Inquirer back then, doing gag cartoons for them. Bil wasn’t yet syndicated, but it was clear that he was on his way.
I asked Mort about the dichotomy of Bil doing such a sweet family-friendly comic while in person he had such an unexpectedly wicked sense of humor. Mort admitted that he loved that about Bil – even in light of Mort himself sometimes being on the receiving end of a joke. He mentioned a time at the Reuben awards when Bil, emceeing, invited Mort up to the stage to present an award. When he introduced Mort to the crowd, he said, “and now for a man that can brighten any room… Just by leaving it – Mort Walker.” Mort said Bil’s sense of humor sometimes reminded him of Don Rickels. Kinda funny to imagine comparing the guy who does THE FAMILY CIRCUS to Don Rickels, huh?
But seriously, Bil’s work on THE FAMILY CIRCUS is remembered for truly brightening peoples’ days, and I asked Mort why he thinks that is. Mort explained that Bil’s work featured “realistic humor” that resonated with every family. He said that it wasn’t always about being raucously funny, but perhaps more importantly, connecting with people and sharing a moment that might be familiar to all of us.
So what is the lasting legacy of Bil’s career as a cartoonist? Here’s Mort’s answer:
“Bil created one of the best loved comics in history, and his cartoons will remain in peoples’ hearts for a long time.”