A Keane Sense of Humor

The other day, while embarking on my daily vigil to see if “Family Circus” had suddenly become funny, I happened to see the front page of the newspaper. It said the Supreme Court is going to decide whether it’s legal for the Boy Scouts of America to ban gays from its ranks. My opinion is: I don’t care. What’s the deal with all the knot-tying?

The Boy Scouts have been around for, I don’t know, like a century or something, and they’re certainly a grand institution. Many a boy has learned valuable skills on overnight campouts, skills like lighting things on fire, and swearing. But still, the thing people associate most with the Boy Scouts is the fact that if you join them, you’ll learn to tie a lot of knots. Goodness knows I learned my fair share of them during my brief stint in the Scouts (1985-1985).

The thing is, knowing how to tie knots is like knowing how to use an abacus: It’s nice that you can do this quaint old thing from a bygone era, but how practical is it? In real life, you need to know how to tie your shoes, how to tie a necktie, and how to tie your basic “tying-things-together” knot. That’s it. Everything else is taking up valuable brain space.

This brain space could be used for other purposes, such as figuring out ways to make “Family Circus” funny. This is an important issue to me, because I’m a big fan of comic strips, and I feel very strongly that they should be funny. The only comic that was allowed to slide by on that requirement was “Peanuts,” and that was only because it had been around so long and was so well-loved that everyone was able to overlook the fact that it hadn’t produced a laugh in decades. “Peanuts” was the Bob Hope of the comics page.

All other comic strips, though, need to be funny, and “Family Circus” just ain’t cuttin’ it. The same goes for “Hagar the Horrible” and “Beetle Bailey.” And if right now you’re saying, “Hey, those comics are funny!,” you’re doing what psychologists refer to as “making a mistake.” Those comics USED to be funny, back when they started. Now they’re hardly worth the money it costs to buy a magnifying glass to be able to read them in the newspaper.

But I don’t think “Family Circus” is beyond repair. I continue to read it because I believe that one day, purely by accident, it will be funny. It seems like if Bil Keane keeps doing it long enough, he’s bound to do something funny eventually, even if it takes a thousand years.

But I don’t want to wait around another thousand years. For one thing, I don’t want to have to listen to people argue about whether the next millennium starts in 3000 or 3001. But more to the point, I’d rather laugh at “Family Circus” in my natural lifetime. Surely if we all put our heads together, we can come up with some jokes that would make it funny. Here are my suggestions; feel free to send me yours, and I’ll forward them to Bil Keane.

• Dolly brings Mommy’s diaphragm to school for show-and-tell.

• Jeffy asks Daddy, “What’s an accident? ‘Cause Mommy said I was one.”

• A twisty-turny dotted line shows where Billy stumbled after getting into Daddy’s liquor cabinet.

• The family gets freaked out by Grandma’s frequent chats with her dead husband, and they put her in a home. (“Enough is enough!” says Daddy.)

• Barfy the dog gets “Old Yeller Syndrome,” if you know what I mean.

• A little imaginary imp named “Not Me” goes around and puts hydrochloric acid in all the shampoo bottles.

• Sissy-boy Billy gets pummeled by street-wise Dennis the Menace.

• Social Services is called when a bleary-eyed Mommy tries to trade baby PJ for crack.

• It is revealed that the reason Billy takes over as cartoonist for a week every now and then is that Daddy’s visiting his secret other family out in the country.

The item about Dolly bringing Mommy's diaphragm to school didn't make it to the paper. In fact, as soon as I typed it, I knew it wouldn't go in the paper. I had an editor read the column beforehand, just to get her opinion, and without my even saying anything, she penciled that one as being probably not a good one to print. I figured if she and I agreed it was too much for our audience to handle, I shouldn't even try to get it in the paper. I'm much more flexible when I'm not being forced into something.

I also thought the one about trading the baby for crack would be considered "over the line," but the editor didn't say anything, so I left it. Personally, I think it's appalling. I should be fired.

There were those who agreed with that line of thought. Even a few members of the mailing list, who were usually pretty immune to whatever nonsense I came up with, expressed displeasure at that line, or at the nature of the "Family Circus" jokes in general. The Daily Herald also received several phone calls the day the column was published, a few of them from people mentioning the "baby for crack" line specifically. (Thank goodness I didn't keep the diaphragm joke!)

I got an e-mail, too -- but not about the "Family Circus" jokes. As pointed out in advance by the editor who was wary about the diaphragm joke, people in Utah Valley love their Boy Scouts. So I got this thing, which I reprint here exactly as I received it, and which only barely avoids using the famous words "shocked and appalled" (she does say "You, sir," which is another one of my favorite Generic Angry Letter devices).

Your column is aptly named. [Thanks! Oh, wait ... that was meant to be an insult] I'll admit it is the first time I have read it all the way through. But I have to be honest about something else as well. I was furious, then discussed, [I've been discussed quite a few times, too, so I know how that can be] and then sorrowful that someone like yourself that can create a column in the first place, would stoop so low.

Boy Scouting is a whole lot more than tieing knots. My father was a Scoutmaster for more than 25 years.... I was envolved in cub scouting for over 11 years and my husband had 28 years of scouting experience. All 4 of our sons earned their Eagle Scout awards. There has been more than knot tiring wrapped up in those many years of scouting. And for you to say you don't care if "Gays" are admitted to the Scouting program, shows your ignorance of this wholesome program. You sir, have touched a nerve that should ripple through out this whole valley....that is, if anyone takes the time to read your column. ["Since I didn't like it the first time I read it, I can only assume everyone else shares my tastes and never reads it. That explains why the paper keeps printing it."] You owe all of Scouting a strong and profound," I am sorry, for my stupidity." [I actually owe a LOT of people that apology.] I will be interested to see if you are couragous enough to write it in your column. [Does that mean you'll keep reading the column each week, waiting for that apology? Sweet! A new reader!] Most sincerely, Lorraine Underwood, Salem Utah.

I guess I had this coming, considering all the major slams I made against Boy Scouting.

No, wait. I just re-read the column, and it turns out I didn't make ANY major slams against Boy Scouting. Here's what I said about the program. First, I pretended not to know how long the Scouts have been around. (They were founded in 1910 by Robert Baden-Powell. Good thing I didn't mention the recent allegations that he was a pedophile.) Then I jokingly mentioned two "survival skills" that boys learn on campouts -- the implication being, perhaps, that these are the ONLY skills one learns on a campout. This probably isn't true; whether it is or not, it's still a pretty minor slam against the Boy Scouts of America, especially considering it's a humor column, where I do occasionally make jokes.

Finally, addressing Mrs. Underwood's specific concern: I did NOT say that Boy Scouts consists of nothing more than tying knots. I said nothing like that, in fact. What I said was that when many people think of the Boy Scouts, knot-tying is the first thing that comes to mind. Even that doesn't imply that that's all they think Boy Scouting is; merely that it's the first thing they think of.

I explained all of this to Mrs. Underwood in an e-mail to her, and this is the response I got from her:
Like I said in the first place, you colmun title tells it all. [I still don't see why she thinks this is an insult. Why would I call it "Snide Remarks" if I thought "Snide Remarks" was an insulting title?] You are writing for the younger generation, that laughs at anything and laughs over nothing in particular. Anything for a good time, at whose expence? But you are part of the generation that laughs at the Monday night sit coms and thinks they are funny. So sir, you wouldn't even begin to understand where I am coming from. Thanks for your reply. I do appreciate the courtesy. I do have a sence of humor [a sense of spelling is what you need] and there is much to enjoy and laugh at....but old fashioned humor for humors sake, without slaming others or institutions we beleive in, or being sarcastic and demeaning is a lost art. Art Linkletter knew about those kind of things, and Jimmy Duranty, or Red Skelton. Its a shame that had to die with so many other things that have been lost with the coming of age of this grand old country. You can chalk these feeling up to the fact that I am 65 and yet I can promise, "what goes around, comes around." If you are lucky enough to live to 65, perhaps you'll understand that it isn't funny when someone laughs at things that are important to you, and you feel its a slam and not to be made fun of. [Hopefully, when I'm 65, I'll still have enough of a sense of humor to laugh even when someone pokes fun at something I like. Hopefully I'll still be able to recognize humor, even when it strikes a nerve with me. If this is not to be, then when I'm 65, I hope I'm dead.] Thanks for listening. You have a right to print what you please, the First Admendment gives you that, but it might not hurt for you to be a little more sensitive to sacred traditions (scouting is one of them) instead of making a joke out of them. Thanks Lorraine Underwood

She's hit upon a great way to make sure no one ever gets away with making fun of something you like: Call everything you like a "sacred tradition." Then, when they mock it, you can claim righteous indignation and everyone will think you're standing up for your principles, rather than just being a humorless old stick-in-the-mud.