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Satire Holds Cultural Control Wher it Is

Back in ancient times, when the Web was new and every page had a grey background, I stumbled into The Dysfunctional Family Circus. The idea behind the site was simple but brilliant: you looked at Family Circus cartoons and made up captions for them. If Greg Galcik or one of the other people who ran the site considered your submission funny enough, it was posted for other visitors to see.

I soon was entering captions almost every day under the handle His Imperial Majesty. Some were good enough to be accepted, which filled me with joy and pride. Later I dumped the shtick of being an Emperor and started to use Werehamster as my alias.

It goes without saying that most of the captions were based around the idea that the Family Circus characters were not as sweet and innocent as they seemed. The father, Bil, was a card- carrying NAMBLA member who shared his children with his boyfriend, "Uncle" Roy. Thel, his wife, was so hooked on amphetamines that she would clean the house for weeks at a time, ignoring the pleas of her hungry children. Little Dolly was a bull dyke, neo-Nazi, or bored prostitute, depending on what mood she was in at the moment. You get the idea. The captions were dark, twisted, and hilarious.

Every once in a while I'd think about why it was so funny. All effective comedy is based on something horrible, and the DFC worked because it reflected our disillusionment with the things that we thought were good and pure when we were children. In school, we were taught that the Pilgrims were nice to the Indians, that the Government was there to protect us, and other comforting lies that were shattered when we grew up. Many of us even found out that our seemingly idyllic family lives were illusions that covered up terrible truths.

Is it any wonder that we grew up to joke that Mister Rogers, Barney, and other symbols of childhood purity were actually evil? Some people even believe silly rumors about Mister Rogers being a sniper in Vietnam or Steve from Blue's Clues dying of a heroin overdose. They're ridiculous stories, easily disproved, but they have such a powerful hold on our culture that people spread them as fact anyway.

Bil Keane, the cartoonist who makes The Family Circus, apparently doesn't understand why the DFC is so popular. He's working with King Features Syndicate to get the site taken off of the Web. According to an article in The Arizona Republic he said "I wouldn't mind... if it was kept clean and within the parameters of my intentions." That would kill the entire point, Bil. We couldn't remove the darkness without removing the humor, and that would leave us with — well, with your strip.

It's easy to see Keane's point of view. His characters are based on him and the family he loves, and we've got them taking crystal meth and buggering dogs. He spent a lot of time drawing the cartoons, and they're his only way of making a living. I can see why he's reacting badly.

On the other hand, parody is a protected form of speech for a reason. It's important for the public to have some control over what it sees and hears. Without legal protection for parody and fair use, we'd have to be passive in the face of the trademarked cultural elements that insert themselves into our daily lives without our permission. In one way, The Family Circus is owned by Bil Keane. In another, it's owned by everyone whose life it has influenced, even if in a tiny way. It's our right, possibly even our duty, to take some control of the intellectual property that makes up so much of our world.

I'm not too concerned, though. Freedom, including freedom from overly strict intellectual property laws, is addictive. All over the Web, people are taking control over the elements of their culture without even realizing the social significance. Over the last five years, the DFC has grown into a meme that's too strong to kill. If it disappears from Greg's site, it'll pop up on others. If Keane and King Features Syndicate wants to shut them all down, they'll have to find them all first. Thel will continue to burp sperm, Jeffy will still hypnotize people with his hair, and the poop will keep right on holding the tent wher it is.