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IHNATKO #44: "D.F.C. R.I.P."
by Andy Ihnatko,
Contributing Editor and Columnist
September 28, 1999, 7:00 am ET

I liked Seinfeld, but I was too dumbfounded by the profound lameness of the final episode to really miss it after it was gone. And even though I firmly believe that the entire Star Trek universe exists only to make sure we continue to appreciate Star Wars and Babylon 5, I was actually looking forward to seeing the final episode of Deep Space Nine. But see, what happened was I was working on a book on the big night and was so zoned out that the show was half-over before I realized that (1) this was the night it was supposed to air, and (2) in truth, I didn't really care whether I saw it or not.

But last week I got an email from the webmaster of one of my favorite websites, quietly suggesting that I check it for some recent news. I clicked into Explorer, hit one of the only three links that are used frequently enough to be actually placed in my onscreen "Favorites" bar (as opposed to tucked inside a menu), and found myself reading a letter from an attorney. The hammer had, at long last, inevitably fallen: Bil Keane had finally had enough of The Dysfunctional Family Circus.

Well, dagnabbit.

Of course, I and everyone else who's frequented Greg Galick's site have expected this day for years. I mean, how long could he get away with posting JPEGs of a popular comic strip that's so wholesome that it makes "The Lockhorns" look like "Fritz The Cat," and then inviting the public to replace the original caption with ones of their own? Captions that are often dark enough to make "Fritz The Cat" look like the special censored edition of "Ziggy" that runs in Fascist Conservative Religious-Right Fundamentalist Dentist Weekly?

Five years and exactly 500 cartoons, it turns out. Greg wasn't even the creator of the thing...just a man of unparalleled courage and vision who grabbed the baton and ran the farthest with it. The actual origins of The DFC are shrouded in the mists of both time and the desire not to be named in a court order some day. Back in the waning days of the Bush administration, before the Internet became a delivery system for elf porn, there was a legend on Usenet. The legend said that if you went to one of Usenet's comics newsgroups, and posted your mailing address, this would set into motion a complex and mysterious chain of events that would ultimately result in an unmarked envelope with no return address arriving in your mailbox... and inside you'd find a handmade mini-comic entitled The Dysfunctional Family Circus. Mine arrived within a week. Its blue cover showed little Jeffy Keane pointing to some shoots of grass peeking up through a patch of freshly-turned earth, with Jeffy gleefully shouting the mini-comic's title: "Grandma's Started To Sprout!"

It was a wonderful object, not the least because of the magical way it arrived. Where did it come from? Who made it? And why?

Let me break for a moment to tell you about a friend of mine from college.

I met Antonionus on my first day in the dorm. He had a Mac; I did not. I had dozens of disks of Mac software; he did not. Thus an unbreakable alliance was formed. Within a week of our friendship, I had understood that his greatest frustration in life was that God had blessed him with a thousand ideas, all of them wickedly good. Unfortunately, he had given him only the standard-issue set of bodily appendages and 24 hours in the day in which to get to them all. With a staff of nine, Anton could have brought into being the first Great Enlightened Age of Computing. With an army behind him, he would have been real trouble. So enlightenment aside, it's probably all for the best that he didn't amass the cult of personality which his exploits should have attracted.

Eventually, the Web slouched towards Bethlehem to be born. This combined with Anton's aforementioned God-given gift and his well deserved Most Holy status as a Perl scripter, led to the creation of the DFC Website. From there, it passed through X sets of hands before finding its current home with Greg at Spinnwebe. For years, I'd thought Anton had been the masked man behind the paper edition, but in retrospect, that was an absurd notion. Later, I learned that he'd created the Web site not as a successor to the analog edition, but as an answer to it. After all, you could open the paper every morning and create your own Dysfunctional Family Circus cartoon on your way to the sports section. Why rely on the output of this one mystery man? Better to create them yourself. Anton, if you're reading, I was a fool to have suspected you, for in much the same way that you saw that the flaw in tenpin bowling was that you're limited to fifty feet of lane as opposed to the whole of the Rensselaer Polytechnic campus, you hit the nail right on the head.

It's not that every DFC caption is a bastion of Wildean wit. The thing is that it's a uniquely Web-based attraction, maybe the first such beast. It took a great while before movies became more than a recording of a stage act, and before television became more than a way to broadcast movies. It takes time, and millions of little insights, before people stop thinking of a new medium as what it is and starts thinking about what it means, and I don't care how often I like to make that point. The Web is not inherently the portability of print married to the immediacy of TV and radio; at its core, it's thousands of people connecting to a central document.

This can mean anonymous, random and instantaneous collaboration. A document whose appearance changes as you view it, simply by nature of the fact that you're viewing it. Artwork shaped by a thousand indifferent and unknowing hands. Idealized Communism might suck as a method of establishing and maintaining a global empire (or even as a method of making sure that the citizens of one minor country can get their hands on as much toilet paper as they need), but in the digital domain, the power of one person is nothing against the might of the collective.

Well, the DFC ain't exactly raising the Red banner. However, it does represent a hairline crack in the established paradigm... and a step in the right direction. It's also damned funny, still the only Web site that routinely gets me laughing so hard that the neighbors phone up and complain. And I'm not ashamed to admit that I've found it a valuable creative tool. Folks, I'll tell you the true secret of writing: 90% of the job is staying in front of the keyboard after even the goldfish have started to drop hints that perhaps its time to give it up and see if McDonald's is hiring. Time and time again when I couldn't buy the first sentence of whatever-it-is-that's-due-tomorrow with a million dollars, hell, I'd click into my browser and write a few captions. My first appearance in Greg's incarnation of the DFC is in Cartoon #2, and I've been captioning ever since, though I began using an alias sometime before #100.

It's really a wonderful exercise. I don't even understand it. You look at these cartoons and something happens. Bil conjured the image of a kid misunderstanding the word "minivan." Someone else looked at that same image and immediately saw a father drunkenly speeding off to jump an abandoned drawbridge. Bil saw a cute image of some kids taking a bath. Someone else saw proof that Billy and Thel shed their skins every month. Bil saw a little girl wishing on a star with her mother; somehow, this made someone else think of Bil Keane getting his head stuck in a big jar of mayonnaise.

See, you're not just aimlessly wandering the Web. OK, you're not actually creating, either, but at least you're engaged in an activity which looks close enough to the real thing. At least it gets your synapses firing. You see the cartoon, and it gives you an idea. Then you realize that the first reaction was sort of obvious, so you decide to come at it from a slightly more oblique angle. And then you realize that you can word it a little better. Just before you're done, you think of a way you can collapse three sentences into just one, and then just before committing, you realize that the antecedent of that sentence is a little weak and needs to be fixed.

Finally, satisfied that you've taken a mound of raw clay and painstakingly shaped it into the perfect caption guaranteed to split sides and cause palms to collide against kneecaps in English-speaking nations across the globe, you click the "Submit" button. And three days later, when the editors have finished going through the pile of submitted captions and posted the winners, you learn that they rejected your wry Richard Dawkins reference in favor of someone's series of poop jokes.

It's amazing to see how much better these cartoons can fly with a new caption. It moves from something sweet and touching that your great-aunt might tape to her fridge into something cutting-edge and rolling-around funny. The new caption is integrated so perfectly with the art that you can't imagine that the two weren't created together. Only the relentless darkness of the world the Dysfunctional Keane Family gives it away.

Wisely, the editors don't let anyone's subjective notion of Good Taste influence them: it's just a question of whether or not they think a caption is funny. You'll see your share of wit and cleverness, "Zippy"-style absurdity and "Far Side"-style subversion of reality and convention. You'll see obtuse pop-culture and faux-intellectual references that even a team of MST3K writers led by Dennis Miller couldn't tunnel through. You will also see a small boy having sex with an enormous fish.

I gotta admit that a great many of the DFC's accepted captions really make me cringe. I believe that Funny and Good Taste are two completely separate concepts; linking the two together in any way is sort of like talking about the right color to paint your car if you want it to go faster. However, I also believe that as the level of good taste decreases, the degree of difficulty increases. After a certain point, the joke only works if it creates a desire to laugh that completely overwhelms the desire to cringe. The late Michael O'Donoghue (a founder of "National Lampoon" and "Saturday Night Live's" Mr. Mike) parodied a then-popular book of children's letters to God with "Children's Letters To The Gestapo." He did it so deftly that the reader forgets that they're being made to laugh about Nazi atrocities. Some of the worst subjects introduced by the DFC's contributors are no less ghastly -- hell, some of the subjects are identical -- but few people on the planet have MO'D's skill. Sometimes, it's a cause of serious whiplash. I'd just be catching my breath again from having read four killer captions in a row... and then the very next one would be a sickening bucket of cold water in my face. I don't judge, I don't condemn, but I do admit that that's how I react sometimes.

And I do think that if anything doomed the DFC, it was that particular category of caption.

Greg was aware for years that the clock was running. Nonetheless, he made many smart moves to extend the life of the site and mitigate the damage when the Wrath of Keane arrived. For one, he kept the DFC free of ads or anything else that could weaken a potential "The Purpose Was Satire, Not Commerce" defense. He also made sure that all of Keane's artwork was posted alongside its proper copyright notice. Just in case someone had been looking for the real Family Circus and landed there by mistake, a helpful link right at the top of the site steered them to the right place. He even wrote Keane and his people a letter, duly informing them of what he was doing, and asking for permission to continue. He received no reponse.

I had a theory about why the DFC had been allowed to last so long. Though Keane is of course best known for his straight-arrow, Middle America, Touched By An Angel-esque strip, he also serves as the Master of Ceremonies at the Rueben Awards, which is the top award given to cartooning pros by their peers. Some of his schtick makes it into the trade journals every year, and here's a shock: Bil Keane is actually a genuinely funny guy with a wicked sense of humor.

How long can you expect the creator of a comic strip starring himself and surrogates of his own family to tolerate a parody featuring thousands of captions suggesting that Bil Keane violates the Ten Commandments before breakfast every morning, plus 23 more that God had no idea that Mankind would ever commit on their own? The best possible outcome for the DFC would have been for Bil Keane to determine that the Web site wasn't worth doing anything about. I think the increasingly dark tone of some of the captions made that impossible.

Keane's rottweilers haven't taken any serious action as yet. They've only sent a letter with wording that's familiar to anyone who stays hip to stories of The Man coming down on a webmaster. Unauthorized use of trademarks and copyrights, immediately and permanently discontinue the use of, advise us of your compliance with our request and furnish us with the following information, blah, blah, blah. It's unlikely that Greg will be forced to come across with any damages, and what the hell, maybe the site will even be able to continue. The DFC is technically a parody, which is a protected First Amendment right provided that the parody doesn't use any more of the original copyrighted material than is absolutely necessary (a point which, coincidentally, I mentioned in a caption for DFC #20). Can Keane force the shutdown of the site? As a point of law, it'll come down to whether or not the court decides that a Family Circus cartoon is mostly the artwork or mostly the caption.

As a practical matter, it'll come down to whether or not Greg can afford to defend himself in a legal action. In the newsgroup, several longtime DFC captioners have come out from behind their aliases and revealed themselves to be actual attorneys, promising to arrange pro bono representation should Greg decide to defend the site.

Win or lose, Greg can be proud of his achievement. How many Web features last five years? That's a testament to both the strength of the concept and the creative commitment of its patrons. And if it goes, we'll all miss it, but once you've been exposed to the DFC, you're infected for life. You still open the newspaper and see the strip, but now you're as likely to read the caption as you are the copyright notice. How can you, when you're looking at a picture of Bil lifting Jeffy up so he can jam a wrench into a jet turbine without airport security noticing?

It would be presumptuous, of course, for me to definitively speak for the collective mind of the Dysfunctional Family Circus. It's only slightly less presumptuous to equate it to that of a Michael O'Donoghue. But during his tenure writing for "Saturday Night Live," a former writer of "I Love Lucy" episodes complained about MO'D's dark comedic perspective. His response perfectly crystallizes my mindset and, I'd wager, that of most of the site's other regular contributors.

"It's not the nuclear family that bothers us," he said. "It's, you know, Charles Manson knocking at the door. I have to deal with comedy in a different fashion and he's an old guy and doesn't get that."

This column is copyright ©(c) 1999 Andy Ihnatko. And if you're a longtime DFC reader who thought that I'd be "outing" my alias here, I remind you that there are lawyers about.

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