Family Circus Brouhaha
Crazy captions bring lawyers

Meet the Family Circus's lawyers.

See also...
... by David Cassel
... in the Scope section
... from September 20, 1999

The Webmaster for the Dysfunctional Family Circus site replaced its home page last Friday with a letter ostensibly from Bil Keane, Inc. -- lawyers for the creators of the original Family Circus strip.

For four years, the four sweet kids from the "Family Circus" have been mouthing unlikely statements on the DFC site, thanks to reader-submitted captions below scanned-in images from the daily newspaper comic. ("For 'Show and Tell,' I pierced my labia," Dolly tells her kindergarten teacher. "Again.")

It's become something of an Internet tradition. A volunteer statistician named "General Sedgwick" has logged over 2,500 people who've successfully posted captions on the site, subverting 489 panels from the daily newspaper cartoon. With repeat offenders, the total number of suggested captions is probably half a million. (For just the last 12 images, over 13,500 alternate captions were submitted.)

The alleged legal letter states that "These uses are made without the authorization or approval of our clients." But this is not just your typical cease-and-desist request. The letter demanded information on how long the site had been running and requested names and addresses of anyone who helped with the site, "so that we can make a judgment as to the terms on which we are willing to resolve this matter."

The letter -- using ominous phrases like "liable for damages" -- was preceded by mordant words from the 29-year-old Web developer in Chicago who'd run the site since 1995. "Well, here it is, kids. At long last, the sledgehammer. Any suggestions?"

Later Friday, he added ten more scanned-in images -- and a defiant message. "Well, I'm gonna shoot for 500 anyway, by God. But please please please, people, for my sanity and the sanity of my editors, NO LAWYER CAPTIONS!"

Over the years the site's fans have evolved into a community that's moved beyond the Web site itself. Last winter, when they discovered that online booksellers would display reader-submitted reviews, the merry pranksters began submitting satiric commentary for the innocuous collections of Bil Keane's cartoons. ("Keane's Christian existentialism shows true mastery." "He takes the reader on a ride which can only be called a longwinded tribute to Macbeth on meth.")

Their pop-culture grafitti lingered online for many months -- and over one hundred slipped past the sleeping monitors at and Barnes and Noble's site. On an Internet newsgroup, the regulars snickered about "The World's Laziest Review Editors" and in January they began gathering on an Internet chat channel, sharing offhand fantasies about a TV show, a William Shatner haiku, and other random thoughts. ("What if H. R. Giger designed the Teletubbies?")

The fellowship blossomed last week when eleven of them converged on Chicago for their first in-person gathering. From Los Angeles to Minneapolis, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Cleveland, they were drawn together. They watched a videotape of a Family Circus TV special -- and then heckled Beach Blanket Bingo.

Over the years the captioners have even developed a rich lore about their own version of the Family Circus -- from the cartoon father's non-traditional relationship with "Uncle" Roy to the mother's previous life as a sperm-burping gutter slut. No scenario was too unlikely -- whether Dolly's forbidden crush on Xena the Warrior Princess, the eerie hypnotic powers in son Jeffy's hair, or an unlikely suspicion that the family is being stalked by a psychic fern.

The madness radiated from -- which also displays earlier projects like the Webmaster's daily photographs of his nipple and an ongoing chronicle of humorously misplaced punctuation in advertisements.

The man they call "Spinn" seems to have instinctively grasped the power of the Internet community. When he decided to re-arrange the letters on a sign in Pennsylvania, he tapped various newsgroups to concoct the best possible anagram. (The winning suggestion was "COYOTE IS WILY, PLANTS ELASTIC ON A ROAD-RUNNING FOWL.") So when he stumbled across a Web site in 1995 which let readers suggest new captions for Family Circus pictures, he picked up the concept -- and "The Dysfunctional Family Circus" was born on Spinnwebe.

Interviewed just three days before the Keane letter arrived, Spinn actually seemed a bit surprised that he hadn't heard from Dolly and Jeffy's lawyers. The site's answers to frequently-asked questions includes this exchange.

"How are you getting away with this?"
"By the grace of God, apparently."

But eventually all parody sites have to reckon with the original images' copyright-holder. In fact, earlier this month, lawyers from Highlights for Children contacted the Webmaster of an imitators Web site devoted to re-captioning the magazine's "Goofus and Gallant" drawings. Presciently, one newsgroup poster commented at the time that it was a reminder "that Spinn is just as vulnerable for the Dysfunctional Family Circus if and whenever Bil Keane's lawyers decide to swoop in like vultures and put an end to it."

But Spinn had taken some solace from a quote in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which interviewed Keane about the fake online reviews of his books. "He laughs when read [sic] a few reviews from's site," their reporter noted. "Some of it is in bad taste, he says. But some of it is funny. "I assume my readers are intelligent enough to know I didn't do the bad stuff ... But if they think it's funny -- well, I don't mind them thinking that I may have done it."

Ironically, last Tuesday Spinn had commented, "If my site went away, probably the IRC channel and the newsgroup would atrophy, eventually." But the community may prove itself heartier. also includes "It's a Dysfunctional Life" -- an invitation for still more derisive captions, but this time for lawyer-free photographs of real-life people. Even judging by the words they placed in the mouths of the Family Circus characters, there were signs of a latent defiance.

"We've got her off-guard! Go for the throat, Billy!"

"I finally did it! All ten commandments in one day!"

"I'll be good. May I please have my shiv back now?"

See also: Goofus and Gallant's Lawyers

David Cassel is Interactive Media Editor for GettingIt, but when asked who wrote this article, he replied "Ida Know" and "Not Me."