Why I hate “Family Circus”

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011 Horrorthon Posts

[I wrote most of this as a comment on the caption contest results below (“Bitter? Oh, a tad…”) but I wanted to elaborate even more.]

This material is not funny. Worse, it’s what you might call “aggressively un-funny” because it works by means of a perversion of the basic mechanics of humor and sympathy and recognition; the formal structures of “jokes” are mis-applied, so humor is impossible.

A “circus” is a grotesquely-exaggerated physical arena for vaudvillian showmanship, mostly for kids. If a family is like a “circus” (stupid pun noted) that means that it’s a controlled environment for certain kinds of disorder and mayhem, for purposes of amusement. When something is called a “circus” that’s because it’s not working the right way; its functionality is impaired by its disorder.

But the family in the strip is well-ordered and regimented. I see no problems beyond the stupid kids coming up with “amusing” ways to describe their own trivial bad behavior. To compare this environment to a “circus” is to force me to view the kids’ malapropisms or mess-making as being somehow comparable to clowns or trapeze artists or other performers whose controlled exaggerations of real behavior are deliberate.

In other words, the mildly unruly nuclear family is not like a “circus” and viewing it that way does such damage both to the concept of circuses (which are like Roman arenas for kids) and families (which are endlessly fascinating and grueling yet profoundly rewarding controlled systems).

In other words the entire Art Linkletter “Kids Say the Darndest Things” mechanism is broken and was basically scuttled and rebuilt by Charles Schultz (and, later, Bill Waterson), which was a vitally necessary cultural evolution. The “shock of recognition” replaces the trivial, circus-like shock of extremes; the humor takes a quantum leap forward and becomes interesting and relevant. “Family Circus” deliberately ignores that breakthrough and reduces the children to punch-line machines whose idiocy and limited perception is supposed to work like, essentially, clown humor (which is by definition the lowest form of humor since it’s devoid of legitimate satire or wit).

If you see your family as “a circus” then you’re working very hard to view it the wrong way. I understand this is supposed to be “funny” but it can’t be funny for these reasons, and, not being funny, it’s got nothing left but its untoward implicit comparisons where children are like show animals and disciplinary teaching moments are like bad vaudeville. And that’s why I hate Family Circus. (Also, the guy can’t draw.)