In 1999, the first episode of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy premiered on Fox right after the Super Bowl. The show quickly won audiences over with its slapstick comedy, vulgar humor and relatability. But what really stuck with people were two characters: A talking baby named Stewie and a talking family dog named Brian. Of course, we’ve been seeing anthropomorphic cartoon objects and animals since the early 1900s: There’s the century-old Peter Rabbit, the rowdy Looney Tunes, SpongeBob SquarePants, and virtually every Pixar movie.
So what was it, then, that made Stewie and Brian feel so different? In many ways, these two characters transcend traditional, predictably goofy cartoon humor. Stewie isn’t just a talking baby, but the exact opposite of what one would expect when a baby opens their mouth. He’s droll, surly, posh and inexplicably British, despite being from an all-American family. Similarly, Brian is the antithesis of the loving, energetic creature you’d imagine your family dog to be like. He’s deadpan, glum and has a mild drinking problem. Family Guy’s anthropomorphism is all about subverting expectations to the most outrageous degree, and MacFarlane pushes this exercise to its limits with these two characters.
In 2012, MacFarlane capitalized on his knack for unexpected turns from cute anthropomorphic comedy with his feature directorial debut, Ted. It follows teddy bear Ted (MacFarlane), who is best friends with an adult man named John (Mark Wahlberg)—much to the dismay of John’s girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis). Like Stewie and Brian are to their respective real-life equivalents, Ted is everything that a teddy bear is not. He’s foul-mouthed, violent, smokes copious amounts of marijuana and has sex with his supermarket co-workers in the storeroom.
Ted works fundamentally because his very existence makes us uncomfortable. MacFarlane shrewdly challenges something we’ve been taught from day one: A staple of many of our childhoods and the picture of innocence and comfort, a teddy bear should be cuddly and sweet, not lewd and ambitionless. When this soothing notion is challenged, then, it throws our world out of orbit—making the same comedic gambit that makes shows like Family Guy such surefire hits. After all, we grew up watching cartoons, and if there’s one thing we learned, it’s that they shouldn’t be so darn nasty! When Ted parties with strippers, or smokes a huge bong, or flirts with a checkout girl, these moments aren’t necessarily funny because of the jokes, but because of the mere premise of a boorish teddy bear.
As soon as we see a British baby, or a depressive dog, or an obscene teddy bear, we know something is off. But in Ted, what makes it even worse is that, at a certain point, people in that world no longer acknowledge that there is something fundamentally weird about a teddy bear walking around like a human. Lori is frustrated by John and Ted’s friendship, but only because they are bad influences on one another, not because one is an inanimate object. When Ted brings home a new girlfriend, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), John and Lori are concerned about their relationship. It has nothing to do with the interspecies relations, though. They just don’t like Tami-Lynn. Hell, even Norah Jones has a casual history with the loud-mouthed plushie.
MacFarlane’s uncanny, limit-pushing anthropomorphic comedy paved the way for increasingly subversive animated shows like Big Mouth or BoJack Horseman. And while comedy remains an important element in these shows, they manage to accomplish something deeper than Family Guy or Ted ever could—but something that MacFarlane’s success jump-started.
BoJack Horseman’s washed-up, depressed, alcoholic horse living in Hollywood immediately catches our attention because he is not behaving the way that any horse should. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg takes something we know well and makes it wholly different from our preconceived notions, this makes us more inclined to listen to the things BoJack has to say. When a familiar, pacifying childhood staple like a horse starts spouting soliloquies about the dismal mundanity of life, it not only works as a reliable vehicle for getting the message across, but makes us pay more attention because it interrogates everything that we hold near and dear.
There is a direct correlation between MacFarlane’s crude anthropomorphic humor—from his TV work to his success on the big screen—and the wave of more existential modern cartoons like BoJack Horseman, Big Mouth and Human Resources. Beyond simply shocking the senses, these animators strive to reach us by calling into question our preconceived notions of what we learned in our childhoods.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.