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.
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