Most of Seth MacFarlane’s work has one thing in common: foul-mouthed talking animals. Beginning with his ten-minute student film The Life of Larry (talking dog), and extending through Family Guy (again a dog), American Dad (fish), The Cleveland Show (bear), and his feature debut Ted (stuffed bear), MacFarlane has made anthropomorphized animals a staple of his comedic repertoire. This didn't seem particularly noteworthy, however, until we read MacFarlane's New Yorker profile, which contained an anecdote about his mother masturbating a dog. Could characters like Family Guy's Brian — who speaks with Seth MacFarlane's actual voice — be a manifestation of some deep psychological imprint involving his mother, a pet, and a happy ending? Since we’re only Freudians at night, we decided to ask a professional.
Dr. Steven Schlozman M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry. Though he declined to answer any questions that related directly to MacFarlane, he had some fascinating insights into how a hypothetical billionaire animator might be influenced by a maternal dog-masturbation experience.
So, the question is: Could having one's mother masturbate a dog and then joke about it all the time lead to an obsession with naughty talking animals?
That sounds like a leading question, counselor. [Laughs.] So, first of all, there is a serious caveat I have to issue here, for the sake of my job and the reputation of the institution I work at. I cannot make, under any circumstances, any comment about a specific individual. So anything that I say, I'm speaking in a general sense. So the question is: [Could] that experience that somebody like Mr. MacFarlane had have led to an obsession with giving voice to animals — as a means of trying to understand the importance that they played in his development. Is that what we're saying?
Um. Yes. [Laughs.]
Really? Honestly, I was expecting you to debunk this.
One of the interesting things about psychiatry, and psychotherapy in general, is that anything can lead to anything. It has to do with the unique combination of the story line inherited by the individual and how that combines with their own personality. So an introverted person, for example, might never have translated that experience into a creative outlet, such as a talking dog on Family Guy. Whereas a fairly extroverted person might be very likely to, as a means of displacing whatever — I don't know if he'd be conflicted about it, necessarily. Let me rephrase. It would be a story that would be hard not to think of, for the average guy. If you took a big population sample, and among that population there was a certain percentage of them whose primary caregiver had sexually stimulated their pet, my guess is that that's a story one would return to often. I don't think you need a shrink to say that!
And what if this person were to become a professional talking-animal voice?
It's interesting that he gives them all voices. And of course, he gives one of the animals his own voice, which of course leads to all sorts of interesting conjectures which I can't make on record. But that's a bizarre story! What's sort of funny about it is that there isn't a person in the world who has pets who doesn't at some point as a kid realize that their pets are just animals, like they are. They have urges and desires just like they do. So I think the sort of broader thing here is that everybody has the experience of recognizing that they actually have more in common with their pet, than [not]. That's why we have pets. That's why we like them.
Cats and dogs are smart animals, biologically speaking; they've got a whole lot of cortex piled on top of their brain. So their brains look more like our brains than they don't look like our brains. From a behavioral standpoint, they're going to be more like us than not. Given that, if your dog humps a tree someplace, you've gotta explain that somehow to your kids. The interesting thing about this story — and again, I'm speaking generally — is that he had a personal experience. It wasn't watching his dog hump a random dog in the park. He watched a primary caregiver help the dog along.
Just to clarify, I don't think this was something he actually witnessed, just a story that his mother told him frequently.
Okay, so in some ways, that's even better, because then it becomes part of the family lore, the family narrative. And everyone's got the stories they tell that are part of the family narrative, and those family stories make their way into their own creative outlets. I think people tell stories about nutty things they did when they were younger to their kids all the time and then those stories get retold, especially among those kids who happen to have artistic leanings.
The fun part of this story — and again, this isn't me commenting about MacFarlane, per se — is the fact that he gives his own voice to the dog. It's hard to imagine him — and this is me getting in trouble, I should just keep my mouth shut — it's hard to imagine him telling that story to anybody, and not having them say, "Well, wait a minute, it's your voice speaking for the animal in The Cleveland Show." Or whichever one it was.
The dog in Family Guy is the only character who uses his real voice, but if you look across his body of work, he does do voices for all the non-human characters.
It shows you he's a fairly insightful guy. He must think it's interesting, too, or else he wouldn't be telling the story.