The Wegman Dogs: Psychoanalyzing Sesame Street’s Most Horrifying Sketch
Brace yourselves, internet, because today I’d like to talk about the most terrifying, most unsettling example of Freudian horror in all of literature: the Wegman dogs from Sesame Street.
Having sleep paralysis nightmares involving these half-dog, half-human hellspawn was like a rite of passage for all nineties babies. But if you’re not aware, Sesame Street had this segment where dogs with human hands would perform everyday activities. They’d bake, go to restaurants, get haircuts, calculate basic arithmetic, perform medical examinations, all kinds of mundane things like that.
The effect appears to involve having both the dog and human actor wear the same shirt while the dog’s head pokes through the neck hole, and the theme seems to be that the Wegman dogs impart everyday life skills that you, the viewer, can use, except with dog people because…reasons.
So one day I decided to look more into what had to be the tortured, disturbed mind of the man responsible for this, William Wegman.
Instead, I found a laid-back, unpretentious photographer who just likes taking pictures of dog people, I guess. Outside of Sesame Street, he’s dedicated his life to avant-dog photography since 1970, and there’s literally hundreds of photographs and short films of these dogs, always Weimaraner breed, both regular and horrifying half-human chimera.
Aside from being Dada to the nines, it’s hard to pin down what these are about. If you read interviews with Wegman, it seems he’s not entirely sure either. Maybe they’re just aesthetic, about nothing. But in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, he does reveal one intriguing piece of information.
“The dog isn’t really what it is in my pictures; there’s something fuzzy and energising about something that’s becoming something it isn’t,” he says. “That’s why there’s illustrations of Little Red Riding Hood and not photo books of Little Red Riding Hood with real children wearing a cape because that would just be deadening. But when it’s not that, when it’s becoming that, there’s something kind of amazing and more beautiful about it.”
Perhaps Wegman is revealing an important motive of his work, here. There’s something beautiful, and sometimes frightening, about the mundane things we take for granted about ourselves. The imagery of dogs doing human things forces us to dissociate from our image of Self. It’s alienating. Suddenly, we’re back to the Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Stage, reconsidering the subjective and our concept of Self. Why do we do the things we do? The dog is not a dog, then. The dog is us.
But beautiful? Maybe there’s elements of that in some of his photos and sketches, but I think Wegman underestimates how downright disturbing his work often is, especially in Sesame Street.
Now that I’ve started getting psychoanalytic with a Sesame Street sketch, let’s just take dial it up to 11 because why not? Doctor Freud has a whole essay qualifying what makes something subtly horrifying or “uncanny.” To Freud, something is uncanny when it’s vaguely familiar, yet unfamiliar (or more aptly, repressed), such that it causes cognitive dissonance about our concept of the Self.
The familiar aspect is the heimlich, which in this case doesn’t mean you’re choking (hopefully), but instead homey, secure, comfortable, and also private. It’s sort of like the mental representation of Hygge, except the private aspect creates a latent shadow. Because it’s private, we repress undesired thoughts and desires. Then there’s the unfamiliar aspect — unheimlich — something uncomfortable, meant to be private but is revealed to the forefront. When these two competing feelings are negotiated, this creates the doppelganger, which is an alternate projection of oneself, usually embodying some undesired trait we’ve repressed.
Freud writes that the doppelganger is usually resolved early in a child’s development, but uncanny literature has a way of bringing it back out in examining the human condition. That seems to be what’s going on with the Wegman dogs, at least half the time.
As much as the Wegman dog sketches creeped me out growing up, this is a good example of Freud’s criticism of Ernst Jentsch, who argued that the almost-human image of a doll in The Sandman is where the uncanniness starts and ends. Certainly this is unsettling, but Freud argues that the most uncanny images are more than just visual — they have to force the viewer to interact with their repressed selves to be truly uncanny.
Don’t get me wrong, all the Wegman dog sketches have given me nightmares at one point or another, but some are just creepy images that aren’t the definition of uncanny. Let’s look at the sketch “Making a Sandwich.”
Once you get past the anthropomorphism, it’s actually pretty endearing in its depiction of traditional American culture. One dog sits at a table and wears 1990s dad clothes. He asks, “What’s for lunch?” Two other dogs in aprons respond that they’re making homemade bread for sandwiches, before telling the viewer all the ingredients and baking directions, ending by saying it will bake for two hours in the oven. Scene cuts to the first dog, who says, “Two hours. I’m hungry.” The other dogs then reassure him, saying, “You can’t rush it. Not when you’re making homemade bread.” When it’s finally out of the oven, the dog chef brings dad dog his food asking, “Was it worth the wait?” Dad dog dives in, and in what seems like a moment of improvisation, says “My tooth. The sandwich is stuck in my tooth.”
I kind of love this scene. We can all relate to being hungry after a long day and then having to wait as we cook dinner, and then something goes wrong like burning the roof of your mouth or taking too big of a bite that makes the whole experience go horizontal. It’s perfectly imperfect, but that experience wouldn’t be as beautifully human as it is without wrinkles, blemishes, and toothaches.
I think Wegman is right that this scene captures a beauty of everyday human life that we would have overlooked if it were just human actors. It is psychoanalytic in that the dog actors force us to examine this relatable scene as outsiders. But the psychological investigation kind of stops after heimlich, and it doesn’t force us to investigate our repressed selves. “Making a Sandwich” might be off-putting in some ways, but it’s not uncanny.
However, others of Wegman’s works are very uncanny. How about “The Waiter”?
At first, this one seems like “Making a Sandwich,” about to impart some practical lesson about the process of ordering food at a restaurant, but that’s not exactly how this one plays out. A dog in a polka-dot shirt flags down a quasi-canine waiter, who asks “One second.” Polka-dot dog ignores this plea, making a “come hither” hand gesture and repeating, “Waiter.” The waiter drops what he’s doing andgoes to the customer, repeating the specials. Polka-dots ignores the suggestions and gets a turkey sandwich. The waiter rings it up, and in the next scene, the waiter brings the food. Polka-dot dog looks down, disappointed. He asks, “What’s this?” It turns out the sandwich was held together by a cherry toothpick.
Oh no, he asked for a lemon toothpick. How dare they? Naturally, he returns the food and they have to redo the order, but the new entrée also fails because it “smells like cherry.” Ultimately, polka-dot dog gets a complementary dessert. This entire time, a dog couple in the corner had tried multiple times to flag down the waiter, to no avail.
If this is meant to be a face-value beginner’s guide to restaurants, it falls flat, since the suggestions would be, “Be rude to waiters, be indignant enough to get them to serve you before other people, and return your entrée for superfluous reasons to get your dessert free.” Instead, the sketch takes the appearance of a practical guide to subvert the viewer’s expectations and instead deliver a pointedly sarcastic message about what not to do in restaurants.
This is what makes “The Waiter” uncanny. Sadly, being rude to underpaid waitstaff tends to be the American way, and we always think we’re not one of the bad ones. But when we watch dogs ordering food, it makes us the outsider looking in at the things we do. At first, it seems heimlich and #relatable since we love eating out, but it hides repressed feelings about how we actually interact in settings like this. Then we feel unheimlich —was I too rude to the waiter that day? Did I really have to return my food? Did I undertip? Am I a bad person? I’m a Karen, aren’t I?
And once “The Waiter” gets us to think these things, polka-dot dog takes on the role of doppelganger. He is the embodiment of our worries as customers, the me I don’t want to be, and suddenly the slightly-off imagery of dog people makes sense and is existentially disturbing. The dog is strange, unfamiliar, beastly, and so are we when our repressed desires are brought to the surface.
I think that’s why the Wegman dogs were always so scary to me. Yes, they’re dogs with human hands, and that’s weird, but on another level, they’re also me.
And I don’t like that.
Next time someone asks you what literary critics do, just go ahead and ruin Sesame Street for them. Freud it up. This is what Sigmund would have wanted all along.