Photo: Carin Baer/FOX
Mike Henry
“I’d rather not hurt somebody’s feelings just to make a bunch of other people laugh. I was certainly guilty in high school of belittling whoever just to get a laugh, but you evolve from that. Our goal is to make a funny show that makes people feel good.”
A Kinder, Gentler Family Guy
The Cleveland Show's Mike Henry opens up about why his new animated spin-off is a less angry version of Family Guy and how the politics of race affects the show's comedy.

Written by Denis Faye

Without David Lynch, there would be no Cleveland Brown.

It’s a hard fact to swallow, given the easy-going, African American Family Guy character, whose new spin-off series, The Cleveland Show, hits Fox this week, seems a million miles removed from the avant garde auteur. The same can be said for his creator and series showrunner, Mike Henry.

Such a lofty career wasn’t always Henry’s aspiration. Upon graduating from Virginia’s conservative Washington and Lee University, he saw himself as a “social guy looking to make it in business.” He settled nicely into an advertising career until he caught a screening of Wild at Heart. It changed everything.

“I realized if David Lynch could put forth such a unique sensibility and make a living at it, then I’m going for it!” exclaims Henry, who promptly quit advertising and embarked on a temporarily less lucrative career as a comedian and writer that eventually landed him on the staff of The Family Guy and now, The Cleveland Show – where you’ll find a bizarre, Lynchian cast including, well, David Lynch.

“He’s one of our characters,” Henry is proud to boost. “He plays Gus the Bartender, who is drawn to look very much like David Lynch and, obviously sounds like David Lynch.”

Henry took time out from coaxing his idols into his show to speak with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about The Cleveland Show’s happy, mustache mellowness; about the unique creative process of an animated show where the writers do the voices as well; and about why, every time Cleveland talks, there’s a guy on a basketball court somewhere scratching his head and trying to figure out why that voice sounds so familiar.

Photo: © 2009 FOX Broadcasting
Mike Henry is the voice of Cleveland Brown in The Cleveland Show.

Some of your writers write and perform the voices. How’s that work?

It’s a tremendous advantage. In Family Guy we had, I would guess, 10 of the 14 writers doing voices on that show. There are a couple of us on Cleveland that do the same. You’re basically going straight to the source here. There’s no writer, no director, no performer, it’s all-inclusive, generally speaking, when you can pitch in character and it goes straight in. It’s pretty good as far as being able to maintain the integrity of the joke.

Does the fact that you do the voices too leave room for improvisation?

It’s almost all improvised in the writer’s room and that’s true of Family Guy as well. If it gets a big laugh, it’s written down exactly as it was pitched and re-recorded or recorded as it was pitched. I have the iPhone voice recording thing, and I use that all the time to remember how I did a certain line. Again, it’s the pure thing that made you laugh.

So if you’re in the booth recording and you come up with something you think is funnier...

Oh, absolutely. If there’s a line and it’s not quite there, I’ll pitch it out. It’s amazing how often the sound engineers become the sounding board for some of these jokes.

When you come up with characters, is it the character that creates the voice, or the voice that creates the character?

Actually, it’s both. I think there’s some character inherent to the voice. I’m not just talking like somebody that’s not coming from somewhere. Like the performance artist on Family Guy, I’ve just come across so many people that are that guy. It’s so funny to me, the unspoken aspects of their character. I just like to hone in on what’s funny about someone and take it from there and twist it around.

I created Cleveland in the room. Sometimes people ask about a white guy playing a black guy. It’s not like there was this black character and I showed up and auditioned. I just started pitching this voice I’d heard, just randomly playing basketball, actually. That’s how all my characters get fleshed out, actually. They’re initiated by someone I’ve heard and then I change their characteristics.

So if you heard Cleveland Brown’s voice somewhere playing basketball, does that mean there’s a guy somewhere listening to your show and saying, “Hey! That’s my voice!”

I don’t know. Hopefully. To be honest with you, that was the germ of it. I’d heard other voices that were similar. There are different ingredients that you’re using. It’s not just one guy. He was the essence of the character, but there’s been a lot added to him since then.

How is the writer’s room different from, say, The Simpsons?

I’ve not been in the Simpsons room, but I will say there’s a huge difference between the energy in the Family Guy room and the Cleveland Show room. I think the Cleveland Show room is a little less angry. At Family Guy, I fit right in at that point in my life, but I’ve mellowed a little bit with a couple kids and I think the Cleveland room is just a different vibe. I think we’re all in it together. We’re a less hostile bunch.

Hostile towards each other or society?

Um, both. I think in the Family Guy room, there are notorious instances of people leaving the room and getting completely destroyed with cutting remarks and piling on. That doesn’t really happen in the Cleveland room. Mind you, it’s all in good spirit and the Family Guy group is an extremely tight knit bunch. It’s the kind of thing where we can bash each other, but if anyone from the outside takes a shot, then we got each other’s back.

Does The Cleveland Show’s mellow lead character have something to do with the mellower writer’s room?

I think when we set out to make this show, we certainly were not setting out to make another Family Guy. Right from the get-go, this was going to be a sweeter show, a more family-oriented show, meaning that the stories come from the family and the characters, as opposed to a lot of high concept stories that go on in The Family Guy. That definitely sets the tone of the writer’s room and the kind of people we were looking for.

We got a great mix of people. One of the writers that we just hired actually wrote a spec Friends where they all get AIDS, so there’s still a bit of venom in what we do, but at the same time, every episode is going to have a nice moment where the blended family gets a little more blended or there’s a nice emotional pay-off to all the fart jokes.

I don’t know how to ask this tactfully, but regarding a white guy showrunning a series about a black family...

Obviously, I get asked this all the time. It truly is a matter of he’s not “the black guy.” It’s not “Ha ha! We’re a black family! We do all the stereotypical things black families do!” His character just happened to be black. He’s one of many characters I created on Family Guy, and he just became the most well-rounded. Cleveland is a hell of a guy. I really like Cleveland. Yes, he’s black, and I don’t know what it’s like to be black. I have not lived the African American experience, but I will say that I have a lot of friends of all races and I’m wanting to do right by this character and the African American race. We have African American writers; most of the cast is African American. I’ve got a lot of African American friends and if I think something is pushing it a little bit, I’ll air it out.

We actually changed the lyric of our theme song, which at one point ended with “Until I’ve found a place where everyone will know my happy black guy face. This is The Cleveland Show.” I never quite felt comfortable with it, so a few weeks ago when it came time for the final mix, I aired it out to a few people. Most of my African American friends were all, “It’s fine. It’s funny. I like it although some people may not like it.”

But some people said, “Err, you should probably change that.” So it just came down to my gut and my gut said, “You know, we don’t need this.” So now it’s “my happy mustache face.” It’s a sweeter line, I’d say, but it’s an example of trying to do right by the race that my character is representing.

Family Guy doesn’t feel like it has any filters. Does it bother you that The Cleveland Show needs to contend with this?

The difference is Seth is the filter on that show and me and [fellow executive producer] Rich Appel are the filters on our show. Both Rich and I have kids; we’re both conscientious people. I’d rather not hurt somebody’s feelings just to make a bunch of other people laugh. I was certainly guilty in high school of belittling whoever just to get a laugh, but you evolve from that. Our goal is to make a funny show that makes people feel good. I don’t feel pressure for anyone to do something I don’t want to do.

It’s a sensibility and a gut.

A lot of writers have a hard time doing that. It’s a lot like “kill your darlings.”

Yes, absolutely. If the funniest scene doesn’t make your show work, you gotta cut it. But it’s true to life, frankly. You have to trust where you’re coming from and if it doesn’t feel right, I don’t want to do it.