Mike Henry’s sassy new Family Guy spinoff, The Cleveland Show, has already been picked up for a second season by FOX and has received mostly raves from critics around the country. Henry, who worked his way up to exec producer on Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy while also serving as a writer and voice actor, took some time out of his very busy schedule to talk to us about the unbearable coolness of having his own animated sitcom on TV this fall!
Animag Online: So we know that the new show is all about Cleveland Brown and what happens to him after he leaves Quahog (Family Guy setting) and relocates to Stoolbend. Can you tell us what to expect from your show?
Mike Henry: Our show is a cross between The Cosby Show, The Brady Bunch and Family Guy. This show is more of a traditional, three-act sitcom that happens to be animated and less about a string of gags, but a character’s memory can still spark the visual quips. I think people will notice the wide-screen format’that’s a big visual difference. Thematically, it’s a sweeter and funkier show. There’s a Brady Bunch dynamic going on’but we tell stories that The Brady Bunch never did. Also, we use a lot of great funk music from the ’70s and ’80s. Earth, Wind and Fire actually recorded a song with us. I actually sang a number with them called ‘Get Your Hump on This Christmas!’
So why did the powers that be decide to focus on Cleveland?
Well, a couple of years ago Seth came back from a meeting with the executives at FOX and told us that they would love a Family Guy spinoff, and everybody just looked at me. Seth and I started talking and we pulled Richard Appel from American Dad and started thinking about the premise for the show. Seth had drawn the characters and the locations, so we had a good feel for it. We brought a crew of 13 to the room, but then, the writers’ strike happened and it took a lot of time to make it happen. We’re now four episodes into the second season of the show. The production process actually worked to our advantage.
What is your take on spinoffs?
We want the show to be successful’so no Joey in that regard! We’d like to be like The Jeffersons, which was a spinoff of All in the Family. We hope to capture the same core of characters. Some people have asked me whether we’ll have crossover episodes with Family Guy ‘ Well, not in the first season’maybe one or two scenes in the form of flashbacks or as quick gags.
How did you get into animation?
I grew up on old school cartoons’the classic Hanna-Barbera shows’The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo and DePatie-Freleng’s The Pink Panther. I met Seth [MacFarlane] along my creative path’I was doing stand-up and directing short films with my brother Patrick at the Rhode Island School of Design. Seth was a classmate of my brother’s, and so when Seth got his show, I was hired to write TV gags and cutaways.
What do you like best about working in animation?
You know you can go anywhere, any time with animation. You don’t have to worry about building sets and are not limited by the physical production. There’s no way you can shoot in 40 different locations for a live-action show, which we do in animation. Another advantage is the short attention span required for our gags and flashbacks. Today, everyone watches 30-second gags on their phones’and all of them are self-contained and lend themselves very well to downloading ‘ plus the show is pretty darn funny.
What about the humor and the overall tone of the new series?
Well, it’s just funny. Our attitude in the room is that we aren’t trying to please everyone with every joke. We throw all kinds of jokes out there and if one joke is too sophisticated or too broad, viewers will get about a hundred other jokes to enjoy even if they didn’t get that first one. The tone of the show has really evolved. Being a Family Guy spin-off, we were heavily influenced by the show, but I just watched our fifth episode last night, and you know, it’s a really sweet series. I like the fact that it is a bit nicer. We may lose some of the audience, but I think we’re able to appeal to a wider audience out there. We have characters that we care about and I think people will really root for them. Cleveland may be a buffoon, but he’s a good intentioned buffoon. He wants his stepdaughter to accept him and he wants his son and stepdaughter to get along. But don’t get me wrong! We’re filthy, too!
Of course, you’ll have to tell us about some of the big voice talent we get to hear on the show!
Well, Sanaa Lathan plays Cleveland’s high school sweetheart, Donna. Cleveland’s son Cleveland Jr. is played by Kevin Michael Richardson. Then of course we have Seth [MacFarlane], as Cleveland’s drinking buddy who is a talking bear. Arianna Huffington is the talking bear’s wife, Arianna. So far, we’ve had a lot of great guests: Jason Sudeikis (Saturday Night Live), Kanye West (who does a rap battle with Cleveland Jr.), filmmaker David Lynch, Bebe Neuwirth, Jason Alexander, Jamie Kennedy, Earth, Wind & Fire, and we even got Daryl Hall and John Oates playing an angel and a devil. We’re all very excited that the show is finally getting to air this fall. Now all we have to do is get people to like the show!
The Cleveland Show debuts on FOX on September 27. The series airs on Sundays at 8:30 p.m.