'I'm not racist' | Inteview with Cleveland Show creator Mike Henry

'I'm not racist'

Inteview with Cleveland Show creator Mike Henry

Animator Seth MacFarlane has created three of the most successful of today's animated sitcoms: Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show. This week, we’re running interview some of the stars and collaborators on the shows. Yesterday it was Seth Green, who plays son Chris in Family Guy (click here for that article); today is the turn of Mike Henry and Mike Appell, co-creators of Cleveland. First, Henry tells us about the show – and what it’s like to be a white actor playing a black character

Why do you think Cleveland and his family span off to their own show?

He was different enough from everyone else. Everyone on Family Guy is ‘Bam-bam-bam-bam bam-bam-bam-bam,’ and Quagmire, ‘Giggity giggity fuck fuck fuck.’ You don't want a show about a rapist, as Seth put it. So that's why there's no show about Quagmire.

Cleveland, in tone and sensibility, is a little bit more thoughtful. And that gave us a jumping-off point to do something that was not a Family Guy clone. Yes, of course, there are many similarities. But at the same time, it's a sweeter show. He's a well-intended character. Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin will bumble into something because they're idiots. Cleveland will get in trouble because he's trying to do something right. It's also a funkier show with the music: it's not show tunes. It’s soul and R&B and Earth, Wind & Fire and Kanye West. And it gets your hips moving a little bit. So it's different in that way.

Tell us about guest stars like Kanye

Kanye is a complex man. He could not be a nicer guy when he comes to our office, completely humble. He was very curious about the process. He plays Kenny West, who is a locally famous rapper in a small Virginia town.

We’ve had all kinds of guest stars. David Lynch, the filmmaker, plays our bartender Gus. Jamie Kennedy plays Federline Jones, Cleveland's stepdaughter's boyfriend. We have Earth, Wind & Fire guys playing themselves. We have a single coming out next month: Earth, Wind & Fire, featuring Cleveland Brown, singing Get Your Hump On This Christmas

Gosh, who else? So many people. Arianna Huffington is Cleveland's next-door neighbour, Arianna the bear. There’s Ed Asner, Stockard Channing, Jason Alexander, Bebe Neuwirth, Chris Isaak and Carl Reiner. Hall & Oates, Daryl Hall and John Oates are playing angel and devil over Cleveland's shoulders.

Where does Cleveland's voice come from?

I met a guy playing basketball and he just talked like that, and I started talking like that. That was the first season of Family Guy. Almost all of the characters that I've created are based on someone that I've met or someone I know. Then you just take an element and add an element that they would never do. Like Herbert, the old man on Family Guy, he's a sweet old guy I worked with at a grocery store, and then one joke in the Family Guy writers' room, and he became a paedophile. So it's generally something I've heard, and then you just start running with it.

So did you fashion it on a black voice?

Yeah, the guy was black and that's how the character was drawn. No one of color has had a problem with it. People will offer up: ‘I've heard white people complain about this but I've got no problem.’

There was one writer right before we premiered who said we were taking the jobs away from black actors. I'm like: ‘First of all, you haven't seen the show. We're not making fun of black people. We're making fun of everyone. And most of our cast is African-American.’

I'm not racist. If something doesn't feel right, I'm not going to do it. I'll often defer to cast members or writers who are African-American. I'll say, ‘Is this cool?’ And even if some of them say it's cool I need to make that call at the end of the day. So I'm being as responsible as I can with the role.

Has the guy you played basketball with ever come back?

I get asked that too. I have no idea who he is. I met him one day at a playground and just couldn't get his voice out of my head.

Do you feel you can be current enough? Sometimes when you speak to the Simpsons writers, they think that their production time takes so long…

Same thing. And with Family Guy as well. I think that works to our advantage in the long run because if you watch an episode of Cleveland in five years, it's not going to feel dated, whereas there's no way you can watch a Saturday Night Live from five years ago and not feel like you're getting dragged back in time. But yeah, if something is funny enough and we're at the end of our process we still could have thrown in some current reference if we had the right animation and just changed the mouth or something. But we don't feel too compelled to do that.

How long does it take for an episode?

Ten months. There's a little bit of cushion there, but it’s ten months from start to finish.

What do you think is the secret behind this sort of factory that makes American Dad, The Cleveland Show and Family Guy

It's cliche, but Family Guy, I think, is funny because it says usually very inappropriate things with a kernel of truth to them. As far as our show goes, I think there's enough of that sensibility where we’ll go there a little bit and have a celebrity joke or an off-colour bathroom joke, but with us, there's a bit of sweetness to it. I think Family Guy was a little ahead of its time and then right on its time as far as the internet and everything else goes. Just those little sound-bite gags. That is the most sound-biteable show I can imagine. But I think it's having a kernel of truth, being willing to go there, and the format.

Now Richard Appell, the former Simpsons writer who is now executive producer of The Cleveland Show, tells us more about the show and the issues it raises:

So how does working on The Simpsons compare to this?

Similar. These shows all have a lot in common in terms of our production. I spent five years at The Simpsons. It's a wonderful show. And there are things that we respectfully borrow fromThe Simpsons.

As much as I love The Simpsons, I don't think if season 1 from 1989 premiered tomorrow, it would cause anything like the stir it caused 20 years ago. You would not get the First Lady attacking it because Bart wore a T-shirt that said ‘Underachiever and proud of it,’ after what's been on YouTube and what's been on Family Guy, for that matter.

So just by necessity, even if you wanted to, it's not enough just to be the new Simpsons. All these shows come down to the stories they tell. They're the kind of stories that need to be told in an animated universe, because you couldn't tell them in a live-action world, and how you create your own tone. I think Cleveland Brown is a different kind of hero than Homer Simpson.

I think Homer is one of the great comic characters of the last 30, 40 years. I love Peter Griffin too. It's fun writing for dumb characters. And we used to push the envelope. But that's not who Cleveland is. Cleveland is a good-hearted character. He's not just a fool. He can leap before he looks too carefully. He is a guy who loves his son and is trying to get the most out of his son. He adores his wife, and they have a healthy relationship, and he's in love with her. It's not one of those sitcom marriages. And that does force you - because it is easier, honestly, to write an episode for the bumbling idiot.

The best episodes of The Simpsons can't be beaten. But I think when we've hit the sweet spot in our show. They're up there. And it's very satisfying to have a different kind of a hero who perhaps gets himself through his good intentions into a different situation where the last sane man has to figure out a way out.

Speaking about pushing the envelope, what is the most sensitive topic you could joke about nowadays?

For us - and it's not going to be a huge surprise - I think it’s race, partly because in our show a white actor plays Cleveland Brown, who is a black man. We also have a black actor, Kevin Michael Richardson, who plays a white redneck as well as Cleveland's son.

Nancy Cartwright, as far as I've known her, has always been a woman, and she plays Bart Simpson. Animation does that. That said, people are very sensitive about it, but the rest of our cast is African American and we've taken it head-on. We have an episode that's going to be our Black History Month episode that touched on the racial insensitivity of the redneck neighbour Lester, played by Richardson, and Cleveland taking offence.

I was in the middle of the reading: I've got the white guy on my right, who is playing a black guy who is taking offence at the black guy on my left playing a white guy who said the insensitive thing - and it's great.

You can play with expectations, but that said, not everyone loves that. And I think that I'm doubly sensitive, when we have a script like that. I'm less sensitive if there's some joke that has anything to do with being Jewish, which I am, because I think my own internal weathervane on that is a little more refined over the course of 45 years.

So yes, I take a beat, read it over in the morning, think, ‘No, all right, this might offend people, but I think they'll be wrong.’ But those are the [edgier] things on our show - because what else is left after Family Guy? I mean, if you're looking to be offended by abortion, rape, misogyny, you know, they touch everything. And who isn't looking to be offended by abortion, rape, and misogyny?

America seems to be pretty divided at the moment. Does that make a good climate for the kind of animation you do?
Yes. There's a joke on The Simpsons, years ago when I was there, when the two aliens, Kang and Kodos, come down. It was during the Clinton-Dole election, and they killed Clinton and Dole and inhabited their bodies and were trying to understand the American political process.

So Kang is addressing a crowd and he said, ‘Abortions for all.’ And, ‘Boo boo.’ ‘Abortions for none.’ ‘Boo boo.’ ‘Abortions for some, no abortions for others.’ (Clapping.) There's no one I know on a political spectrum who doesn't think that's funny - it's like you want people to have opinions because you want to be able to push their buttons. I don't want it to be the same button for 100 per cent of the people. I love being able to surprise people and think, ‘You were laughing at us?’

We did a joke like that where Cleveland is arrested, and he makes some crack about, ‘This is racist.’ And the cop was, probably. Then there was a joke about Asian drivers, and Cleveland laughs. The point is, ‘My friend, 30 seconds ago you were taking great offence.’ So yes, I hope people have a lot of opinions because that's how you can upset their expectations and make them laugh too.

  • The Cleveland Show is out on DVD on Monday. Click here to order.
  • Tomorrow: American Dad's producers

Published: 7 Oct 2010

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