30 Jan 2010: Family Guy’s African-American, beer-bellied buddy – Cleveland – has got his own show. We meet co-creator Mike Henry
In episode two of The Cleveland Show, Cleveland Brown finds himself in a vat of chicken giblets while looking for his new stepson’s missing dog. He exclaims that the smell reminds him of Chloë Sevigny. Rallo, the pint-sized stepson with killer one-liners, asks who she is. Cleveland pulls a suitably appalled face: “Some gross indie porno actress.” Sevigny is damned and the dog is dead; Cleveland accidentally ran it over a few days earlier and a redneck neighbour dragged it home, asking his obese wife if she was in the mood for Chinese.
If you watch Family Guy, such savage jokes won’t surprise or shock. You’ll know Cleveland Brown as Peter Griffin’s African American friend, the one with a dodgy ‘tache and a beer belly hanging over his waistband. Family Guy, created by Seth MacFarlane in 1999, is loaded with smart and knowing pop-culture references and is, at times, excruciatingly funny. At first glance it has a similar template to The Simpsons – a dysfunctional family, cutaway gags, endless lampooning of suburban America – but its jokes are way coarser and it defines itself by what MacFarlane calls “a post-PC tone”. Griffin has been known to punch his teenage daughter and last year Fox declined to show an episode about abortion (which says as much about America’s acquiescence to the pro-lifers as Family Guy’s appetite for pushing boundaries).
Although the Griffins’ anthropomorphic dog Brian was the more obvious candidate for his own show, it is Cleveland who has been rewarded with the spinoff series, with both MacFarlane and writer-voice actor Mike Henry at its helm. The dopey deli owner is now divorced and has an overweight son, Cleveland Jr, to take care of. Father and son decide to leave their friends on Family Guy behind and move to Los Angeles; en route, Cleveland visits his hometown in Virginia, hooks up with his high-school crush and marries her. The Cleveland Show is being marketed as a tamer version of Family Guy, but it’s still pretty caustic.
Henry, who’s worked on Family Guy since it started, created Cleveland after watching a man with a “funny voice” playing basketball: “I imitated him in my head and tapped into what I felt was his point of view, in terms of being relaxed and not letting too much ruffle him. That was the jumping-off point.” He also channelled “some alter ego of mine”.
Asked how Cleveland and himself are similar, Henry says: “Let’s see. We’re both happily on marriage number two. We’re both from Virginia. We’re both good at heart. A little insane. We both like hot relations with our wives.” Where they differ is colour: Henry is white, Cleveland is African American. Henry recently said that he felt black at school. How so?
“I went to a high school in Richmond, Virginia with very conservative people. I was always a little wacky. Frankly I said it as a bit of a joke …” He sighs: “I don’t want to explain too much. I guess I meant that I wasn’t conservative mainstream, so I felt like an outsider. I always had a lot of passion and no hesitation in showing it. I’ve always just felt a little funky. In a good way.”
For a terrible moment, it sounds like Henry is actually about to say that some his best friends are black. But instead he waits for the next question. Although both Family Guy and The Cleveland Show set out to, as MacFarlane puts it, “offend all corners equally”, the idea that a bunch of white liberal guys have created a show about an African American family has already upset some in the USA. One writer objected on the grounds that The Cleveland Show “portrays black mothers as unmarried promiscuous sexual objects, black teenage girls as headed down the same paths as their mothers, and young black boys as sexual deviants”.
‘Kanye West only wanted to change one line of the rap we wrote for him. He even said our writers should help him write a song on his next album’
It’s a fair point, but others have argued that The Cleveland Show “at least keeps black faces on television”; it also mocks the obese, white rednecks, angry teens, men in general and Chloë Sevigny; something which Henry has no hesitation in defending: “I do not think it’s unjustified if you’ve ever seen the Brown Bunny clip online. Straight up, that was nothing short of porn and it was an indie film, so she’s an indie porno actress.”
As for the accusations of The Cleveland Show being a cartoon take on blackface entertainment, Henry’s having none of it. “We have no agenda. We’re certainly not trying to do a racist show. Kevin Michael Richardson, who plays Cleveland Brown Jr, also plays the opinionated redneck neighbour who eats the dog. Kevin just happens to be African American; I happen to be white. We’re trying not to get hung up on who is what colour.”
Detractors of The Cleveland Show have done little to dilute its cool. Taking their cue from the droll dog in Family Guy, there’s a family of talking bears that includes MacFarlane as the voice of Tim – having a crafty cigarette while putting the rubbish out – and Arianna Huffington as his wife Arianna. When Kanye West declared himself to be a huge fan of Family Guy, he was also asked to guest on The Cleveland Show, as unsuccessful rapper Kenny West. Was he happy to mock himself?
“Oh gosh, yes. He only wanted to change one line of the rap we wrote for him. He even half-jokingly said that our writers should help him write a song on his next album.”
For Henry, however, nothing has matched having David Lynch as a guest character. “I went to his house twice; he’s got a studio there. He’s the most genuine, awesome guy. Wild At Heart inspired my move from Virginia to California. I saw it when I was 24, a year out of college and at a crossroads. I realised that if Lynch could make such a crazy film and make a good living out of it, then I could too. So I packed up my car and drove to LA.” There, Henry waited on tables, did stand-up, moved to New York and – after meeting MacFarlane, who was at Rhode Island School of Design with his younger brother – moved back to LA to work on Family Guy.
Henry swears he’s only seen two episodes of The Simpsons and insists that Cleveland is not influenced by any other cartoon characters. He seems to enjoy having an alter ego whose life he controls. And, presumably, Cleveland can say all the things Henry would never say. He laughs: “Oh yeah. He’ll be very direct about things sometimes. Like … a pair of boobs. They might be on my mind too, but I wouldn’t offer a comment. He’ll pretty much call it like it is, inadvertently or advertently.”
Given that Fox commissioned season two of The Cleveland Show before the first episode of season one even aired, it seems a third series is likely. “Knock wood! The early episodes are us just getting our feet wet. The early episodes of Family Guy were all over the place and I’d probably say the same for The Cleveland Show. We’re working on episode 37 right now and I believe we’ve really hit our stride. You learn as you go.”
When Kevin Reilly, president of entertainment at Fox, first heard about The Cleveland Show, he wasn’t sure about white guys writing about a black family. But he soon changed his mind; probably because MacFarlane is a powerful force at the network, given that Family Guy generates $2m an episode in syndication alone. Fox also most likely noticed that there isn’t another black family on mainstream television in the US and, as such, The Cleveland Show is unique.
Henry, however, refuses to see it as any kind of political statement: “It’s a relatively family-friendly show with the odd dirty joke, but never anything too mean-spirited. It’s just a half-hour of a good time.”
The Cleveland Show is on E4, Mondays at 10pm from 1 Feb
Check out e4.com/cleveland for clips, character bios and more