In 2008, when it was announced that Family Guy character Cleveland Brown was getting his own show, much of the media coverage concentrated on the fact that one of TV’s rare black sitcom lead roles was going to be voiced by a white man, Mike Henry. More than two years on, the conversation about The Cleveland Show seems to have moved on from the color of Henry’s skin to the quality of the guest stars he has convinced to visit with his Stoolbend-dwelling animated character. That list of notables includes Kanye West, LeBron James, Justin Timberlake, Hall & Oates, Arianna Huffington, and, most bizarrely, famed auteur David Lynch, who has a recurring role as “Gus the Bartender” (although, the fictional nature of Lynch’s Gus didn’t prevent one patron of the Broken Stool bar telling him to “Shut up, Eraserhead!” in a recent episode).
One of the guests who seems to have left the biggest impression on the Cleveland crew is legendary comedy craftsman and Man with Two Brains director Carl Reiner. “He was a d—, and a little green frankly,” deadpans Henry, who in addition to voicing Cleveland Brown and his stepson Rallo is an executive producer on the show. “No, you talk about a sharp tack. I believe the guy is 88 now and he totally understood everything we were going for, practically reading it cold. He was so good that we actually invited him to sit in our writers’ room for a few days. Not only was he a legend in telling cool stories, but he was actually pitching jokes that were funny. He has a story credit on one of our scripts for next year.”
Reiner makes his Cleveland Show debut playing an aged Jewish man called Murray in the first of two episodes being broadcast on Fox this Sunday. “Rallo is singing Christmas carols with his kindergarten class at this old folks home and Carl’s character wants nothing to do with it,” explains Henry. “The two of them start going at it, Rallo not understanding an old Jewish man, and an old Jewish man not understanding a young black kid. It was a great license to make a million Jew jokes and black jokes.” And isn’t that, really, the dream of all white non-Jews? “That’s right!” laughs Henry. “But we do have plenty of African-Americans writing and acting and plenty of Jewish guys — of course! But it is a very sweet story and it kind of allows us to do all those things as they learn not to be ignorant.”
Read on, to find out Henry’s thoughts on some other notable Cleveland Show guests and to discover why he’s not sorry for slamming Chloë Sevigny.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You also have an episode with Justin Timberlake coming up?
MIKE HENRY: That’s right. Justin plays two parts. We find out one of Cleveland’s friends is closeted and Justin plays his lover. He also plays a singing booger. Rallo is having a tough time kicking the booger-eating habit, so Jr. [Cleveland’s son] takes him under his wing and there’s a goodbye ballad — kind of like “On My Own” with Michael McDonald and Patti LaBelle — but it’s Rallo and Justin’s singing booger. The name of the song is, “I Got To Flick You Goodbye.”
Playing a singing booger is the obvious move after you’ve appeared in a David Fincher-directed Oscar contender.
That’s right! Justin’s locked and loaded all the time. He was only in for a couple of hours but you had this sense that he was just about to spin off something brilliant, which I think he did with his choices in the booger song. It was just very funny to see Justin break into this falsetto as this tiny little booger. We also have a bunch of NBA guys [doing a show].
I’m afraid I’m not much of a basketball fan. But I’ve been told the gentleman who left Cleveland — the city, not the show — is involved?
Yes, LeBron James is in the episode. We did all those guys over the phone. And each of them, I have to say, was really funny. I guess when you’re that rich and you get to play a sport for a living, you’re loose.
The whole universe of [Family Guy creator] Seth MacFarlane is pretty incestuous. You still voice characters on Family Guy and obviously he is very involved with Cleveland. What’s the big difference between the two shows?
We didn’t set out to do Family Guy. We set out to do something in the Family Guy universe that was more of a family show. There are a few things we won’t do. We won’t go too hard at an abortion joke or a Jesus joke or a really mean celebrity slam, although we did a few first season. I guess it’s maybe a kinder show — or a not-as-mean-show.
You’re currently writing the next, third season of The Cleveland Show. How’s that going?
We’re actually 12 episodes in. We had our twelth table read the other day. There’s a ton of music. I would say almost every episode has a song. We’re hitting a groove and it’s a lot of fun.
Do you have any plans to bring Kanye West back for another guest spot?
Yeah. He has been in two episodes and we’ve been talking to him about another one. I think for sure, he’ll be back. We are working on a story right now. So I would say yes, he will be back in season three.
He’s a pretty mercurial figure. What was it like working with him?
He is so wide open. He was bouncing lyrics off of us and ideas. He’s just constantly doing his thing. There were a couple of moments where I was walking down the hall and I heard this rap and Kanye has cornered four writers and he’s laying a rap on them. And apparently he did this three or four times. He was just busting stuff out. He is just wide open. [Laughs] I don’t know how else to put it. I don’t want to diss the guy — or I wouldn’t diss the guy. I think he’s genuine and I think he’s an extremely interesting person.
Tell us about the forthcoming Family Guy/Cleveland Show/American Dad hurricane crossover show.
It’s all three MacFarlane shows. Each show is trapped in its house in a hurricance. The rules we were given were, “It’s only the family and they can’t leave the house.” It’s really cool. In ours, we managed to work in a huge musical revival number. We find out Cleveland Jr. doesn’t believe in God and the rest of the family is appalled by this. I believe it airs in May.
Was David Lynch even aware of Family Guy or The Cleveland Show before you cast him as a regular?
You know, I’m not sure. [Laughs] I am a huge David Lynch fan. I have been greatly inspired by his true uniqueness. Back in the day, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after college, I saw Wild at Heart and I got in my car and moved to California. I figured if this guy could do something this weird and hilarious and awesome then I’m going to go for it. You know, I talked to him on the phone, I told him about the show, and he was completely down. And so he’s our eccentric bar tender.
But does he know what show he’s the eccentric bar tender on?
[Laughs] You know, I talked to him the other day and he said that he had seen a couple and that we were going “great work.” So I’m just going to take that at face value.
The whole hullabaloo over you voicing a black character seems to have died down. Although I’m aware that I say that as one white guy talking to another.
You know what? The only people I ever heard had a real problem with it were white guys too. I have many friends of many colors. There’s no agenda. We have black guys playing white guys. We have Indians playing white people. It’s whoever can do the funniest character can do it. I created the chracter. Basically, Cleveland is me but black.
Given that Family Guy often courts controversy, what did you think about the brouhaha over the gay joke in the trailer for The Dilemma?
Believe me, in the writers’ room — particularly in the Family Guy writers’ room — anything and everything is said and laughed at heartily. Personally, I don’t care if somebody is gay. I’m not going to judge somebody because they’re black or Asian or Jewish or whatever. You just make the joke. People are different and there’s something funny about the differences between people and you have to laugh at it. If you don’t, you’re not being truthful. That being said, I don’t know what specifically the gay joke was in the trailer but you get to the point where some people are going to be offended and maybe it came across as thoughtless. There’s a time and a place, I think. You just have to be a little bit smarter with your promotion if there’s a risk that you’re going to offend a group that doesn’t know you. I think that’s the thing. I feel like you can almost say anything if people know you and know that you’re not coming from a bad place and that you’re just joking. But I haven’t walked in the shoes of a lot of these people. That’s the thing with me being white. I reach out to my African-American writers, friends, cast mates, if there’s a joke I’m not sure about. I’ll definitely take some input from the people that are living the life.
You’re featured in the forthcoming Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III. What was that like?
I play a few random characters in that. And I actually get to go to the Skywalker Ranch in a couple of weeks with [Robot Chicken co-creator and Henry’s Family Guy costar] Seth Green and the posse to premiere the Robot Chicken. I’m very excited about that.
And you voice characters in the third Family Guy/Star Wars episode It’s a Trap!
Yes. Cleveland and Herbert and the performance artist and Consuela the Maid all have some nice little cameos in that one as well.
Is it true that’s going to be the last Family Guy/Star Wars spoof. Because there’s obviously three prequels to make fun of, is there not?
I don’t think the prequels really count.
You should tell George Lucas that when you’re up at the Skywalker Ranch!
I have a 7 year old who can’t get enough of all of the movies. The prequels were amazing visually. But as soon as you met Luke in the first one you were onboard and I haven’t had that sense with the others.
Have you ever slammed a celebrity and then, say, found yourself in an elevator with him or her?
I saw an actress at the airport about a year ago who we took a shot at, but I don’t think it was an unfair shot.
Who was that?
[Laughs] Um… Uh… Cleveland referred to Chloë Sevigny as a gross indie porn actress.
And you’re supposedly the “kinder” show!
Well, yeah. [Laughs]
And did you just walk by her?
Well, she would never recognize me. But if you saw the scene from Brown Bunny, it’s a completely justified comment!