Mike Henry, co-creator and voice actor on The Cleveland Show, set his new animated comedy in a capital city he knows very well.
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Portrait by Robert Ascroft - FOX
Look out, Virginia: Here comes The Cleveland Show, a new show spun off from Family Guy and set in Stoolbend, a fictionalized Richmond. Mike Henry, who has spent the last decade doing voice work for Family Guy and who voices two main characters on the new show (Cleveland and his wife’s 5-year-old son, Rallo) grew up in Richmond. Henry, 43, considers himself a mix of new and old Virginia—a creative type who attended private school and then Washington and Lee University. Both of his parents are artists. Henry began his career at Richmond’s The Martin Agency, moved to Los Angeles to perform stand-up and to write, then came back to Richmond for voice-over work. He met Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane while acting in brother Patrick’s films at the Rhode Island School of Design. Married with two children, Henry splits his time between Los Angeles and Richmond, where he owns a house.
Virginia Living: What makes Richmond funny enough to be the setting for a sitcom?
MIKE HENRY: You’ve got to recognize what’s all around here. … There’s an African-American family living across the street from, I would say, a redneck family who are living next door to a kind of a hipster wannabe and also next door to a family of bears. I’m not sure where the bears fit into Richmond, but basically I grew up in Richmond and I love Richmond. We’ve actually modeled all of our show—landscapes, all of the architecture—on it. There’s a river running through the town in our show—it’s all lifted directly from Richmond.
When we bought our Richmond house a couple of years ago, one of the cable installers was a former high school superstar athlete. And he told a lot of stories about his specific games and stuff, and I was very intrigued, and a week or two later we made Cleveland a cable installer who was a former high school athlete, which we would have done anyway. There are little bits and pieces, nothing entirely literal. My brother took a picture of a house we lived in for a while on Libbie Avenue. That actually became one of the houses of the neighbors.
Will there be any jokes that people from Richmond or Virginia will get that someone from, say, Ohio, won’t?
Nothing is too specific. Again, it’s largely location-driven. We have old, colonial-era buildings that have been turned into restaurants and contemporary businesses. It’s more of a backdrop than going after the people in Virginia. At some point soon, we want to go at the society. One of our characters is kind of a good ole’ boy who’s got some money, and our funny twist on it is that he’s a closeted homosexual. We’re kind of taking Richmond and turning it on its head a bit.
You grew up both inside and outside the culture of “old Virginia.” What kind of perspective did that give you?
Personally, I always felt a bit of an outsider, with artistic parents and not much money and going to Collegiate with a lot of people who had money. That gave me an ability to see things from the outside, if you will. Frankly, I could also see the artistic community from the outside because I found myself looking through the eyes of a West Ender. I think, having a diverse background, you see things from a number of different angles.
Your voices on this show and on Family Guy are almost disturbingly familiar.
That’s because you have heard them. I’ve told this story many times … I was once on the Thompson Street playground, by the fire station right off of [Interstate] 195. I was playing basketball with this guy who said he was from “Murrilund.” That voice just stuck in my head. That was kind of the jumping-off point for Cleveland’s character. Herbert, the creepy old man on Family Guy … his voice and whistle were lifted directly from a sweet old man I worked with at Ukrop’s back in the day. And, of course, he was not a pedophile or a pervert. That was my twist on him.
I think the last TV show centered on a family and expressly set in Virginia was The Waltons. Does that mean Rallo’s the new John-Boy?
[Laughs.] Yes. “Good night, Rallo.” Rallo was born from prank phone calls [I used to do] on cable access there—The Pet Line and The Sonny Smith VCU sports talk line. I would prank-call those shows back when I worked at The Martin Agency. After work, I would be hanging out with my friends, and I would just start calling in, and we would just take those guys for a ride. Rallo’s a contemporary John-Boy—let’s just call him that.
Isn’t it funny, or odd, that Richmonders are always coming back?
You can leave Virginia physically, but you’re [still] always there …. My wife and I are quite literally bicoastal—we’re [in Richmond] all the time. My future is there. There’s certainly a flavor of the town. I’m absolutely working toward being able to live there in the near future and doing a lot of the work on the show from there, because it adds authenticity. I’ve been lucky enough to live in a lot of big cities, and nothing beats Richmond.
The Cleveland Show airs on Fox at 8:30 on Sunday nights.