NEW YORK – On the premiere of his new Fox show, Cleveland Brown gets a fitting send-off from the world he inhabited on “Family Guy.”
Forces unleashed by “Family Guy” lunkhead Peter Griffin cause the front of Cleveland’s home to be destroyed, exposing him naked in his second-floor bathtub, whereupon he slides – yelping “no, no, no, no, no, NO!” – to a crash-landing out on his front lawn.
It isn’t the first time.
But if the terminally affable Cleveland has spent six seasons as a “Family Guy” sidekick and fall guy, that’s about to change.
“I’m tired of being kicked around by this world!” he erupts, as best he can in his gently modulated voice.
Divorced by his wife and evicted from his home, he knows it’s time to set off from Quahog, R.I., with his portly teenage son, Cleveland Jr., for a new life on “The Cleveland Show,” which premieres Sunday at 8:30 p.m. EDT.
He heads back to his hometown in Virginia, where he weds his high school sweetheart, Donna, and becomes stepfather to her children: hotsy high-schooler Roberta and mouthy five-year-old Rollo.
Befitting a spin-off of “Family Guy” (where despotic baby Stewie converses with Brian, the dog), Cleveland meets a clutch of nutty neighbours, including husband-and-wife bears.
“It’s a whole new world and set of characters,” says Mike Henry, a co-creator of the show and the man who voices Cleveland. “There’s a new tone. Sweet and family-ish.”
“There’s still plenty of filthy jokes,” Henry laughs, careful not to distance his new venture too far from his old one. “But there’s a whole, nice message in each ‘Cleveland Show’ episode. ‘Family Guy’ paved the way for a lot of coarseness and shock humour, but we’re not trying to push that any farther.”
Yes, there will be comic cutaways and flashbacks – but fewer than on “Family Guy.”
And yes, there will be the rare appearance by Peter and other “Family Guy” regulars.
But overall, says Henry, “We really wanted to get out on our own legs.”
The series’ gestation began a couple of years ago when “Family Guy” maestro Seth MacFarlane pitched the idea to Fox brass.
“We didn’t have to sell an elaborate premise,” recalls MacFarlane, who’s teamed with Rich Appel and Henry on the spin-off. “It doesn’t matter what the premise of a comedy is, it’s about the characters. We said, ‘Here are our characters.”‘
Long before then, Cleveland had struck the threesome as a character with more to say than “Family Guy” permitted. However much he resisted stereotyping, he mostly served as the show’s token black guy. But they thought he had more to offer.
“All we’d seen of him is the tip of the iceberg,” says Henry. “And, as opposed to Peter Griffin or Homer Simpson or a lot of other protagonist dads, he doesn’t get himself into trouble just by being an idiot. He gets himself into trouble by trying to do the right thing but constantly making mistakes.”
Cleveland doesn’t want a lot from life: just fairness, groundedness and equilibrium.
“Never gonna happen,” chuckles Henry, who re-enacts a scene from an upcoming episode:
“He tells Rollo to sit through the commercials on the DVR.”
“Rollo says, ‘Sit through the commercials?! THAT’S why we got a DVR – to zip THROUGH them!”‘
“And Cleveland replies, ‘No, we got a DVR to sit through the commercials, too. Your generation just needs to callllllm downnnnnnnnn.”‘
Calm is his specialty. But now sleepy-eyed, pudgy Cleveland is capable of showing some fire. In the premiere, he sharply warns Roberta’s no-good boyfriend to have her back right on time from their date – or else.
Then, his point made, he giggles his best wishes that they have a nice evening.
The 43-year-old Henry (whose repertoire also includes Rollo and Herbert, the eternally deprived pedophile on “Family Guy”), began to demonstrate a gift for voices early on, mimicking teachers and fellow students.
That was back in Virginia, where he grew up the son of divorced artists of little means, “but somehow wound up in a private school with the offspring of bankers and lawyers and other conservative Southerners,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time trying to fit into that world, as well as hating it and making fun of it.”
“I always felt a little bit of an outsider. So I’ve been able to remove myself and observe life, through comedy.”
He met MacFarlane in 1995, and was part of “Family Guy” when it began a few years later. He created Cleveland as one of Peter’s drinking buddies.
Now Cleveland is on his own. So is Henry, who says the main input from his partner MacFarlane is furnishing the voice for shirt-and-tie-clad neighbour Tim the Bear.
A huge talking bear on an ordinary street? For Henry, that’s the essence of humour.
“In comedy, you take what’s normal and throw a ridiculous thing into it,” he says. “Then you let it play out.”