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Screenwriter lectures on success

John-Paul Witt | Friday, December 1, 2006

“Family Guy” writer and co-star Mike Henry shared a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a cartoon star with 80 audience members in DeBartolo Thursday.

“Stick to your guns,” was Henry’s advice to hopeful Hollywood aspirants.

“When you’re 32 and broke it’s depressing, but I couldn’t settle for anything else,” he said. “If you can do anything else in the world besides being in Hollywood and be happy, do it. But for me, that was impossible.”

Henry’s life was not one of instant success. He didn’t land the full-time job writing for “Family Guy” until he was 32, and that was only after many false starts and years of poverty.

“Family Guy” is a popular cartoon on the Fox network entering its sixth season of production, and Henry attributes the show’s success to the fact that each episode takes 10 months to produce.

“Being rewritten for months and months makes our jokes much stronger than a normal sitcom, which is shot in a week and can’t be re-shot,” he said.

The concept which drives “Family Guy,” Henry said, is both the desire to “make fun of everything” and the idea that each individual joke will only be understood by 10 percent of the audience – but that 10 percent will enjoy the joke that much more.

Henry joked how his career in Hollywood began by working at the Gap. As a 25-year-old bent on breaking into show business, Henry said he eked out a meager living doing stand-up comedy, waiting to be noticed after moving to Los Angeles.

After three years, he moved back to his home in Virginia and made a video of himself acting as what is now the “Family Guy” character Cleveland.

From this small beginning, he said, he started filming parodies of popular commercials for a film class and eventually made a commercial for a friend’s restaurant. This spot went on to win a national ad award, and Henry decided to move to New York to “get on ‘Saturday Night Live.'”

Henry eventually met “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels and landed a job to create short films to air between programs. After one year in New York, Henry said he had accumulated nothing but “$30,000 in credit card debt.” The success of his short films, however, led to an offer as a writer for the new show “Family Guy,” created by Seth MacFarlane.

“Family Guy” premiered after the Super Bowl in 1999 – one of the most coveted time slots in television, Henry said – and the show has been wildly successful thanks primarily to support from college and middle-aged men.

Henry said the show faced cancellation from a hostile Fox studio in 2002, but the sale of three million “Family Guy” DVDs that year gave it enough momentum to continue.

The reason why many people with potential fail, Henry said, is that they don’t try hard enough.

“If you feel like your dream in life is to go out and do something crazy, do it, and keep at it,” he said.

Henry, a Catholic, said he hopes he won’t go to hell for controversial “Family Guy” jokes, and added that he “hate[s] USC.”