Mike Henry returns to W&L, inspires students to follow their passions

The Family Guy writer, producer and actor shared his story in Keller Theater


Emma Malinak

Henry shares clips of Family Guy and explains how scripts evolve from jokes and story ideas to a final animated scene.

Emma Malinak, Arts & Life Editor

Washington & Lee alum Mike Henry had a steady job at an advertising agency when he unexpectedly resigned and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy.

After risking everything to follow his passion, Henry found success as a writer, producer and voice actor on Family Guy and The Cleveland Show.

“I wouldn’t have done any of this if I didn’t take a leap,” Henry said. “I just made that decision– I’m leaving this life behind and I’m moving forward.”

Henry, who graduated from W&L in 1988, returned to his alma mater on Oct. 20 to share his story with current students and faculty. 

He encouraged students to pursue a job they like and that they are good at, even if that path is different from what their peers are doing or what the world expects of them. 

“If you like to make fart, weed and boob jokes, there’s a market for that,” Henry said, laughing as he reflected on his journey of finding ways to turn his signature humor into a career.

Despite his talent for making others laugh, he didn’t originally plan on pursuing a job in the arts.

“All along, I was the funny guy at the fraternity. I’d be the one imitating everyone in the room and imitating the professors, but I never thought it was really a viable thing,” Henry said. “I just wanted to build a great resume so I could go out and get one of those jobs where I could wear a tie.” 

When he wasn’t joking around with his fraternity brothers, Henry took classes for his history major, served as class president and gave campus tours during his time at W&L. 

After graduation, he got a job at an advertising firm in Richmond. But, wearing a tie to work every day was not as fulfilling as he hoped it would be.

“I realized very quickly that I had absolutely no interest in doing that stuff,” Henry said.

So Henry put in a six weeks’ notice and moved to Los Angeles in 1990. He tried to learn as much as possible by taking acting classes, performing stand up comedy, distributing headshots, writing skits and getting experience in production. 

He needed to take other small jobs to make ends meet. One of those jobs was being a waiter, and Henry remembers serving comedians like Robin Williams, Jerry Sienfeld and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  

“There was all of this success all around me,” Henry said. “But I trusted that, in that moment, I’m not ready to be Robin Williams or any of those guys yet. I’m doing the work, and the universe is going to line up and it’s going to happen when it’s supposed to happen.”

When Henry couldn’t catch his big break in LA, he moved to New York City in hopes of landing a job with Saturday Night Live. During his time in New York, he worked alongside comedians like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey at The Upright Citizens Brigade, a theater known for its improv and sketch comedy shows.

Henry kept writing and producing on his own as well. He would often share his ideas with Seth MacFarlane, an aspiring actor and producer who had gone to college with Henry’s brother. 

Even though MacFarlane was living in LA at the time, he and Henry would edit each other’s work and ask each other for advice. While Henry was creating content for Saturday Night Live auditions, MacFarlane was brainstorming ideas for a new animated comedy show.  

Those ideas became the foundation for Family Guy, and when MacFarlane sold the show to Fox in 1998, he invited Henry to move back to LA and help him create storylines and record voices for the new cast of characters.

“My humor was perfect for what Seth was doing,” Henry said. 

Henry created the character of Cleveland and later helped to create The Cleveland Show, a Family Guy spinoff. He voiced Cleveland along with numerous other characters during his time as a writer and producer for the series.

He enjoyed working with members of Black Eyed Peas, U2, R.E.M. and other bands as they made guest appearances in the animated shows. He said the pinnacle of his career was when he got to record a song with Earth, Wind and Fire for a Christmas special on The Cleveland Show.

Henry said he was only able to accomplish these successes when he learned to listen to himself and focus on what he wanted from life. He encouraged students to take time every day to meditate, pray, dance, run or do any other activity that allows you to “separate yourself from all the thoughts that are racing constantly through your head.”

“Believe in yourself,” Henry said. “And believe in that thing in your brain or in your soul that talks to you when you’re quiet.”