Santa Cruz native and UC Santa Cruz alumnus, Michael Shipley, found Santa Cruz to be an idyllic place to grow up during the 1970s and ‘80s. It was the place where he discovered his creative passion, eventually leading him to become not only a very talented photographer and musician, but also an award-winning television writer and producer for highly successful television shows, including Family Guy and American Dad!.
Michael’s connection to UCSC was particularly special since his father, William Shipley was a beloved and pioneering professor who founded the UCSC Board of Studies in Linguistics and was an expert in the once obsolete Maidu language of Northern California. Professor Shipley died in 2011 after having taught at UCSC since 1966, a year after the university opened. Michael’s mother, Barbara, was the psychiatrist for the university at Cowell Health Center.
“The idealism of the hippie era was winding down, but there was still an enormous sense of hope and excitement about the future,” says Michael of his time growing up in Santa Cruz. “The university had drawn so many exceptional colorful people to Santa Cruz… there was a community for me….”
Riding Around Santa Cruz
As a student at Westlake Elementary, Shipley fondly remembers riding his bike with his friends all over the neighborhood, discovering cool places to explore, and never having to worry about locking doors.
By the time he was a student at Santa Cruz High, he was riding his bike down to the yacht harbor and learning how to sail a 35-foot sloop. In almost stereotypical Santa Cruz fashion, his sailing teacher also introduced him to championing for important social causes including UNICEF and Amnesty International.
“Like so much of my time in Santa Cruz, it was beautiful and conscious and vulnerable,” says Michael of his childhood. But he also reflects on the what he calls the “darker” sides that he witnessed some of friends going through. “I had friends who were suffering more than I knew from neglect or abuse born of the narcissism and rejection of responsibility with which their parents were gleefully experimenting.”
"UCSC was the only place I applied to..."
When it came time to think about attending college, Michael had one choice. “Our family was kind of coming apart when I was finishing high school, so I don’t think our parents were super engaged about where my sister and I were going to go to college,” he says. “UCSC was the only place I applied to because it felt familiar and safe. And I knew the values of the school were going to be pretty close to my own.”
He remembers not only having a great time there, but also getting a great education. One of his teachers was none other than the legendary Tom Lehrer (‘60’s singer-songwriter, satirist, and mathematician), who had a profound impact on Shipley and his choice to have an artistic life.
“I adored taking Tom Lehrer’s class in the American musical,” says Michael. “Tom is an intellectual as well as a creative genius, and I don’t use that word lightly. Doing five staged readings/singings of musicals in one quarter was wonderful, but Tom’s lectures were amazing, too.”
And there was also a favorite professor who even got a mention years later in one of Michael’s scripts for Family Guy. Michael named Old Man Selberg in the Viewer Mail 1 episode after his UCSC fencing teacher, “Jedi-like” Charles Selberg.
Besides being a leader in the linguistics field, Michael’s father acted in and directed plays for many years at UCSC. Michael credits his dad with teaching him how to engage with his own emotions and learning the importance of enjoying life.
He also admired how his father emphasized the value of being polite, although that turned out to have its downsides, too. There were times when Michael discovered that when politeness didn’t work, he needed alternative tactics, but finding out what those were wasn’t easy.
“Working in Hollywood hasn’t pried me loose from my belief in kindness,” comments Michael, “but it’s given me lots of practice at developing backup strategies. There are a lot of really good-hearted people working in TV, but there are more than enough ruthless competitive sharks that if you don’t learn to compete…to pick yourself up when things explode in your face, you won’t get to do the creative things you love.”
A turning point in Michael’s life came during his 20s when his father told him that he was gay. Michael saw it as yet another vital part of what made his dad into an incredible person, and not something to be called out separately.
Learning About Compassion
Michael notes how his father’s deep involvement and feelings for the Native American community helped to teach him how to be compassionate and empathize with people who had far greater challenges than he did.
Of his father, Michael also remembers: “He liked freedom. He liked kindness. He liked gatherings of good friends, he liked beautiful things in the world….Knowledge for him wasn’t a parsimonious stacking of facts and figures, it was a tool to paint your worldview with the brightest, darkest most interesting colors possible.”
Landing at Warner Brothers, where Michael works today, from the sublime bubble of Santa Cruz took more than a few twists and turns. He originally decided to try his hand at acting and thought that moving to Los Angeles would be the way to go.
He had just graduated from UCSC but had also gone through the staggering grief of having his mother die from cancer. “I was really depressed and didn’t want to do anything but stare off into space,” he recalls. “So my girlfriend and I moved to LA together, where I promptly got into a car accident. I was in physical therapy for the next few months.”
As difficult as that was, the experience also carried with it an unexpected silver lining. Not being very mobile at the time allowed Michael to really take in how much his friends were struggling in the acting world, and how it was definitely not the right career choice for him.
After his recuperation, he decided to take on practical jobs with steady paychecks by teaching English and working in construction. But after a few years, he realized that “all that practicality was killing me.” He got in touch with a fellow UCSC slug, Kelley Gibler, who had a sketch comedy troupe, and ended up writing, acting, and directing a variety of “bizarre” comedy sketches that eventually got the attention of some entertainment agents.
“Someone asked if we had any TV scripts….So one of the guys and I sometimes wrote with fellow slug, Jim Bernstein, and I decided to start writing TV scripts and trying to break into the business, even though we knew nobody and nothing about how things worked in Hollywood.”
A big break just in time
Success didn’t take hold right away and, after five hard-working years of writing scripts, Michael seriously considered leaving LA. Just as he was making plans to move on, he and Bernstein were called in for an interview to write for a quirky sci-fi TV show called Homeboys In Outer Space.
“We ended up waiting for [the showrunner] in his office, which gave us a chance to screw around with all the sci-fi books and toys he had on his coffee table,” says Michael. “He interviewed us and we got the job, but later he told me he’d been standing in the hall watching us dick around in his office before he came in and that’s when he actually decided to hire us.”
As fate would have it, Matt Weitzman and Mike Barker also happened to be writers on that short-lived show. They would both go on to work with Seth MacFarlane and, not only write for Family Guy, but also create American Dad!.
And, with one thing leading to another, they would eventually recommend Michael and Jim Bernstein to be writers on Family Guy.
Michael, who refers to Seth MacFarlane as “ridiculously talented”, has a favorite anecdote about working with him. (At least one he can repeat publically!) Because MacFarlane was so involved with Family Guy, his time spent on scripts for American Dad! was limited, so he would catch up during the weekly table reads.
“Seth was shockingly unaware of any popular songs recorded after 1960,” says Michael. “On this particular day a character that Seth was voicing had to sing a snippet of some song from the ‘90s.”
MacFarlane hadn’t heard of the song and asked writer Mike Barker to sing it to him. “Mike sang the melody and Seth scribbled a music staff in the margin of his script and quickly wrote out the melody. When we got to that moment in the table read, Seth sight read the music (and the words) off his script without missing a beat.”
Michael hopes one day to have his own show on TV and had been working on that when fate again intervened with an irresistible opportunity to write for the CBS hit show, Mom.
“It meant I had to walk away from my development, which was mildly heartbreaking, but it was too great an opportunity to pass up,” he says. The Emmy-award winning show was co-created by the industry’s most successful TV comedy producer, Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Grace Under Fire) and stars Allison Janney and Anna Farris.
As an extra plus, Michael also is working with another very talented UCSC Arts Division alum on Mom, Emmy-award winning writer Anne Flett-Giordano. “And what a glorious bonus that the writing staff on Mom turned out to be brilliant and kind,” he says.
Along with his writing, Michael’s remarkable creative talents also extend to photography and music. He has to date produced two CDs, Blood and Vanity and more recently the EP Voices in the Dark, which contain songs that give insight into his own personal journey.
On Blood and Vanity there are a couple of songs that speak directly to his family’s experience with the Maidu people, Don’t Let Me Forget and Ja’lulu’Kojo’di (Flute of the Valley in Maidu). And his fond memories of Santa Cruz are lyrically depicted on Voices in the Dark in the song City By the Sea.
Finding Balance with photography
His photography provides him a sense of balance. “It’s refreshing for me how a photograph, although it shares some visual territory with scripts, is silent, wordless and stops time instead of moving through it,” he reflects.
“Photography also helps me explore different parts of myself from the ones that come up when I write scripts. There are very few people in my pictures. I like the resonance of open empty spaces. That’s often serene, but also often wistful or aching.”
When asked what advice he would pass on to UCSC students who want do to what he does, Michael emphasizes that it’s crucial to make friends with as many people as possible who are also interested in what you want to do. Taking the initiative and not sinking into passivity is also key.
“The specific strategies vary depending on what you’re pursuing, but in general, you should contact everyone you know or someone you know knows in the industry and just ask to meet them and get their insight and advice,” he says. “Even reach out to people with whom you have some tenuous connection, like the same name or school or hometown. And be likable. Whether you’re trying to get a job as an assistant or a producer, people hire people they want to be around.”
He also encourages students to pursue everything they’re passionate about in the industry, and not to limit themselves to one professional route, if possible.
“Maybe most importantly, never forget the value of your art whether or not you’re getting paid for it,” says Michael. “It’s exciting and wonderful to get paid for your art, to get that validation and opportunities from the industry, but don’t let that replace your love of the work.
“And whatever your craft, you should be working on it as you try to become ‘successful’. So love it, value it, indulge in it. The worst thing that will happen is you’ll have amazing creative adventures, learn about the human experience, have a great time and not make a fortune or become famous.
“But you’ll be leading a creative life, and that’s really what it’s all about.”
For more information about Michael be sure to check out his website: michaelshipley.org.