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The 'House' that Perry built

Tyler Perry hopes his ability to draw black audiences translates to the TV screen with the sitcom he spent his own money to test.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published June 6, 2007


Tyler Perry is one contradictory brother.

He's a symbol of black empowerment and success in Hollywood who creates black characters some consider highly stereotypical. He's an entertainer popular with old-school traditionalists who has made his fortune dressing like a woman.

And he's about to conquer television with one of the most formulaic, predictable situation comedies in recent memory, centered on a firefighter whose wife leaves the family because she has become a crackhead.

"It is a throwback to what we really enjoy, like The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show, " Perry said during a 10-minute interview about the black-centered comedy House of Payne, debuting tonight on TBS. "That's what I wanted to have on television - a show with real stories, real subjects . . . with (actors) who looked like real Americans, not a bunch of beautiful, skinny people."

Among those who didn't enjoy Payne so much: the broadcast network that was supposed to air it. He won't name names, but Perry said executives didn't like the crackhead angle, the religious references and the Hollywood unknowns in the cast (two major roles were filled by veterans of Perry's black-centered touring stage plays).

So Perry used the same playbook he developed when Hollywood tried to control the movie versions of his successful plays. He did it himself.

Investing an estimated $5-million of his own cash, Perry produced 10 test episodes of Payne and aired them across the country. When ratings jumped, he cut a syndication deal with TBS worth an estimated $200-million, with the bonus of retaining ownership and control.

"I looked at Oprah's formula and how she set up her talk show and said, 'Well, can that be done with a sitcom?' " said Perry.

The 37-year-old has built a fortune on his ability to draw black audiences, first for his plays ($150-million since 1998), then for film versions such as 2005's Diary of a Mad Black Woman and 2006's Madea's Family Reunion ($110-million combined revenue, according to Fortune magazine).

Factor in sales of DVDs, books and audiobooks, and you have a sprawling enterprise based on Perry's instinct for reaching his target audience: middle-class, religious black women.

"Well, even though African-American religious is a huge part of our audience, everybody who is associated with those women are also a huge part of that audience, " said Perry.

Unfortunately, the series doesn't yet live up to Perry's lofty goals. Featuring play veteran LaVan Davis as blustery firehouse chief Curtis Payne, the show picks up with Payne taking in his nephew and fellow firefighter C.J. after C.J.'s house mysteriously burns down.

If you've seen any sitcom in the past 30 years, you know the drill: Jokes abound about freeloading relatives (C.J.: "Can't you see I already have too much on my plate?" Curtis: "Why don't you ever say that when you're eating my food?") and the crusty uncle with anger-management issues.

By the time C.J.'s wife starts disappearing for long stretches, looking like she stopped using hair-care products a few weeks ago, viewers have guessed how C.J.'s house went down.

It's an incredibly leaden sitcom that even Perry's cameo appearance as his signature grandmother, Mable "Madea" Simmons, can't salvage. At a time when TV audiences are rejecting everything that even smells like a traditional sitcom, this seems a step above throwing $200-million in a Studio City dumpster.

But Hollywood is littered with executives who lost millions by underestimating Perry and his signature appeal.

"This comes from years of working and building this audience . . . out on the road, face to face, " he said. "There's this connection we have . . . this trust in what I do and trust in the material that I always have to respect and maintain."

WATCH IT

Tyler Perry's House of Payne

The series debuts at 9 tonight on TBS. Grade: D.