Welcome to his 'House'

Tyler Perry, playright, screenwriter, actor, finds success and a growing audience with humorous stories that center on black characters

June 12, 2006|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY | MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY,SUN REPORTER

Don't offer Tyler Perry a penny for his thoughts. Though there was a time when he might have jumped at that bid, his going rate is much higher these days.

Perry is a writer and performer of stage plays, movies, a book - and, starting today in Baltimore, of a television show. His stories, which typically center upon African-American characters and use humor to grapple with painful issues such as drug abuse and unfaithful spouses, have struck a chord with members of his ever-widening audience.

His success has resulted in an eight-figure income, a 26-room, $5 million mansion in Atlanta, and more recently, a 1,600-foot condo in New York, according to news reports. Not bad for a guy who, just a few years ago, was homeless.

And not bad for someone who has racked up those sales despite eschewing traditional promotional methods.

"He has operated totally under the radar," says Jannette Dates, dean of Howard University's John N. Johnson School of Communications.

"You don't hear about his plays or movies on the radio. You didn't read about them in the newspapers until recently, when he got really huge. What he did, he did all by word of mouth."

For instance, Perry's second and most recent film, Madea's Family Reunion, didn't provide advance screenings for critics, so few newspapers ran reviews (and those that were printed were overwhelmingly negative). That didn't prevent the film from being ranked No. 1 at the box office for the first two weekends after it was released. In the film, Madea, a gun-toting, wisdom-spouting grandma, has her hands full. She takes in an angry teenage runaway, helps one niece deal with domestic abuse and counsels another on her love problems - all the while immersed in planning a family reunion, wedding and funeral.

Perry's first movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, also topped the box-office charts. Madea shelters her beleaguered granddaughter, Helen, as she is reeling from the discovery that her filthy-rich lawyer husband has fathered a son with another woman. The two movies have made a combined $115 million to date, on an investment of a mere $11.8 million.

No. 1 book

Perry's book, Don't Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings (a kind of humorous Chicken Soup for the Soul featuring "advice" from Madea), debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction hardcover books April 30. As of June 4, it still ranked fourth.

The success of Perry's stage plays, which touch on themes similar to those of his films, is more difficult to gauge, but he says they were performed before more than 35,000 people a week in 2005, selling out more than 300 theaters nationwide. "There's a whole audience out there who has not been counted," Perry, 36, says in a recent conference call with the nation's television critics.

"They have been widely ignored and hugely underserved for years and years and years. I received a great piece of advice a few years ago: `Stay in your lane.' And that's what I've tried to do. I haven't tried to cross over. I haven't tried to go mainstream.

"When I perform my stage plays, I see 35,000 to 40,000 of my critics each week. They tell me what works. They tell me what doesn't work. It's an instant reaction. As long as the people who show up are happy, I know that what I put on stage and on film will appeal to them. They're the only people I count."

Perry's newest project, his television show House of Payne, tells the story of a fire chief named C.J. Payne whose wife, a drug addict, burns down their house. C.J. and his two children are forced to move in with his parents. With three generations living under the same roof, conflict and misunderstandings inevitably arise, but the characters overcome their difficulties by drawing on their love for one another and their faith in God. Perry is the creator, director, writer and an executive producer for the show.

That sounds not unlike The Andy Griffith Show. But while House of Payne might be a modern-day updating of a tried-and-true formula, the method by which the show reaches viewers is not.

Working with Debmar-Mercury, a California-based media company, Perry is trying out an innovative distribution model.

Television shows generally are developed and owned by networks. Instead, House of Payne was created for syndication, with a package of episodes sold directly to individual stations in 10 test markets nationwide.

A limited run of 10 episodes is being tested this summer; in Baltimore, the show will air at 10 p.m. today through Friday, and June 19-23 on WNUV-TV, Channel 54. If House of Payne is a hit, new episodes will begin airing weekly in the fall of 2007.

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