Tyler Perry outsmarted movie studios with a series of low-budget films that were big at the box office. Now he's taking on television.By Ken Parish Perkins
There's a love fest happening with Madea, the trash-talking, fists-flying grandma the size of a city bus. Millions have flocked to the stage plays and big-screen life lessons masquerading as urban family adventures. So many gladly plopped down $23.95 for the 272-page journal of Madea wit, wisdom, and wisecracks that Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life easily raced to the New York Times best-seller list for hardcover nonfiction.
Of course, she is really a he. Tyler Perry, in a wig, dress, and stockings - and with a walk that resembles a six-foot-five linebacker navigating high heels - is writer, performer, and Madea architect. He's a self-professed "womanologist," whose insight and inspiration come from the hours he spent in women's clothing stores and beauty shops, dragged there as a little boy by a mother hoping to keep him out of harm's way.
What has made Perry's exploits extraordinary isn't necessarily how he's managed to turn what's essentially a gimmick (big man in a dress - how original is that?) into a lucrative franchise - though that's impressive, too - but how he's done it by deliberately sidestepping the usual paths. His stage plays, usually about faith and redemption and tinged with gospel and soul music, weren't ever meant for Broadway but for the so-called chitlin' circuit, an off-the-beaten-path network of theaters that cater to black, faith-based audiences yearning to whoop and holler. He used the enormous success of the stage plays to leverage a sweet deal with Lionsgate to get Madea on film and in theaters.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman earned more than $50 million and Madea's Family Reunion nearly $70 million. Since they only cost about $5 million to make, his films are a bargain to Lionsgate, which will distribute Why Did I Get Married and A Jazz Man's Blues after it puts Daddy's Little Girls into theaters on Valentine's Day.
Perry's latest feat of Houdini magic, though, could turn out to be his craftiest yet.
Situation comedies made for television usually come from the same stock in trade: Network buys sitcom it likes from a studio, finds a decent time slot, promotes it like mad, and then, with fingers crossed, hopes the forces of nature all converge for a big, sloppy hit.
Perry didn't want to go that way.
He saw a different route in syndication, which is to go for the morning and early evening airtimes that local and independent stations fill with reruns of network shows like Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond.
First-run shows in syndication are almost always talk shows, like Oprah and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, or judge shows. Not since Harry and the Hendersons, about a Bigfoot-like creature, has a show had even modest success in first-run syndication. Harry aired for three seasons in the early 1990s, when there was considerably less competition on television.
But don't bet against Perry. House of Payne, a traditional multicamera series about a firefighter who moves back into his parents' home with his two kids after his drug-addicted wife accidentally burns down his house, aired in about 10 cities last spring - as a kind of test - when Perry enticed local stations to run the program by not charging them a licensing fee.
He cut a deal with stations to instead promote the show on air and through local print campaigns, with the goal of securing first an audience, then advertisers, and then a certified slot sometime this year.
A number of stations jumped on it - who wouldn't when "free" is part of the deal? - and House of Payne was able to garner enough viewers to get cable channels intrigued. Some Fox stations, along with TBS, will air the series on a national rollout this summer. TBS makes sense, considering the proximity: TBS also is in Atlanta, where this month Perry is opening a 60,000-square-foot studio to house his films and television series.
Perry's work ethic credo is simple: "I don't take no," he says. "I think, How can I do this?"
His drive, as did his affinity for what's on women's minds, came by osmosis: His father was abusive verbally and physically, and Perry always felt the need to measure up. His need to control his surroundings is just as potent, which explains why he's more likely to go his own way than to take the bad end of a lopsided deal.
"Giving it to a network would mean giving up a lot of the creative control," Perry says of House of Payne. "Just like with the films, I just didn't want to do that. It's turned out to be the best thing I've done."
Perry will have his hands full. He’s producing, writing, and directing the series, but he doesn’t star in it — which means it’s unlikely you’ll see Madea, even in a cameo role.
“I’ve been trying to find ways to get out of the clothing, not in it,” Perry says. “The costume is not the most comfortable getup. Plus, those shoes kill my feet.”