Tonight is the TBS premiere of Tyler Perry's first TV show "House of Payne", which like his other productions is about a southern black family and their various troubles and successes. There aren't many other people working in entertainment today like Tyler Perry, who has become enormously popular and rich working outside mainstream media channels.
"House of Payne" aired for 10 episodes last spring in New York, Philly, Chicago, Houston, DC, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Baltimore and Raleigh, and was popular enough to incite a bidding war among networks. TBS bought an unprecedented 100 episodes of the show, which start airing tonight, and Fox also got in on the deal to air episodes starting next fall.
Not bad for a show totally created by one man (Tyler Perry is director, producer, executive producer and writer) who paid for the production of the first 10 episodes himself at his own studio, then sold those into syndication, then got a network to buy 100 episodes at once. As the New York Times points out in an article about the phenomenal success of every single thing Tyler Perry does, this is backwards from the usual process of getting a network show made, and has allowed him to continue making the kinds of productions that studios may not be quick to recognize as promising: "I went to LA and pitched to a room full of studio execs," Mr. Perry said. "They told me I couldn’t say 'Jesus' on television and nobody would watch it."
Just like his 2005 movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman generated a lot of terrible reviews from critics, some angry statements from black cultural theorists and writers, and gigantic ticket sales (and even led to an exchange between us and Roger Ebert,) how you react to "House of Payne" seems to depend a lot on who you are and what you expect from a sitcom. If you're Jill Nelson, African-American cultural critic who wrote about Perry in Essence, you think it's insulting to women and not funny. If you're the kind of person who writes on the IMDb discussion boards, you either think it's a shameless exploitation of offensive black stereotypes, or you think it depicts important truths about black American families. Or you're just mad that it replaced "Girlfriends" in its time slot.
Either way, enough people who watch TV and buy movie and theater tickets love Tyler Perry, and helped him move off the "chitlin' circuit" to reach a national audience. A lot of people (maybe especially a lot of white people) may not like or understand his style, but he's already shooting a second comedy series called "Meet the Browns", shooting a talk show, two new movies, and is making plans for his own TV network.
Personally, I think the mainstream critical responses to Tyler Perry's productions really demonstrate how far removed those critics are from his core audience. The Times article refers to Niyi Coker Jr., a professor of theater and media studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis:
Perry’s work was filling a void in many mediums. "It’s not sophisticated or theatrical in the Western context," he said, but it strikes a deep chord with Mr. Perry’s audience, which does not see their stories in many places.
It's also interesting to see the creative ways a TV network like TBS markets to an audience that they know is out there and that they want a piece of: they're running a contest on the "House of Payne" website where you can win $25,000 for your church and a trip on a Sheridan Gospel Network cruise. Mm-hmm. How often do you see mainstream secular TV networks offering a donation to a church as an incentive to viewers?