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.
Ira Bernstein, co-president of Debmar-Mercury, says their business model is based on the release strategy used by independent films. "Every time Tyler has done something, he has set records," he says. "In every media, what Tyler has created and brought to market doesn't just do a little bit better than the model, or a little bit worse. It blows the model away. So we're totally betting that this show will work."
Most important, from Perry's standpoint, is that syndicating his show allows him, and not network executives, to make all decisions about story lines, dialogue and casting. "A few years ago, I had an opportunity to do a sitcom for a network," Perry says. "I walked away from it because I would have lost all creative control. I know my audience, and I know what they want to see."
In his early days, Perry advertised by providing inserts for church bulletins, tacking up posters in youth centers and doing limited advertising on African-American radio stations. Now, he relies on e-mail. Over the years, he says, he has built up a database of more than 100,000 names, and he urges his correspondents to forward the information to their friends. "Most of my stage shows sell out before we even get to the cities," he says.
Until now, Dates says, working-class, church-going black people rarely saw their lives represented in popular culture. Perry, she says, has tapped into a hunger for authentication that is all the more ravenous for its having been so long denied.
"If you are middle class, there are things about his characters you recognize," she says. "Black people who are middle class generally had to go through some tough times to become middle class. His characters and situations really do ring true to a black audience in a way that a white audience doesn't get, and shouldn't get."
For instance, who but a black playwright would think to name a character "Madea" - a Southern contraction of "Mother, Dear." "I call my mother 'Madea,'" Dates says. "Everybody has a black relative of that name."
To portray this larger-than-life-sized character, the 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound Perry puts on a wig, rhinestone-colored glasses, fat suit, prosthetic breasts and flowered housedress. He also frequently plays additional roles - not unlike comedian Eddie Murphy.
Everett Marshburn, a four-time Emmy Award-winning producer and former senior vice president of communications for Maryland Public Television, says that audiences also are drawn to Perry's emphasis on ethics. His characters strive to do right.
"His message always is positive," Marshburn says. "It's not about black people versus white people, but about black people doing right by black people. There isn't much profanity, and there are very basic ideas about how to get along in life."
Marshburn says that Perry's audience believes, or wants to believe, in the American Dream. If they flock to his work, it may be in part because Perry is living proof that the dream can come true - even for a boy who grew up poor in New Orleans and was beaten by the man who was supposed to protect him.
"I was physically and verbally abused as a child," Perry says, "with vacuum cleaner cords, anything my father could get his hands on. I never ended up in the hospital, but everybody knew about the beatings. My mother knew. My sisters knew."
The only peace the boy found was in the church.
"My faith in God helped me understand a lot of things," Perry says. "There was no money for therapy, and therapy still isn't accepted in the black community. Church was our therapy. It seemed that every week, the pastor would be saying exactly what I needed to hear."
Perry seems to have a rare ability to recognize good advice when he hears it, even from a source as casual and removed as a television celebrity.
In 1991, Perry was watching an episode of Oprah Winfrey's show in which she mentioned that people trying to heal emotional wounds often were helped by writing about their experiences.
The result was Perry's first play, I Know I've Been Changed, and it was based on his memories as an abused child. The burgeoning playwright moved to Atlanta and began working as a youth counselor and bill collector. When he had saved $12,000, he rented a 200-seat theater in 1992 as a venue for his play. "Only 30 people came for the entire first weekend," he says.
Perry was left flat broke, and spent the next three months living out of his car, until he had saved enough for an apartment deposit. But he was undeterred.
He staged I Know I've Been Changed again in 1993. Again, it bombed. And in 1994. 1995. 1996. And 1997. Year after year, the play flopped and year after year, Perry lost every penny of his savings.
Finally, in 1998, his persistence - some might call it ruinous obduracy - paid off. He began to sell out shows.
"Nothing changed," he says. "The script didn't change. The way I was performing it didn't change."
He pauses. "What changed is that in 1998, at age 28, I forgave my father. The change was in me."
Not only did Perry find a new serenity, he found a theme. For the first time, audiences seemed to believe that he really had made peace with his past. While not all of his plays and movies are as autobiographical as I Know I've Been Changed, all are about recovering from psychic trauma. "I have this great catharsis in my work," he says. "Everything I've gone through, other people have gone through, too. That's why people connect to it. What's from the heart reaches the heart."
In Perry's case, of course, what's in the heart also reaches his pocketbook and fills it nicely.
And why shouldn't it? Perry's success is nothing if not hard-won. As Madea herself has put it:
"The grass is always greener on the other side, but the water bill is higher."
Job: Writer and actor.
Accomplishments:Two films that debuted at No. 1 at the box office, a book that for two weeks topped The New York Times best-seller list, stage plays that play to nearly 2 million people each year. And now, a new television show, House of Payne.
Most memorable character: The gun-toting, wisdom-spouting, bosom-enhanced grandmother named Madea, loosely based on Perry's mother, Maxine, and aunt, Big Mabel Murphy.
Celebrities who appear in his movies: Actress Cicely Tyson, poet Maya Angelou
Born: New Orleans
Education: He is a high school graduate.
Personal: He is single and has no children.
House of Payne airs at 10 p.m. tonight through Friday and June 19-23 on WNUV-TV, Channel 54.