Tyler Perry threw a party recently in Baltimore and only a select few were on his invitation list.
The creator of the sharp-tongued, heart-o'-gold character Madea and director of the feature films Why Did I Get Married? and Meet the Browns wasn't there. But it didn't matter.
About 50 "super fans" of Tyler Perry's hit cable sitcom House of Payne came to Baltimore's Charles Theatre to view future episodes of the family sitcom as part of a marketing strategy for the TBS show.
They dined on platters of bacon-wrapped scallops, barbecued shrimp, quesadillas, spring rolls and all the cheese, crackers, fruit and cookies they could eat.
A disc jockey mixed old-school hip-hop with the latest R&B;, while Christian comedian John Gray was host and shared laughs with the crowd.
The party attendees were viewers who never miss an episode of the African-American family show.
The Baltimore super fans' party was one of three held recently. The other two were in Chicago and Atlanta. According to TBS, House of Payne's ratings are very high in Charm City. Out of 56 markets, Baltimore ranks 13th in viewership. That ranking helped make the show the No. 1 cable sitcom.
Vicki Free, entertainment marketing vice president, says parties such as these allow TBS to get feedback from viewers and thank them for watching.
"We knew that creating a fun environment was going to be critical. We wanted to replicate the experience they get from watching the show on TBS," she says. "We also know that these fans are brand ambassadors. They know a lot of people and they are highly influential in their sphere of friends and colleagues. We wanted to empower them with tools to recruit more viewers for the show."
House of Payne is the brainchild of Perry, who weaves comedy into a sometimes serious story line about a family of four (including a wife who's a drug addict) that is forced to move into the husband's uncle and aunt's house. Much of the show's comedy relies on wisecracking, a type of humor that made shows such as All in the Family and The Jeffersons successful.
The party gave fans an opportunity to help craft the direction of future shows and remind the writers about what's important to viewers.
Aaron James, 38, of Ellicott City says he and wife Dylana can watch the show and not be put off by any stereotypes.
"It's funny, but it's just a positive representation of who we are," James says. "This ain't Good Times, people who never got out of the ghetto, no matter how hard they worked. These are people who have progressed through life, been in certain situations and have been successful coming through it. ... The show is a positive projection of black culture."
Dylana James zeroed in on another theme of the show: how families are portrayed. "There's some appeal with the family unit, the black family unit. ... You don't see a lot of that on television. That's important," she says.
Charles and DeShaun Reid drove from Upper Marlboro for the party. DeShaun Reid recounted how she was particularly touched by an episode that tackled the tough issue of breast cancer.
"My mother just had a mastectomy. When I watched ... it was just the fact of being able to watch that show and watch [Ella Payne] worrying," she says. "We actually had to go through my mother being diagnosed, and her breast being removed. It's just what's happening in real life and, if nothing else, it's making everybody aware."
Ciara Thacker, 23, of Baltimore said she reserves Wednesday night at 9 to watch House of Payne.
"I like that it's a family-oriented show," she says. "It's majority black. We see a lot of family shows on TV that are majority white. To see a show that is majority black and has real topics, I really like it and I can relate to it."
Several audience members also said that they appreciate that the elder husband-and-wife characters, Ella and Curtis Payne, portrayed by Cassi Davis and LaVan Davis, are not Hollywood thin, but instead depict real-life families.
Despite the fan support, Perry has been criticized in the media for his use of overweight black female characters in his plays, movies and House of Payne.
He has been a vocal defender of that portrayal, calling the characters reflections of his mother and aunts, both of whom are overweight.
Not all the super fans' reviews of the show were favorable, however.
Perry's Madea character has made a few cameo appearances on House of Payne. The fans love Madea, but they don't want to see too much of her, fearing she may overshadow the Payne family.
It's likely super fans from Baltimore and other cities will remain part of the evolution and growth of the Tyler Perry brand. April's party was a first, but Free says it delivered a wealth of information.
"This is a great way to reward the super fans of the show and celebrate with them, to bring them closer to the show, meet the cast and to give us ideas on how to better market the show," she says. "No one knows better how to market the show than they do."