In its seventh season, it’s rather obvious that Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne” is anything but a house of pain for TBS.
As it approaches its 200th episode, this family sitcom can boast millions of loyal fans as well as an enviable financial track record, based on an economic model that generates savings through mass production.
“House of Payne” is consistently among the top-five comedies watched by African-Americans. Its premiere on TBS set a record for first-run comedies on basic cable, and with a total order of 264 episodes, it will pass “The Jeffersons,” for most episodes for an African-American laffer.
Though a gap remains between the show’s blazing success and some critical assessments of its sociopolitical values, “House of Payne” still can boast armfuls of honors, including the NAACP Image Awards in March for comedy series, comedy lead actor (LaVan Davis) and comedy supporting actor in a comedy series (Lance Gross).
The secret is willpower, says creator, director, writer and occasional actor Perry.
“I was absolutely 100% determined to make it happen,” Perry says. “That kind of tenacity is contagious. The people around me are really inspired by it. Even my audience is very inspired by my tenacity.”
An abused child who grew up in New Orleans, Perry drew inspiration from his faith as well as the gospel of self-confidence espoused by Oprah Winfrey, both of which assured him he could overcome adversity. He started with stage plays performed in churches and graduated to feature films and, in 2006, to the premiere of “House of Payne.”
The first 10 episodes appeared in syndication during the summer, airing on WTBS and nine other broadcast outlets. Noting the strong response, TBS ordered 100 more episodes, relaunching the series on basic cable. To this day, orders still come in large clumps. TBS announced in April it would end production of “House of Payne” after 222 episodes. Then it decided to order 42 more, reasoning that fresh episodes can help launch Perry’s next series, “For Better or Worse.”
From the start, Perry was certain this multigenerational tale of a single father and his two children who move in with his aunt and uncle would strike a chord with viewers, particularly those outside the media centers of New York and Los Angeles. The show is produced at Perry’s studio in Atlanta, a facility that was once the headquarters for Delta Airlines.
“Hollywood knows very little about my audience,” he says. “It includes turnkey kids, single parents, people who have a lot of things going on.”
These people tune in to see Perry’s TV family discuss faith and God and forgiveness.
“People are longing for these things,” he says. “I’m bringing a lot of positivity to television.”
Perry says he would have liked to tape the show before a studio audience, but it would have been difficult to schedule. For the sake of economy and efficiency, as many as three episodes are made in a single week. Adding live performances would have been exhausting for the actors, he says.
Perry confidently places his show on a par with such classics as “The Cosby Show” and “Sanford and Son.” To win this year’s NAACP Image award, “House of Payne” topped NBC’s “30 Rock,” Fox’s “Glee” and ABC’s “Modern Family.”
Still, not everyone agrees “House of Payne” is a show for the ages. Entertainment Weekly called it a “bleak premise.” Said the New York Times: “If ever a show could cause actual physical pain, TBS’ ‘House of Payne’ might be the one. Glaringly, shamefully, insultingly inept …”
In a letter to fans in April, Perry said he recently looked back at the critical reviews, including “a headline that read, ‘This Show Will Never Make It.’ … Isn’t it interesting how some people can only speak negatively? I think they would have a stroke before they would admit they were wrong.”
The critics never dismayed him, he went on to write.
“We knew we would make it and so did you! Let this be a lesson for your own dreams. Don’t worry about people telling you what you can’t do. If God has said you can do it, just go in faith.”
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