Tyler Perry speaks of his following, his "core audience," with great respect.
No wonder. Those fans — mostly Christian, black and female — made each Tyler Perry play a hot ticket. They made his films (which include "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion") box-office hits, and his book, "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings," a best-seller.
Embracing Perry's comic but relatable vision of working-class black family life, his core audience made him a star and an entertainment mogul — quite a leap for the kid who grew up poor in New Orleans and then, at 19, moved to Atlanta, where he struggled for years to reach the fans he knew awaited him.
Since 1998, when Perry's one-man show "I Know I've Been Changed" broke through, he and his audience have shared a cozy alliance, however far removed from the cultural mainstream, where the name Tyler Perry might well have drawn a blank.
The much-hyped arrival of "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" on TBS is giving its 37-year-old creator a mainstream venue like none he's had before. In return, he's delivering TBS a solid audience (the series, which airs back-to-back episodes Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EDT, has averaged more than 3 million viewers).
Pretty impressive, especially since Perry won't even be seen on "House of Payne," apart from an occasional cameo by his signature character, the sharp-tongued grandmother he performs in drag — all strapping six-feet-six of him.
"House of Payne" is a domestic comedy that squeezes three generations of middle-class Atlantans under one roof. The roof belongs to cranky Curtis "Pops" Payne, a fire chief, and his churchgoing wife, Ella. Their firefighter nephew, CJ, is forced to take refuge with them, along with wife Janine and their two kids, when their house burns down. Adding to the chaos is Calvin, the college-age slacker son of Pops and Ella.
"I wanted a show where the mother and father were both present," says Perry, explaining the show's genesis. "Then I asked myself: If I wasn't who I am, what would I do for a living? And I always wanted to be a fireman.
"Then I thought, Why don't I put a character in a situation where he had to move back in with his parents?" Perry laughs. "I think that would be THE worst thing that could happen in MY life!"
The series draws on "people that I know and situations that I know," he says while chatting with a reporter during a recent whirlwind trip to New York. It also taps familiar Perry themes of perseverance and faith. ("I don't know how to solve a problem without prayer," he says.)
"House of Payne" aims to intertwine serious issues with its comedy. Already, Janine has been exposed as a crack addict; it was she who burned down her family's house.
"We deal with everything from the rising cases of HIV in the African-American community to Internet child predators," Perry says.
"The comedy's not as broad, it's toned down a little bit," he adds in his soft-spoken but decisive manner. "I've made some changes because I know that I'm speaking to more than one race of people, more than one group of people. Anybody who gives the show a chance, no matter who you are, can relate to it."
"That's been my entire journey: They've hated everything I've done," he observes mildly.
Once again, Perry is proved right. The New York Times' Ginia Bellafante slams "House of Payne" for its "narrative aimlessness and languorous pacing," while The Washington Post's Tom Shales writes, "Everything about it needs a little improvement — except for the things that need a lot of it."
Not that critics hold sway with Perry. He is famously immune to their influence, or that of anyone other than the audience he serves.
"Nobody's looking over my shoulder, nobody's breathing down my neck," is how he describes his relationship with TBS, which, in a deal surely unique for a new TV series, turned him loose with an order for 100 episodes.
The series is shot at Perry's 75,000-square-foot studio in Atlanta. Production began last January and should wrap by December, he says, with three to four episodes polished off each week.
"People in Hollywood would scream about this schedule, they'd think it's insane," he laughs. "But I hired theater actors, who understand this sort of work ethic." (Cast members include Allen Payne as CJ; Demetria McKinney as Janine; LaVan Davis as Pops; Cassi Davis as Ella; and Lance Gross as Calvin.)
While Perry takes no writing credit, he is supplying all the stories to his 20-member writing team. And he directs every episode.
Besides "House of Payne," Perry has another series ("Meet the Browns," based on one of his plays) plus three more films in the pipeline. He talks of moving to new, larger facilities as soon as this fall.
And beyond that? "I see myself owning an entire network," he says, "where the shows are all inspirational, all positive and empowering."
But there's yet another itch that, for now, Perry won't be scratching: A role as a bad guy.
"I'd like to play a bank robber or a serial killer," he confides. "That would be intriguing and fun. But I know my audience wouldn't appreciate it.
"There are a lot of people proud of me, a lot of people depending on me to do the right thing" both on- and off-screen, Perry says. "So I feel the pressure. I absolutely feel the pressure."
Not that he shows it, of course. Or that anyone would notice.