At 39, Tyler Perry is more than a writer, producer, director or actor. Like one of his early heroes, Oprah Winfrey, he's a brand.
Perry began writing when he heard a simple suggestion on Winfrey's show: Keeping a diary of your thoughts and feelings can be cathartic. Perry, emerging from a childhood of physical abuse in New Orleans, had a lot to work out, so he took her advice. He protected people by creating characters to represent them, and a set of characters emerged. Those became his first play, I Know I've Been Changed.
Working various jobs, including used car salesman and collection agent, he managed to save $12,000. He used that money to stage a production at Atlanta's 14th Street Playhouse in 1992, with himself as writer, producer, director and star. Over that weekend, only 30 or so people showed up, a failure that would have ended most people's theater careers.
Not Perry, who continued to produce the play over the next six years with the help of an investor. After nearly losing everything, Perry gave it one last go, renting out Atlanta's House of Blues. This time, the show was a smash hit, selling out for eight nights. Perry soon had to move it to the larger Fox Theater.
Perry's next project was a collaboration with Dallas-based evangelical bishop T.D. Jakes. The two adapted Jakes' novel, Woman Thou Art Loosed!, to great success.
In 2000, Perry's most famous character, the pot-smoking, gun-toting grandmother Madea, played by Perry himself, appeared in I Can Do Bad All by Myself. Madea soon had her own franchise, and Perry's productions were selling out all over the country.
Part of Perry's marketing genius was that he created and maintained a loyal following through first a mailing list and then a Website, a practice he maintains today.
“At the end of every show, I would go out and talk to my audience and say hi to them. I would talk to them like I was sitting in their living room,” Perry says.
“When you are on the road day in and day out, you really cultivate that authentic personal relationship with those fans,” says William Morris' Charles King, Perry's agent.
Perry says his messages of family, love, faith and redemption among African-Americans have been missing in media, which is why his stories have been so embraced: “We want to see ourselves in love, triumph over hardship and overcoming fate.”
Suddenly, Perry was a force Hollywood needed to recognize. Perry's message resounds with his audiences because “he's speaking truth and it's coming from his heart,” King says. “He would never create anything that's not genuine to who he is and what he's experienced.”
By 2005, the plays began to become movies. Diary of a Mad Black Woman, starring Kimberly Elise, opened at No. 1 nationwide. In the three years since, Perry has churned out five more films: Madea's Family Reunion, Daddy's Little Girls, Why Did I Get Married?, Meet the Browns and The Family That Preys. And in 2006, Perry penned a non-fiction best-seller, Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life.
Meanwhile, Perry was pushing his way into television. He had a development deal with a studio years before one of his shows ended up on the air, but he quickly found that his entrepreneurial style clashed with the studio system.
“Once they told me I couldn't say 'Jesus' on television, I realized it wasn't going to work for me,” says Perry, a strong Christian. “I didn't know if my way would work, but had I compromised, whatever I did from that point forward always would have seemed like a failure to me.”
Perry had learned from hard experience that patience and perseverance would pay off, and that he didn't need to compromise his creative vision. He took the same path with television.
“I knew if I put every element in to that television show that I knew worked, including Jesus, it would work. And it did,” he says.
Still, Perry's approach was nothing Hollywood had ever seen. He decided to finance and produce 10 episodes of his sitcom, Tyler Perry's House of Payne, himself, and give them to TV stations in a few markets for free to run as a test. If it failed, it would have cost Perry millions. Instead, the shows scored high ratings.
At the same time, Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, was keeping a close eye on Perry. “He's an Atlanta guy,” Koonin says. “We had been watching his career for years. We convinced Tyler to let TBS be part of the test.”
While TBS wasn't the most likely place for a Perry program—at the time, the network was solely airing off-net runs of such Caucasian-centric sitcoms as Friends, Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond—Koonin knew that African-Americans were starved for shows like House of Payne. He committed $200 million for 100 episodes of the show, a move that Koonin agrees was risky.
Brains And Balls
“It takes a lot of guts on both sides to do something like that,” Koonin says. “You've either got lots of brains and lots of balls, or no brains and no balls. I didn't sleep for the week leading up to the show's premiere.”
Now that House of Payne is the highest-rated original sitcom in the history of cable, Koonin and Perry look more crafty than crazy. Distribution company Debmar-Mercury took the show into broadcast syndication last fall, where its ratings are still growing.
“I think he's the most driven and efficient creator of programming I've ever met,” says Ira Bernstein, Debmar-Mercury's co-president. “He's up really early and he just works. He doesn't deal with a lot of the other constraints that any other studio would put on him.”
Now, TBS is testing Perry's next sitcom, Meet the Browns, a spinoff of the movie, which starred Angela Bassett. The show's first two episodes aired on TBS on Jan. 7, and marked cable's second-highest original comedy premiere, behind House of Payne. If ratings continue apace, TBS will order episodes to premiere starting this summer.
Through it all, Perry continues to direct every episode of House of Payne and write many of them. In the likely event that TBS picks up Meet the Browns, he'll soon have to get to work on that show. He has a new movie coming out this February, Madea Goes to Jail, and has a cameo in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek.
Later this year, A Jazzman's Blues, a romantic drama set in World War II, will premiere. And last October, he opened his own 19,000-square-foot film studio in southwest Atlanta.
“Over the last few months, I actually feel like I've slowed down,” says Perry, who has no plans to rest on his laurels. “Still, I'm constantly writing, thinking up ideas, working. All of Europe lies ahead. The world lies ahead.”