Tyler Perry Keeps 'Payne' to a Minimum
Make your way through the fragrant smoke and you find yourself inside Atlanta Studio Works, the home base of actor, writer and filmmaker Tyler Perry. It's also home to "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," Perry's family-friendly comedy series premiering Wednesday, June 6, on TBS.
Perry and his team moved into the building in September, and even if portions of the remodeling job are still a work in progress, much of it is impressively high-tech -- a two-story warren of dressing rooms, offices and two impressively huge soundstages, one of which stood in for an airline hangar in a recent Perry film.
In that respect, it seems like a somewhat odd setting for Perry's new down-home, sitcom-morality tale combo platter about a multigenerational Atlanta family forced by unforeseen circumstances to live under one roof.
The main characters are Atlanta firefighter and crusty father figure Curtis "Pops" Payne (LaVan Davis); Ella (Cassi Davis, no relation), his outspoken, churchgoing wife; the nephew, CJ (Allen Payne); and CJ's kids, Malik (Larramie Doc Shaw) and Jazmine (China Anne McClain).
The characters are, in terms of character specifics, black Southerners, but Perry says he thinks the show will appeal to a broad audience.
"We're basing it here in Atlanta, but I think anyone can relate to this family. These are just common, regular people," he says.
The man known to many moviegoers from his "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" female alter ego Mable "Madea" Simmons -- a character he reprises in the "House of Payne" premiere -- is sitting behind an imposing desk in his sleekly appointed second-floor office. At nearly 6 1/2 feet tall and wearing a checked shirt and Sean John jeans, the neatly bearded Perry, 37, clearly has completely shed Madea as he reflects on the people who influenced his comedy style.
"It had to be Bill Cosby, of course, and although I didn't know it, Norman Lear," Payne says. "I would always see his name at the end of all those shows, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he was able to do. I'm looking for more information on him, because even though it may have been unconscious, I think he was a real inspiration for me."
That makes sense, because his leading man, Davis, name-checks two of Lear's most striking TV dads while discussing what past icons influenced his blustery portrayal of Curtis. There's a ringer in the bunch, by the way.
"Of course, a lot of people say that Curtis reminds them of Archie Bunker, which I understand, and I loved that character and that actor," Davis says. "Also, James Evans (John Amos) from 'Good Times' had that no-nonsense thing. I'm not trying to mimic that, but you can't help thinking of characters like that when you're playing someone like Curtis.
"But Jackie Gleason had something that I caught, even as a child. I would sit in front of the TV and watch all the little things that he would do. He was just so smooth, and his timing was impeccable. I'm very big on timing, and I think a lot of that comes from watching those greats back then."
This particular production week, the "Payne" cast is trying to crank out four half-hour shows as part of the 100 episodes TBS has ordered. It's a daunting production schedule, and that -- coupled with a groaning lunch table heaped with barbecued ribs, chicken, potato salad and dessert -- may account for why an afternoon pre-taping run-through today is lacking in urgency -- especially for characters who, according to the script, are in the path of a tornado.
"This show comes on after 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' guys!" Perry says, sitting behind a bank of TV monitors as he watches the cast. "Let's try to get some energy."
As he scrutinizes each scene, Perry zeroes in on jokes that don't work and tweaks punch lines here and there. The soundstage is equipped to accommodate a studio audience, but early episodes will rely on a canned laugh track.
And while he may hope his TBS series has broad cross-ethnic appeal, Payne, who plays a young father trying to connect more closely with his kids, says he really appreciates the fact that the guy behind the camera has such a keen ear for how black people talk to one another when they are alone together.
"Tyler's dialogue is rooted in contemporary, usually urban, black life: how we relate to each other, not necessarily how we 'perform' outside of our own milieu," Payne says. "It's like a peek into how we relate to each other within our comfort zone.
"In Hollywood, a lot of people don't really understand how we talk to each other, and if you challenge them, people take offense. Here, we have the freedom to say, 'We're going to have to change that.' Tyler will be there, reading the script as you're reading it, and say, 'Do we say that? We don't say that!' That's really good, because he's trying to be honest to who we are. It's wonderful, because that's one less thing that I have to do. It's very interesting."
Perry also made a point of including a character whose Christian faith is a major component of her character and says he doesn't understand why personal faith is missing from the makeup of most TV characters.
"I don't know why that is," he says. "In our show, it's the character of Ella who is that person. I just know that in my life, I have had people of all kinds of faiths and beliefs. I don't know how anyone can go through life without meeting anyone who has some kind of devotion or faith. No matter what people call it, there's always something."