The mainstream media have at last figured out how to deal with Tyler Perry. When another non-prescreened offering from the Atlanta-based playwright and filmmaker comes out (several times a year at the current rate), scorned Saturday-morning critics follow a pattern: Start out with a caveat that the movie, play, or TV show in question is critic-proof; compile a brief catalogue of Perry's crimes against cinematic and dramatic form (they are about as numerous as Fenimore Cooper's literary offenses); take a step or two down the hazardous slope of wondering what the folks in Perry's target audience see in this stuff; then double back and shuffle off with a general expression of good will.
In fairness to the mainstream, these are all legitimate responses. Perry's lighting, plot construction, and sound mixing often provide straightforward what-not-to-do lessons for aspiring filmmakers. His musical numbers are strictly expository and his wordplay can be as bad as anything in Abbott and Costello. (In the immensely popular play Madea's Family Reunion, the title character interrupts a wedding by quibbling on the words "matrimony," "mattress," and "money.")
Should these crudities be treated differently than the jarring violations of form employed by Sam Fuller, Jean-Luc Godard, or any other great challengers to the dictatorship of the well-made film? It is clear that Perry's profligacy both explains and compensates for the flaws. (He has directed six theatrical films in the last four years, performed in and written more, and made scores of episodes of his television shows.) The difference in critical treatment doesn't really stem from matters of race or culture—though both of those have figured heavily in Perryology, with the respectable debate pitting those who think he has set back African Americans by 50 years against those who think he has set back the entire black race by 500 years. Rather, what's got everybody flustered is how much money Perry has made.
Tyler Perry's success has been chronicled widely. His stage plays have earned well over $200 million. His inexpensive movies have earned more than $300 million in North American box office sales. His brand is valuable enough that "Tyler Perry's" routinely precedes the title. His drag routine as Mable "Madea" Simmons—a foul-mouthed, house-sized, chain-smoking, pistol-firing trickster figure who recalls Flip Wilson's Geraldine but has become an all-purpose commentator on everything—is familiar to millions of people. In 2007, he signed a $200 million, 100-episode deal with TBS for his series House of Payne, and the show seems to have delivered the ratings the network wanted. He owns 100 percent of his material.
Perry has pulled off most of this by selling to a market that is famously lucrative and famously underserved: black women, who are frequently heads of household, and who crave familial and Jesus-oriented dramedy. He knows this audience well: In a Perry plot, men tend to be either church-tamed nice guys or dangerous (though sometimes redeemable) brutes; women self-actualize in broadly written you-go-girl scenes; comedy and melodrama coexist in what The Onion's AV Club calls "whiplash-inducing tonal shifts;" copious tears are shed; and any woman who can fit into a size 2 dress is pretty much guaranteed to be a villainess. Perry's empathy for his target viewers, along with his penchant for drag and his rare status as a dedicated male churchgoer, have led to the kind of gossip that recalls Austin Powers' incredulous response to the news that Liberace was gay: "But women loved him!"
The 39-year-old Perry is very much a man of the new media age, and his most important discovery may be the most obvious one: how much more productive a person can be by ignoring the traditional institutions. A Perry profile in the October issue of Ebony featured a chart comparing his budgets, prep and shooting time, gross revenue, and return on investment to the average Hollywood film; he's not only cheaper and faster but more consistent, with each picture earning more than double its costs. Although his movies have been getting consistently bigger theatrical releases, Perry is platform-agnostic, with lucrative straight-to-DVD lines, CD compilations, and books.
If the business style is up to date, however, his genre is a very old one: gospel-infused, old-timey live theatrical revues. It was traditionally called the "chitlin' circuit," though polite usage now terms it the "urban theater circuit." The great commie poet and Newark-based architectural engineering expert Amiri Baraka has called it "deep doo-doo," but the form once generated enormous successes, including Vy Higgenson's 1983 off-Broadway hit Mama, I Want to Sing and the ineffably titled 1976 Broadway classic Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.
"If you remember when I started doing plays, there was a 'Mama-I'm-Going-To-The-Store' play every week," Perry told Ebony. "So I started to have them put my name on the marquee and on the ticket so people would know this play is different from the other shows. I was building the brand and it started to work. With film, I knew other movies would come along and try to duplicate what I was doing. That's why my name is in front of the movies."
Perry's first innovation was to play against the naiveté of the genre. It is—or should be—a truism that religious believers make the best mockers of religious belief. Madea, a merciless village atheist, makes fun of all expressions of faith, from convenient conversions to the uselessness of What Would Jesus Do bracelets. Significantly, her attacks are never directly refuted and she never gets any kind of comeuppance for her blasphemies—though I expect I'll live to see Madea Goes to Hell, with Ralph Fiennes as Satan. In another of his regular fat-suit performances, as the emphysema-stricken "Joe," Perry shows both formal invention (in the latest film, Madea Goes to Jail, Joe does bong hits through an oxygen tube) and verbal dexterity (sample line: "I'm so high you look like your real daddy right now").
But in a rare display of predictable star behavior, Perry takes great pains to remind us that he's more than just a clown in a muu-muu. As far back as a 2002 performance of Madea's Family Reunion, he told a New Orleans audience that the character's next appearance would be her last. By a conservative estimate she has appeared a bazillion times since then, but Perry continues to promise that Madea's death is imminent. (I know I don't get a vote in this, but I hope these threats are just attention-getting ploys.)
As Perry's work has gotten more crossover play, establishment critics have been getting less shy about their bafflement at his success, and there's almost a sense of umbrage hanging in the air. How did black people, described as hipsters through decades of music industry promotion and crackpot theories from the late Norman Mailer, turn out to be such squares? Do they really take this stuff seriously?
You can take something seriously without taking it literally—a skill in particular abundance among moviegoers and the religious. Real life conforms to the tropes of melodrama more often than we like to admit. Husbands do get busy with cute office girls; relatives fall prey to addictions; domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies intrude in the lives of the most confident know-it-alls; in-laws are trouble. Perry throws it all out there with a loopy bluntness that God herself rarely matches. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the Dickensian breakup scene that opens the movie version of Diary of a Mad Black Woman. In Madea Goes to Jail, reformed prostitute Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy Huxtable for the love of Jesus!) goes on a job interview, gets an indecent proposal, and nad-attacks the creepy interviewer all within about 40 seconds of screen time. As Madea says, "Lord, do I have to listen to all this melodrama?"
By cramming every rift with ore, Perry provides a value that makers of well-made films and literate dramas, almost by definition, avoid giving: a chance to participate in the spectacle. During a recent "Monday Morning Mommy Movie" screening of Madea Goes to Jail, several weeks into the film's release, sisters of all races and walks of life were cheering at Madea's most labored antics, laughing at her hoariest jokes, and gasping at plot twists their infant children could have seen coming. A critic might say Perry is simply proving you can't go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. I'm guessing that the moms were fully aware of how corny the material was. They didn't object to the clichés; the clichés were what they were paying to enjoy.
It takes a true artist to know how to deploy clichés. Lurking under the establishment's confusion at Perry's success is a secret terror that box office may be too accurate a measure of artistic achievement, of how much catharsis and delight you're giving the audience. In just about 10 years, Perry has built up a vastly lucrative dramatic franchise. He employs a fairly steady company of players (notably David and Tamela Mann in recurring roles) and plays multiple parts himself, while drawing talent from the A and B lists. His body of work features both spectacular moments and dull quarter-hours, flatters conventional wisdom, and argues for what is loosely understood as the national religion. His garish dramas draw scorn for their crudeness, and he has created a funny fat character he has to keep bringing back by popular demand. Maybe history's last laugh will be on Broadway and Hollywood, when Tyler Perry is remembered as our Shakespeare, while David Mamet and David Fincher, Sam Mendes and Sam Shepard have all been forgotten.
Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh writes from Los Angeles.