Madea Does America

Nobody's afraid of Tyler Perry


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.

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  1. The film and theater establishment is baffled by his success.

    So am I. It’s basically the same movie over and over again.

    I don’t get the appeal of a movie about a man dressed as a woman in a fat suit.

  2. Nice piece, although, frankly, I’ve read pretty much the same take in the “mainstream media.” Tyler isn’t much different from Larry the Cable Guy, or, shifting up and over a notch or two, Hannah Montana. Oy, the humanity, to coin a phrase.

  3. Shakespeare? No. Dickens? Maybe.

  4. “Our” Shakespeare? Really?
    Were the Elizabethans that uncouth?

  5. “Nice piece, although, frankly, I’ve read pretty much the same take in the “mainstream media.””

    Ladies and Gentleman, I give you — Tim Cavanaugh!!!

  6. Were the Elizabethans that uncouth?

    Faith, sir, we were carousing till the second cock
    and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things.
    Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine.
    Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on and it takes him off; it persuades him and disheartens him; makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in
    a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him.

  7. And I made Willey look like a charter member (eh, member) of the PMRC

  8. I look forward to Tyler’s next hit show “Unfunny Black Man”

  9. I’ve actually never heard of him or any of his work, but it sounds no less artistically valuable than geek soap operas like the works of Cooper, E.R. Burroughs, or David Webber. All of which I dearly love.

    If cheasy entertainment were really so cheap and easy, why aren’t all the critics writing it to make a few extra bucks? More power to the guy, even if I never like his stuff myself.

  10. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer do the same thing targeted at a different audience (in their case it’s boys old enough to go to the movies but too young to do much of anything else).

    But it’s the same method: make extremely cheap movies, ignore critical reception and pocket the money from the consistent box office.

    For whatever reason they take a little more abuse than Perry. But one would have to assume their movies continue to make money for the studios.

  11. If he’s really making the same unimaginative movie over and over again, then he’s beating Hollywood at its own game.
    But I’ve said before Hollywood will not make anything of quality until it experiences a severe industry-wide rollback, on the order of 75 – 80%.
    Hence, I morally support renegade filmmakers and movie piracy, and eagarly await the San Andreas earthquake.

  12. It’s basically the same movie over and over again.

    Ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.

    How many times has Jason been resurrected?

    Back when I was in college, about the middle of finals week, the just-off-campus theater would run two hours of Roadrunner cartoons. They played to a full house, all day. It was a good way to clean your brain.

  13. They’re not the same movies; they are the same characters and the same tensions, relationships, etc., at least the Medea movies are.

    I love the Medea movies. Laugh my ass off. Then again, I’m a cheap laugh.

    Finally got to watch Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay last weekend ago. Awesome.

    I don’t get why Hollywood doesn’t get it. Do those hacks really not understand why Perry’s movies – depicting black people who aren’t in gangs, aren’t on drugs, aren’t living in grinding poverty, go to church and have normal families etc. etc. – are so popular?


  14. I marketed urban films for a major studio in the 1990s (of the Boyz ‘N the Hood variety) and I too was baffled by the Tyler Perry phenomenon. Using Chris Rock as The Standard, and seeing how unforgiving black audiences were to comics that failed to amuse, I couldn’t believe my target-market found this Madea crap funny. Since gang/ghetto films were the only thing being made (at the time) I assumed this is what everybody wanted, men AND women. Most of the black women I worked with absolutely hated the films being promoted but could never articulate to me exactly what they DID want. Tyler Perry clearly figured it out; more power to him.

  15. As I write this, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is still the top grossing movie of 2009 in North America. If you can explain that sad commentary on the state of the world, you’ll probably also explain why people think Tyler Perry is funny. Or why they think Jack Black is funny, for that matter.

  16. If Tim Cavanaugh had to sit through all the Tyler Perry ouvre in order to write this, then he has made the ultimate sacrifice that a critic can be called upon to make.

  17. Hannah Montana. Oy, the humanity

    Oh, the Ha’nan’ity!

    Oh, the Mon’tan’ity!

  18. Madea is nothing more than Earnest P. Worrel reincarnated as an angry black woman. But with out her trusty sidekick Vern. Make of that what you will.

  19. He’s no worse than Woody Allen. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why people think that old turd is entertaining.

  20. I’ve seen two Tyler Perry movies. One had Madea in it. The other was “Why Did I Get Married”, which did not have Madea (Perry played someone else).

    The first movie was forgettable and the second was good.

    Anyway, I believe Perry’s popularity is because his movies are NOT comedies; they are moral fables. They have funny bits but they’re resolved before the “punchline”. The punchline in a moral drama is the moral…

  21. “Madea is nothing more than Earnest P. Worrel reincarnated as an angry black woman.”


    You know what I mean?

  22. The first movie was forgettable and the second was good.

    Interesting. I haven’t seen all of WDIGM, but what I saw was good. But I do die a little when somebody I like starts to make normal movies. It’s not really possible to describe for the uninitiated how bracing those whirlwind tonal shifts really are. Smashing the goofy comedy together with completely committed performances and ax-in-the-head melodrama* is what takes Perry movies to that sphere where pedestrian concepts like “Good” and “Bad” really don’t apply. That’s generally where I like to be.

    * To my knowledge nobody in a Perry film has actually received an ax in the head…yet.

  23. The mix of drama and goofball comedy is a successful formula. Why are Tyler Perry’s movies more of a headscratcher than a number of other popular titles, “Something About Mary”, “Happy Gilmore” etc.?

  24. Whites infantilize blacks? Outrage! Blacks infantilize blacks? Let’s do it again! Well, I suppose it could be worse. A self-absorbed twit too ennervated to remember how many downers he dropped could win an posthumous academy award. In the past, masscult had us grabbing our ankles; now we’re grabbing each others’.

  25. You artsy people take yourself too seriously
    Tyler Perry is making some serious $$ and it is driving the establishment film makers crazy
    lets see…Black people who have professional jobs, go to church…have crazy relatives, messed up lives…redemption…God..Jesus….oh my !!!!

    Lets go back to JJ , Florida, and “Good Times”

  26. shit dude, well it’s official, the devil’s hired his new advocate

  27. No one can change the mind of those who continue to see Tyler Perry. So even though mainstream bias… or not, the opinions of the masses will continue to dump money into anything Tyler does. When he hits a chord, he hits it! And there is no looking down for this man who those he pulls into his pieces. Tyler isn’t a fad. He gives the independent film makers a hope that just won’t leave the industry.

    If anyone is interested in film careers in directing, acting, editing, screen writing, cinematography, producing, lighting, camera, set building, props, sound, post production, rigging, gaffing, etc. check out our one on one mentorship programs at your film school alternative. From mainstream to not so…get connected to those who are working in the industry today while training on current movies in the making.

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