How far will he push it?

Times Staff Writer

ON the new comedy "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," crack is wacky.

That is, addiction to crack is a laughing matter on tonight's episodes of the TBS comedy, which premiered last week to record ratings following an aggressive national blitz that included colorful advertising wraps over buses and grass-roots marketing in churches. The successive episodes drew more than 5.2 million and 5.8 million viewers respectively, and although those numbers may not amount to much in the world of network TV, TBS is calling the premiere the top sitcom broadcast in ad-supported cable history.

"House of Payne" marks the latest success from the visionary producer of a multitude of gospel-flavored plays, books and movies ("Diary of a Mad Black Woman," "Madea's Family Reunion") that form a multimillion-dollar empire. And the large tune-in to the first episodes appears to justify TBS' unprecedented $200-million agreement with Perry for 100 episodes of "House of Payne" -- a deal that gives Perry, who had never produced a minute of television until now, total creative control.

The comedy reflects Perry's desire to put a fresh twist on acclaimed series such as "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne" and "All in the Family," which blended comedy with social commentary. "I see this show as a complete emotional roller coaster," he said in an interview last week, adding that he wants to represent an African American family that handles problems with humor and prayer: "This show says it's OK to pray."

But the celebration over the ratings and the show's traditional sitcom trappings -- adorably mischievous children, exasperated adults, large living room set -- have overshadowed some of Perry's creative choices. "House of Payne" may be the only family sitcom in history to contain slapstick and wisecracks about crack. It's not an approach everyone appreciates when it comes to drugs.

Amy Jordan, director of research on media and the developing child at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said: "I would worry about how this may trivialize the subject to children, particularly when crack has been so devastating to the black community. It's an inside joke, but it's not funny."

"House of Payne" stars LaVan Davis and Cassi Davis as Curtis and Ella Payne, an older couple who take in his firefighter nephew CJ (Allen Payne), his wife Janine (Demetria McKinney) and their two children after their house burns down.

In one scene set in the firehouse run by Curtis, family members concerned about Janine's erratic behavior attempt to delicately suggest to CJ that she may be taking drugs. When CJ fails to catch on, a frustrated Curtis blurts out, "I'm-a give you a hint -- Janine's a crack head." He adds, "If you want your wife to stay home, go get some crack." Both lines are punctuated by a laugh track.

In the second episode, Curtis, his son Calvin (Lance Gross) and CJ seek out Janine at a crack house. Joining them is Walter (Jamie Moore), a flamboyant anger-management counselor with a white Afro wig who seems to be channeling bouncy fitness guru Richard Simmons.

Disgusted at the messiness of the crack house ("This is unacceptable!"), Walter tells crack dealer Blue (Sahr Ngaujah) that he should perhaps change his name to a more pleasant color such as "Fusia." Calvin threatens Blue with nun-chucks, only to hit himself in the head with the weapon. A bug-eyed junkie offers to sell them a stolen computer for $10.

And although there are a few dramatic interludes, CJ's uncertainty about what to do about Janine is mostly met with jokes from Curtis and Calvin, or passive encouragement from Ella. Curtis is more upset about the upheaval of his domestic kingdom than the effects of drugs on his family. And the children display little emotion about their mother, who's abandoned them.

Perry denied that he was making light of the situation, adding that "a large percentage of my audience will understand what I'm saying. It's happened in my own life, where something tragic happens, and then two seconds later something makes me laugh."

Perry is certainly venturing into uncharted territory. Although comedies have a long tradition of featuring characters who drink, comedic story lines incorporating drug use are far more risky, said TV historian Tim Brooks, who watched "House of Payne" last week.

"Drinking is seen as cool and acceptable, but drugs are usually part of a 'very special episode,' " said Brooks, who co-wrote "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows." "Treating drugs in a light way or like it's a joke is problematic."

But Allen Payne said that the humor showed how people deal differently with difficulties: "Some people don't deal with tragedy very well. [Curtis] is a broad comedic character -- he finds everything funny. Ella is sensitive to everything. My character is torn by the fact that his wife is on crack and he isn't able to help her."

Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, which oversees TBS, TNT and several other cable networks, said he applauded Perry's creative approach.

"Tyler's method is to use humor to break the ice," Koonin said. "Curtis making jokes about this is a defense mechanism. You have to look at the whole package. This is not something we developed, but we're fully invested in the pre-sold demographic appeal of Tyler."

TBS had no creative input into "House of Payne," which is filmed at Perry's Atlanta studio. Like his other projects, Perry is very un-Hollywood in his approach, and the series is solely his vision: He is directing all the episodes and has employed a 20-person writing staff to transfer "my voice" to the show. Most sitcoms take at least a week to produce and film, but three episodes of "House of Payne" are filmed per week.

"House of Payne' originally revolved around CJ, Payne's character. As the series evolved, CJ became more of a supporting character and the more comic Curtis moved into the lead spot. Said Payne: "It's really more of an ensemble now. The show has been opened up and the comedy is more opened up."

Adding to that comedy -- and providing a potent draw for last week's premiere -- was the appearance of Madea, the brash linebacker-built woman portrayed by Perry who is at the center of many of his projects. Madea may make more appearances as the series progresses, but Perry said, "The more I can avoid putting on that dress, the better."

He also plans to deal with more heavy topics, including a show that features a woman with HIV who becomes involved with Calvin.

His large core audience, he said, will get it. As for other viewers, "I hope they give it a chance and don't make a judgment based on one or two episodes. It really is a good, funny show."

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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