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AARON BARNHART: Perry expands to TV with `House of Payne'

I can't tell you how many times over the years I've heard a PR pitch-person compare a new sitcom to "All in the Family."

"House of Payne," though, comes pretty close to capturing the spirit of that television classic. That's not to say it deserves a place in the pantheon of sitcoms. But I admire its willingness to explore tough societal issues over a sustained time and squeeze laughs from them.

It's told from a culturally specific viewpoint -- that of an African-American household -- but considering the person who created it, I'm fairly sure it's going to have broad appeal.

That person is Tyler Perry, who has created a one-man entertainment empire out of his stage plays ("Why Did I Get Married?"), movies ("Diary of a Mad Black Woman"), a best-selling book and now this televised stage play. "House of Payne" premieres at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday on TBS. Perry will produce an eye-popping 100 episodes of "House of Payne" -- an almost unheard-of number for a brand-new show.

Most of the action takes place in the household of Curtis Payne, a fire chief with a short fuse and a lot of family members who spend way too much time in his house. He's surrounded by his religious wife, Ella, college-age son C.J., C.J.'s kids and troubled wife Janine, among others.

Playing him is LaVan Davis, a veteran of so-called "urban plays" and "gospel musicals," two types of stage entertainment popular among black audiences. Davis lived the first 15 years of his life in Kansas City before moving to California and still has family here. He is cooped up in Atlanta, recording three and four episodes per week of "House of Payne" to meet Perry's ambitious syndication schedule.

Davis agreed there are "a lot of similarities" between his character and Archie Bunker. Still, "when George Jefferson came over, Archie would be like, `I don't want this person in my house.' Whereas with Curtis, it's not coming out of bigotry -- he doesn't want anybody in his house."

There's a tender side to Curtis that Davis says will come out in later episodes, just as soon as he makes it through anger management class.

In the world of Tyler Perry, mature themes like drug use, urban violence and infidelity are inserted into often absurdly comical setups. Mixed in is an unfiltered version of that old-time religion, too.

For those who are fans, yes, there will be appearances on "House of Payne" by Perry's alter ego, Madea. If you're unfamiliar with Perry, nearly all his productions have featured appearances by himself, wearing a full-length housecoat and gray wig and posing as a no-nonsense, straight-talking granny named Madea. Amazingly, Madea has made the transfer from stage to screen to audiobook, this 6-foot-5 dispenser of wisdom in drag.

Audiences love Madea. Davis said you need to go to one of Perry's live shows -- Davis has been starring in them for three years -- to fully understand.

"Madea says the things that everyone wants to say but is afraid to," Davis said. "That and she's always pulling guns out of her purse."

With such a heavy production schedule, "House of Payne" can't afford to retake many scenes. So the show has a looser, more unrehearsed feel than traditional sitcoms.

Besides appearing in numerous plays and musicals, Davis has sung in the L.A. Mass Choir and the Rickey Grundy Chorale. (You'll hear a little bit of his singing voice in the second episode, where he sings out a prayer all full of the Holy Ghost.) Davis credits his mother, who sang with Kansas City's famed Whitney Singers, with influencing his career.

This is his first TV role, and though he's happy to be here, "stage is where I come from and stage is where I will eventually make my way back to," he said.