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They don't fit under one roof

Tyler Perry's `House of Payne' has most of the right materials, but somehow it just doesn't build laughs.

June 10, 2007|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

THERE are two main ways for a sitcom to be unfunny -- its jokes can fall flat, or the show can dwell on subject matter that doesn't easily lend itself to humor. That Tyler Perry's "House of Payne" accomplishes both makes for perverse, frustrating viewing.

In the last four years, Perry has established himself as a crucial creative force in black popular culture, with long-touring plays (now available on DVD), a string of successful films, a bestselling book and now "House of Payne" (TBS, Wednesdays at 9 p.m.). He is highly attuned to the particularities of the black middle class -- family and God are front and center in all of his work. Perry's characters are at a safe remove from contemporary hip-hop culture, but aren't so wealthy that they're above cookouts and corny group dances.

Accordingly, Perry productions rarely condescend, and they never arch an eyebrow. Perhaps it's the Christian ethic -- "House of Payne" is nothing if not a gospel play, hammered into the small box.

But the broad gestures and ideas that lend themselves to such formats are less compelling when laugh-tracked. The show revolves around CJ (Allen Payne), a firefighter who works with his Uncle Curtis (LaVan Davis), who has to move his family in with Curtis after his home burns down. It's later revealed the fire was caused by CJ's wife, Janine (Demetria McKinney), a crack addict.

This is not the stuff of sitcom gold. But even the dramatic turns are thinly constructed. In spite of all the terrible things befalling him, CJ isn't allowed to emote at all. It's been 16 years since Payne's riveting performance as Gee Money in the early rapsploitation film "New Jack City." If he's still capable of such pathos, it's not allowed for here. (Technical issues don't help: Exchanges between characters drag on or, worse, are cut short before generating any comedic heat; and often, cameras linger a tad too long after a punch line, disrupting the rhythm.)

Especially given what's happening around him, Curtis is a cipher: sometimes cruel (to CJ: "I've never liked you. I don't like your son. Hell, I never liked my brother") and sometimes hilarious ("The Bible say get the rod and whoop the child!"). The result: a character almost impossible to sympathize with.

The lone bright spot is CJ's precocious young daughter, Jazmine (China Anne McClain), who is, unsurprisingly, a clear update of Keshia Knight Pulliam's Rudy on "The Cosby Show," with a touch more mischief. That's welcome amid this cavalcade of do-gooders and emotional avoiders. Faith is too often substituted for feeling; even Janine's drug addiction is handled gingerly.

Where Perry veers from that script, though, he's at his most intriguing. He is savvy enough to poke fun at Whitney Houston and Rick James, and secure enough to tweak African American pieties: When family friend Claritha asks Janine why she's entering the house through the back door, the addled Janine replies, " 'cause I wanted to feel like people like you back in the day" -- an outrageous generational swipe.

It's important to remember that Perry's most vivid character to date is Madea, a gun-toting gadabout he plays in his movies, in drag. Madea had a cameo in last week's premiere. Those 10 minutes -- "You gonna bleed chocolate milk all over this floor," she warns the plus-size Curtis after he threatens her -- are the most vivid, and psychedelic, of the show to date.

It also sets an impossible standard for the rest of the cast, who are hemmed in by clunky dialogue and grim story lines. "House of Payne" lacks the stark, if blunt, emotion of Perry's breakthrough film, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," and the off-the-cuff insouciance of his recent bestseller "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life." Perry's best work comes when he's willing to render his morality tales with a dash of absurdity. So why, when he's working in the most conventional comedic format of all, is he afraid to make people laugh?

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