MEET THE BROWNS
I watched the premier of Tyler Perry’s MEET THE BROWNS this past Wednesday on TBS with mixed emotions. My brother had e-mailed me that afternoon, asking “Is this the series you’re in?” That’s just one of the downsides of our business. You try not to talk about work until it’s real, because in this surreal business, things can change very quickly…and it’s embarrassing to have to explain that some things just didn’t work out…like a relationship, for example.
Turning on the show was somewhat like watching a wedding video of your ex-wife with her new husband. You might be ambivalent: “Gee, I miss her.” “Man, did I just dodge a bullet!” You see, I was once associated with the series. I filmed their first ten episodes and was then replaced by another actor, after a two year hiatus. And then they re-shot those original ten episodes. I’m gonna try to write about all this with candor and without rancor, since I understand the decision to replace me and genuinely like many of the creative people involved with the show, then and now. I don’t do hatchet jobs when I write. I surely could, but then no one likes a hater;)
It stars David Mann and his ample wife, Tamala. Actually, both are pretty ample, none of which affects their performance energy, which in David’s case (Mr. Brown) is downright amazing. I’ve never imagined anyone of his stoutness and age hurling himself around a soundstage without any concern for his physical wellbeing. He is unbelievably agile and durable as all hell. David is clearly the star of this show and may very well become a star in TV. They dress him in the most violently colorful and garish costumes, which suits his broad, belligerent and uncultured persona, Mr. Brown. David and Tamala are both decent, good-natured and hard working people. Neither is a prima donna and I can’t remember a single instance of temperament or attitude during the month we worked together in Atlanta.
The show is actually several different shows, stylistically right now (which may change as they get their sea legs; I’ve only watched the first 1 ½ episodes.) The overview is a broad, farcical sit-com featuring religious quotes and hymn singing, a more traditional sit-com within that which includes other characters…and a third style that I found very compelling and engaging and difficult to describe – let’s just say it’s the kind of show I might have best fit into but one that was conceived after my involvement. It’s been tweaked and tugged during the hiatus and some of the characters now make much more sense but the overall approach remains the same and follows the Tyler Perry formula: a religious older couple takes into their home an assortment of colorful boarders…and hilarity ensues. Well, it does from time to time…and it’s very watchable, if at times in a train wreck-ish kind of way.
The comedy is broad, rather like a stage vaudeville show and seems to win the approval of the invited studio audiences. The character I’d been hired to do was an elderly retired Marine Colonel and he is aptly performed by my replacement. In truth, I could never measure up to his portrayal. This actor is physically imposing, balding, dry and fits into the ensemble in a way I never could. You place me in a show with other ethnicities and I’ll probably be accepted as ‘the Black guy’ but in an ensemble of Black actors, I often just don’t fit in, somehow. You look at them and you look at me and sense something is just a little off.
Now originally (I don’t know what the story is, today) my Colonel had been committed to a rest home and could not leave. He was widowed and had an estranged daughter and a young grandson. OK, here’s where I became a problem. I began asking questions. (BTW, I always ask questions.) It’s how I’m trained and it’s how I work. Some people don’t like to be asked questions. And their advice to me was consistently, “Tucker, it’s a sit-com. Don’t worry about it.”
Well, I worried. Apart from the fact that I need a foundation of ‘facts’ to relax and perform consistently, I was portraying a Marine officer. I have a military background and a profound respect for those who serve our country. By saying that, I don’t mean to imply others don’t, simply that it’s difficult for me to gloss over the knowledge that many viewers have also served and have relatives in harms way as we speak…and that concerned me. So I resisted some costume and behavioral decisions.
I love to laugh. I love to make others laugh and I think of myself as fairly irreverent and daring in my choices. After all, I’m the son of a Lutheran minister and I portrayed God for the Sarah Silverman Program! But in this opening episode there was a new scene with the Colonel I could never have done very effectively. He suddenly seems to have a flashback and starts ranting about napalm and combat and danger.
MTB features many stereotypes and all humanity is fair game but the idiom of the ‘crazed Nam vet’ is one I will resist for all time. I’ve been treated for PTSD and know there are just too many men out there who exist with this horror; from Vietnam and more recent conflicts. I asked, “So why is the Colonel here in this home?” Understand, my job as an actor is to justify whatever the imaginary circumstances (and I do that with great passion and some expertise) but you gotta decide and tell me what they are! And they wouldn’t…or couldn’t. I’d ask, “How long has it been since I’ve seen my daughter? Six months? Six years?” I’d ask the writers, director, producer and this would be my guidance: “Tucker, lighten up. It’s a sit-com.” Well, so it is…but unfortunately that’s not how I work. Which is probably why I’m not working just now;)
I’d wonder, “So, is he senile? Does he have PTSD? He doesn’t seem physically impaired. There must be some reason he’s been committed, he (or at least I) don’t appear old enough or frail enough to require residence in a rest home.” (The rest home idea may have been canned, perhaps now it’s simply a boarding house.) At one point, during a table read I got a bright idea and knelt beside Tyler (that’s not like it sounds, we were all sitting around a huge table;) and asked, “Tyler, could I be blind? That would justify him needing care.” Boy, was that shot down in a heartbeat. Tyler said he’d think about it but the producer, clearly appalled at the suggestion, whispered to me, “Tucker, please don’t make him blind!” And I’m pretty sure his subtext was, “Jesus, it’s a sit-com, you nut-job! What is wrong with you?”
The reason that finally surfaced for my dismissal was “We feel the chemistry between Tucker and David doesn’t work.” Hmmm. My character had little regard for David’s character, and I played the living hell out of that dynamic (perhaps a little too realistically;) but I rather enjoyed David’s boundless energy and picking on him was like shooting fish in a barrel, I mean, where to begin? Brown was given to constant references about his faith, quoting scripture and calling the residents to prayer. The Colonel (and I as well, frankly) found this a bit much and at one point, during taping, Brown looked up and asked, “What’s the matter Colonel, don’t you believe in prayer?” Now that was an ad lib and it pissed The Colonel (me) off! I responded sharply, “Be neither ostentatious nor excessive in your worship. Matthew 9-14.” I then turned and walked away, leaving Mr. Brown on stage, his mind grinding furiously (I thought it one of his better moments and one of my better ad libs;) probably thinking, “Dag. I don’t remember that quote. I gotta go look that up.”
I had many enjoyable experiences during our shoot in Atlanta in late ’06 and this is only the third time in my career I’ve been fired or replaced. There was some personal sadness (we all want to be liked and valued), there was once a considerable amount of money attached to the series commitment (about 100 episodes!) and I loved the crew (and was loved by them) but I think I’m gonna get over it.
I’ve never taken a job in 37 years for the money, have in fact turned down quite a few projects, sometimes to do work for far less or even nothing, because I found that character more interesting. That’s a very fortunate context in which to exist as an artist and I’ve been quite fortunate in this business. But I knew from the outset that I was not comfortable with the style of this show. I don’t want all comedy to be like Frasier or The Bill Cosby Show but I was unprepared for a style of comedy I wouldn’t likely watch nor would I encourage others in my life so to do. I don’t watch bass fishing shows or NASCAR or Home Shopping Network but many others do and enjoy them. And they should have that choice. Comedy comes in many forms, I can watch Amos and Andy as well as Seinfeld and laugh at both, but…
I’ll admit the tone always embarrassed me, perhaps in the way that blues embarrassed many people of color, years ago. I love country blues, listen to and play them constantly. But I don’t comment on them. I respect the idiom, I don’t mock it. I will concede, however, that this kind of broad, over the top style has numerous devotees and deserves the chance to find its audience. I heard the delight from many live audiences during our tapings and am happy they have a product that entertains them.
I admire Tyler Perry for many reasons (tho I am a bit appalled by how he treated his writers recently.) His is a brand that is unique, is now being copied by others (mostly because it’s successful) and I wish him well. I’m a PC guy. I’d love to be a Mac guy (all my creative friends are) but I took my Mac back and asked Dell to make me a PC. A man’s gotta know his limitations. And in the same sense, I guess I’m not a Tyler Perry guy. So it goes.
16 Jan 2009