TYLER PERRY has a message for those who claim the traditional sitcom is dead:

It's the economy, stupid.

"In traditional sitcoms, there are so many hands before a show even gets on the air that are getting paid. The cost is astronomical," the actor/playwright-turned-sitcom producer said last week.

If the financial model made sense - and Perry ("Diary of a Mad Black Woman") thinks he's found a way it can - "there would be a lot more sitcoms."

Perry's "House of Payne," which premieres June 6 on TBS, looks and feels in many ways like a traditional situation comedy.

But its development has been anything but traditional.

For one thing, it's shot "at my studio in Atlanta," Perry said.

For another, Perry himself paid for a 10-episode test of the series, which focuses on firefighter CJ Payne (Allen Payne), who's forced to move his family in with relatives after his drug-addicted wife burns down their house. The series aired five nights a week for two weeks last June in several cities, including Philadelphia.

"Those first shows were horrible, to be honest with you," Perry now admits. "It was a big deal to pay for them myself and not have them turn out well."

In an industry where new shows are increasingly seen as disposable, often disappearing after only a few episodes, "House of Payne" might easily have been doomed.

Perry, though, had other ideas.

"Those 10 were really my rehearsal, my warm-up for what I'm doing now," he said.

So he "changed the set, kept the great actors . . . [and] changed the stories," he said.

Perry took his three leads - Payne, LaVan Davis and Cassi Davis - and sent them out on tour together in his play, "What's Done in the Dark," to get the "chemistry" working among them, he said.

In terms of story, CJ's family is no longer living with his parents but with his uncle (LaVan Davis) and aunt (Cassi Davis), and the couple have a son in college (Lance Gross).

"As I was watching the show, I was looking at how close [Payne and the older actors] looked in age" and decided to give them a younger son, Perry said.

What won't be changing in "House of Payne" is the chief source of pain: CJ's drug-addicted wife.

"There's no softening," Perry said. "It's pretty hard-core."

If that doesn't sound like a quick sell, it doesn't necessarily have to be one.

Because the biggest difference between Perry's approach to the sitcom business and that of most producers is that he's chosen first-run syndication over the typical network model.

That means that TBS has bought the rights to air 100 episodes of the series, a rarity in the sitcom business, where first-season orders generally range from six to 13 episodes, with pickups for more only if those first ones perform well.

In 1996, Bill Cosby asked for - and received - a 44-episode, two-season order from CBS for "Cosby," but that was only after his previous sitcom, "The Cosby Show," had proved a mega-hit for NBC.

And though it can take a network show nearly five seasons to reach the 100-episode mark, when lucrative syndication agreements become possible and studios begin to recoup their costs, Perry's deal should get "House of Payne" there much faster, with syndication on Fox stations in several major cities already scheduled to start in the fall of 2008.

According to TBS, two episodes a week will air on the Turner cable network this summer.

Why do it this way?

"I wanted more of a commitment," Perry said. "I wanted to know that the show would be on the air. I wanted everyone to be invested as I am. So a traditional order definitely would've been a deal breaker."

One thing that didn't turn out to be a deal breaker was the dress.

A year ago, Perry was saying viewers shouldn't expect to see much of him onscreen in "House of Payne," and that his most famous character, Mable "Madea" Simmons, would be a definite no-show.

"Madea's on hiatus," he said then. "I'm tired of the dress, the makeup, the wig, all of it . . . I just need a break from it."

So what's up with that tall, grandmotherly type who pops up in the June 6 pilot?

Things change.

"I thought, let me just give this show the best send-off I can," Perry said last week.

And seeing Madea again, he said, was something he knew people would like.

Just don't get used to her.

"Out of this hundred, if you see her three times, that will be a lot," he said. *

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