This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
Everything goes in threes! Hence today we treat of the THIRD of my three favorite African American comedy shows I used to follow on Fox in the ’90s, Martin, which ran from 1992 through 1997. This sitcom was a showcase for stand-up comedian Martin Lawrence, and I’ll be frank; I didn’t watch it with the same type of respect and reverence I had for Roc and In Living Color. I just watched it ’cause it was funny.
On the show Lawrence played a local Detroit radio personality (in later seasons, a TV talk show host), which provided the comedian with ample opportunity to do his bits. His character on the show was a hot-tempered loose-cannon, always flying off the handle and getting lost in one crazy scheme or another. The architecture of the show was well-built for comedy. Tisha Cambell was his level-headed girlfriend (later wife) Gina who reined him in and smoothed things over. Tichina Arnold played Gina’s best friend Pam; the dislike between her and Martin was a major comedy engine, as they traded insults. His two buddies were played by Carl Anthony Payne II and Thomas Kikal Ford (the latter passed away in 2016). Garrett Morris played Martin’s boss at the radio station (until he was shot in a robbery midway through the show’s run). A young Tracy Morgan was a guy named “Hustle Man”. David Alan Grier and Tommy Davidson from In Loving Color had recurring parts, as did the immortal LaWanda Page of Sanford and Son.
But some of the best guest star appearances were by Lawrence himself. He often did turns on the show as other characters. The most hilarious ones were in drag, as when he played his own mother, or the epic low-rent fashionista “Sheneneh”, who owned a hair salon. This was a half dozen years after Eddie Murphy’s multi-character Jerry Lewis tribute in The Nutty Professor (1996) but over a decade before Tyler Perry started doing it in the Madea movies.
Having a hit show on which he shone to this degree would be enough for many performers, but Lawrence kept expanding. In 1994 he released his stand-up concert film You So Crazy. The following year he co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in A Thin Line Between Love and Hate and this is when things started to unravel. While the film was shooting he exploded into an out-of-control rage episode and had to be rushed to the hospital. Shortly after the film was released in 1996, he rushed out into L.A. traffic flashing a handgun around, shouting paranoid obscenities, and was again hospitalized. Two months later he was arrested for doing the same thing at Burbank airport. In 1997, he was arrested again for punching a man in a nightclub. The same year, Tisha Campbell sued Lawrence and the show’s producers for sexual harassment and abuse, and took a leave of absence from the show until a financial settlement was reached. In 1999, two years after Martin went off the air, he nearly died from heat exhaustion while getting shape for the first of his “Big Momma” movies. His spokespeople said he’s been jogging on a hot day in a nylon track suit and collapsed from dehydration. His temperature skyrocketed to 107 and he went into a three day coma.
Does all of this sound like drugs? It does. Lawrence wasn’t the first or the last comedian to have that problem, although it must be said that his flame-out was among the most spectacular. It was after the near-death episode that he finally straightened himself out, as he related in his 2002 concert movie, Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat, although he continues to contend that the media exaggerated his drug problem. (I’m not sure I’d want to be putting it out there that I had been waving a gun around WITHOUT the influence of drugs, but whatever). Whatever the case Lawrence remains a totally productive artist, but (if we may say so) at a somewhat saner pace.