History of TV: Bad boy for life ‘Martin’
April 29, 2021
The Martin Lawrence vehicle was one of Fox’s highest rated shows during its run between 1992 and 1997. It won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy Series in 1993, as well as multiple NAACP Image Award nominations and wins for outstanding everything (comedy series, lead actor, supporting actress, and supporting actor) between 1994 and 1997.
Headlined by the brash, fast-talking Martin Payne, Martin was about, well, Martin and the friends and family who orbited him; particularly his girlfriend Gina Waters (Tisha Campbell) and their comedically contentious relationship. It’s their relationship that kicks off the show, presenting us with the free-spirited Martin and hardworking PR expert Gina, his level-headed foil.
Men vs. women: the ‘90s edition
It was interesting watching the Martin pilot through a modern lens, every other cringeworthy moment thinking, "Oh, that so wouldn’t be allowed these days." Then simultaneously thinking, "Why was it in those days?!" And most importantly, "Why did I just laugh, then?" Because I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the show is funny; particularly its dissection of the male-female “power struggle” centered around a discussion of male sensitivity — a bold subject to launch the series. Gina gently teases Martin for crying during Beauty and the Beast and the story is off to the races: Martin goes to great lengths to prove his manhood both on-air and especially to his best friends Cole (Carl Anthony Payne II) and Tommy (the late Thomas Mikal Ford), while Gina’s bestie Pam (Tichina Arnold) insists Martin isn’t as good of a guy as Gina believes him to be.
The physical and verbal comedy is plenty but a few lines stand out, suggesting the outcome isn’t as sexist as it seems at first glance. At one point, Martin tells Gina, “What’s real between you and me ain’t none of their business,” while alone. And at the episode’s close, Tommy suggests he knows better than to believe Martin’s bravado by saying Martin may appear to have “won,” but he bets Gina got the best of him during their private bedroom chat, which is true. In the end, both Martin and Gina get the other to do something they want at the expense of the other, an achievement made possible through damaging false appearances — or compromise? That’s up for discussion.
What’s in a name
Seinfeld. Ellen. Martin. Fox cashed in on Lawrence’s stand-up (as in type, not necessarily reputation) comedy career by giving the then 20-something an eponymous show of his own to co-write and star in. A step toward on-air diversity, and toward launching Lawrence’s overall film career. No one knew Detective Marcus Burnett or Big Momma, but they sure would just a few short years after Martin first aired.
Audiences of the show also came to know Martin as a slew of ostentatious characters with theatrical flair. From his own mom Edna 'Mama' Payne (who mysteriously sported the same mustache as Martin), to martial arts “expert” Dragonfly Jones, washed-up singer Elroy Preston, and the boisterous, nosy next-door neighbor Sheneneh Jenkins, Lawrence played almost a dozen characters on the show, perhaps for comic relief. Their appearances are based on sight gags and reminiscent of Lawrence's stand-up comedian life.
Hollywood dynamics aside, it’s very telling on a story level when a show is named after the lead character. It emphasizes without a shadow of a doubt that this isn’t about Martin’s group of friends — it’s about Martin and how he operates within said group and community at large. As a DJ for the local Detroit radio station, the (fictional) WZUP, and later for his show Word on the Street, the character Martin is the literal mouthpiece of the series’ themes.
In retrospect: the heart and hook of the show
While Lawrence doesn’t exactly have a spotless record in real life, his Martin counterpart featured the same macho, inappropriate exterior with a gooey, friend-for-life interior. There’s something in the character — and Lawrence’s real-life style of humor — that resonated with audiences (if not SNL). Martin ran for five seasons and a show doesn’t spawn 132 episodes easily. It has to have heart and a hook that viewers can really get into and empathize with. In my opinion, that was Martin’s relationship with Gina. It was the heart, while his verbal war with her friend Pam provided the comic relief. Martin himself was the hook. Love or hate him, he gave television a fresh comedy that screenwriters can learn from.
Written by: Karin MaxeyAfter seeing her first big screen movie 007: License to Kill at age six, Karin naturally became obsessed with writing action-infused stories. The next time she’d see Benicio del Toro was in person, at the 68th Cannes Film Festival—he was there for the Sicario red carpet, she was there for her first produced short film in the basement of the Palais…same-same. In between, Karin earned a Creative Writing Degree and landed management at Echo Lake Entertainment. Her scripts have been a Big Break Top 3 finalist, HollyShorts Film Fest Official Selection, and a multi-Screencraft competitions semi-finalist. Karin is also a screenplay editor who delights in the process of polishing writers' work for submission. You can find her at www.writergirlkarin.com.