Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Martin (1992-1997, FOX), which is currently available on DVD and HBO Max.
Martin stars MARTIN LAWRENCE as Martin, TISHA CAMPBELL as Gina, CARL ANTHONY PAYNE II as Cole, THOMAS MIKAL FORD as Tommy, and TICHINA ARNOLD as Pam. With JON GRIES and GARRETT MORRIS.
Martin’s second season is the most fun, best displaying the unique comic stylings of its star, whose audacious and improvisational sense of humor helps override this sitcom’s narrative and character-based shortcomings so that it can feasibly stand as one of the most enjoyable and laugh-out-loud comedies of its era. Now, if you’ll recall last week, I couldn’t fully call Martin a great situation comedy, for despite having a classic setup, its characters were portrayed with a sketch-like thinness both caused by and evidenced via their usage within story. (It’s mediocre by our usual definition.) However, because I’m so captivated by the genius of Martin Lawrence, I truly appreciate this series for how it’s able to showcase him and his outrageous (and sometimes sketch-like) comedy — the very traits that most make Martin worth watching, and a vital part of its identity that must be equally as well-applied in weekly story as the sitcom elements giving the scripts their narrative shape and grounding emotional investment (the “hangout” format and its central romance). Accordingly, the best period of Martin exhibits a favorable balance — with the show still regularly allowing Lawrence to clown in big centerpieces (sometimes as other characters) that earn the series its trademark guffaws, but also with enough support from its leads, its ensemble structure, and the core relationship between Martin and Gina. Future years will emphasize these so-called “sitcom elements” — thereby accentuating Martin’s deficiencies compared to others in the genre — while Season One wasn’t as bold yet with its humor nor as capable of maximizing its regular cast. For that reason, Two is a significant improvement, and although Three is another great year that I can also recommend — due to the strengthening of its “sitcom” bona fides — this is the collection that strikes the most ideal arrangement as far as the series’ sketch-like but uproarious and premise-validating comedy is concerned, with iconic big laughs and just enough foundational assistance from the leading characterizations (and their growing relationships) to make the best segments also highlightable here in the context of our study. So, this is Martin at its most Martin — and that’s some of the funniest stuff you’ll find!
01) Episode 28: “Do You Remember The Time?” (Aired: 08/22/93)
Martin and Gina have different recollections of their first meeting.
Written by Sandy Frank & Matt Wickline | Directed by Gerren Keith
Season Two opens with a terrific premiere that engages the overused Rashomon device, but to great effect, as this story about how Martin and Gina first met not only validates the series’ dramatic focus on their relationship, it also fleshes out their history, making them richer characters as well. What’s more, although this device might be a bit clichéd, it inherently provides room for different character-rich perspectives, which themselves can be guiding, allowing a show to mine comedy based on its leads’ contrasting depictions. Oh, and with the entire “hangout” ensemble present in the flashback, their collective dynamic gets strengthened as well. Thus, this is a stellar opener for the series’ situation comedy credentials, bolstering them, while also, importantly, displaying Martin Lawrence and his boisterous one-of-a-kind comedy — the very reason Season Two is an especially excellent era for Martin.
02) Episode 29: “Really, Gina’s Not My Lover” (Aired: 08/29/93)
Martin won’t bring Gina to his high school reunion after beauty treatments ruin her face.
Written by Jacque Edmonds | Directed by Gerren Keith
If some of this series’ character work is relatively subpar, the performances certainly compensate — not just Martin Lawrence, but also, and in particular, Tisha Campbell, who repeatedly proves a willingness to go “out there” with bold, broad physical comedy that matches this star’s high-octane energy and further extends the show’s invigorating comic ethos. This installment is a great testament to Campbell’s talent, as beauty treatments temporarily ruin Gina’s face and render her, for Martin, unpresentable at his high school reunion, where he confronts his former nemesis and then must deal with the embarrassment of a drugged up and facially contorted Gina — offering a show of kinetic physical comedy that always makes me laugh-out-loud. (Wendy Raquel Robinson from The Steve Harvey Show also appears.)
03) Episode 30: “Got To Be There” (Aired: 09/05/93)
Martin spies on Gina while she’s out of town on business.
Written by Diane Burroughs & Joey Gutierrez | Directed by Gerren Keith
Although this isn’t narratively one of my favorite episodes on this list, I do think it’s a very funny show indicative of the strong early portion of Season Two, where Martin is firing on all cylinders, embracing its unique brand of comedy with a heretofore unseen commitment to boldness, while simultaneously taking advantage of — and building on — the series’ structural sitcom elements, like its characters and their relationships. This one’s really all about the comedy for me though — particularly the climactic gag where Martin goes out of town to spy on Gina, and winds up under her bed as she has a seemingly inappropriate encounter with another man… the guy who’s trying to fix her air conditioner. It’s a lot of big laughs, typical of Martin and this era in its life specifically, and since that’s this series’ primary metric, it’s a winner!
04) Episode 31: “Beat It” (Aired: 09/12/93)
Martin charges people to come watch the boxing match in his apartment.
Written by Bennie R. Richburg, Jr. | Directed by Gerren Keith
What I like best about this installment is its simplicity, as it takes place on an evening where Martin has invited his friends and neighbors over to watch the boxing match with him — for a cover charge, of course. This logline proves to be enough of a foundation for otherwise straightforward character interactions, including Pam’s growing animosity towards across-the-hall diva Sheneneh, one of the other roles Lawrence plays on this series, and with such relish. Additionally, Reginald Ballard makes his debut in the recurring role of neighborhood mooch “Bruh Man,” which is a lot of delicious fun that adds to Martin’s fresh appeal. As for the main narrative — Tommy hooking up with Cole’s date — that’s a common “Singles in the City” plot that accentuates this series’ “hangout” ensemble, another key part of its identity.
05) Episode 34: “Control” (Aired: 10/03/93)
Gina spends a day working in Sheneneh’s salon in exchange for basketball tickets.
Written by Cheryl Holliday | Directed by Gerren Keith
Easily the best Sheneneh episode of the entire series, “Control” is a laugh-fest from start to finish, for despite a somewhat contrived setup where Gina loses Martin’s basketball tickets, we quickly get to the real “meat” of this offering, which is forcing Gina to suffer a day in Sheneneh’s hair salon — an opportunity for Martin Lawrence to have a ball as one of his funniest side characters, and a chance for the show to reinforce Sheneneh’s competitive relationship with the women (a known aspect of her persona). This is another segment, then, where the performers are having a lot of fun, with improvised bits that build on character while emphasizing the star’s spontaneity and his delectable brand of comedy, which defines this series and why it’s special (especially here in Season Two). Also, look for the return of Myra (Bebe Drake), Stan’s girlfriend, and a guest appearance by 3rd Rock From The Sun’s Simbi Khali.
06) Episode 39: “Hollywood Swingin’ (II)” (Aired: 11/14/93)
Martin crashes his rival’s Hollywood talk show.
Written by Bennie R. Richburg, Jr. | Directed by Gerren Keith
This popular two-parter guest stars Tommy Davidson as the memorable Varnell Hill — a successful TV talk show host who once was a DJ at Martin’s station. Now, he’s our leading man’s rival, exacerbating all Martin’s insecurities about his own talent and career. Their dynamic is loaded with character-rooted tension. In fact, I’m more enthused about their initial exchanges — and particularly Part I — than Part II, in which the series goes on-location after Martin temporarily quits his job, bringing his friends to see Varnell’s show in L.A., where he realizes that his “pal” has stolen all his trademark bits. And yet, Part II’s climax is undeniable, as Martin crashes Varnell’s taping (including a song by Jodeci) — making for another fine showcase of Martin Lawrence’s series-defining comedy and the reason I ultimately choose this one over its first half, for this is what Martin is as a sitcom, and I would miss this entry if it wasn’t here.
07) Episode 40: “Thanks For Nothing” (Aired: 11/21/93)
Martin’s family and Gina’s parents both attend Thanksgiving dinner.
Written by Jacque Edmonds | Directed by Gerren Keith
There are a handful of episodes here in Season Two that treat the anchoring Martin/Gina relationship with a greater degree of sincerity than this year’s overall baseline — perhaps evidencing a trend that will extend in Season Three with their marriage arc, following an engagement in Two’s February Sweeps. Personally, I think this is the best of Two’s “sincere” lot because it also balances its genuine dramatic intentions with outrageous, boffo laughs — many of them coming from guests John Witherspoon (he’s hysterical) and Reno Wilson as Martin’s socially tactless uncle and cousin, who attend the Thanksgiving holiday and thoroughly disrupt a visit from Gina’s far more conservative parents (J.A. Preston and Judyann Elder). As you can see, this is one of those traditional “clash of the families” — with a central couple stuck in the middle of contrasting clans who nevertheless represent the main duo’s own differences. It’s a very common and reliable sitcom trope (heck, it was a big part of the show we just covered — The Nanny), and it works to both strengthen our understanding of Martin and Gina, and also illustrate this series’ ongoing evolution into a more legitimate sitcom… only with its comedy still in enough supply to keep this competitive with the rest of Two’s finest.
08) Episode 43: “No Justice, No Peace” (Aired: 01/09/94)
Martin fights his own traffic ticket in court.
Written by Bentley Kyle Evans | Directed by Gerren Keith
Among the series’ most popular offerings, “No Justice, No Peace,” I must admit, ordinarily wouldn’t be my cup of tea, for it indulges a gigantic court room centerpiece — one of the worst TV clichés, typically downplaying the characters and main elements of a series’ “situation” in favor of idea-led, circumstantial laughs related to a highly stylized plot that isn’t even honored, as most sitcoms play fast and loose with literal realism and ignore the innate comic rigidity of the setting, in turn undermining both the leads and the story. But the criteria for Martin is a bit different than most sitcoms, for we know that its characters are rather thin and sketch-like, and its key attribute is its sense of humor, embodied by its star. So, the best entries here are those that spotlight Martin Lawrence — and by those terms, this is absolutely one of the best performances he ever gives, single-handedly earning yuk after yuk because of his remarkable clowning. Additionally, unlike other unideal sitcom scenarios that I usually couldn’t commend, I appreciate that this story at least calls upon the other members of the regular cast to participate — thereby giving it more of an affiliation to the series’ “situation” than many others can claim.
09) Episode 44: “Suspicious Minds” (Aired: 01/16/94)
Martin suspects that one of his friends stole his new CD Walkman.
Written by John Ridley | Directed by Gerren Keith
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode, “Suspicious Minds” might seem to be an unusual selection for me, because, like the aforementioned “No Justice, No Peace,” it’s saddled with a narrative setup that doesn’t work on most sitcoms — where a lead thinks the worst of the people closest in his life without proper motivation. In this case, it’s Martin accusing his pals of stealing his new Walkman (how very ’90s!) — an idea that isn’t truly driven by character, and actually, sort of undermines the emotional bonds at the heart of this “hangout” ensemble, for how can we believe in their affinity if Martin is so quick to forsake them on these flimsy episodic terms? However, again, Martin is a sketch-like sitcom by this era’s baseline, for better and for worse, and its characters are therefore not as realistic. Accordingly, I can’t expect much from them, and thus, I hold them to a lower standard so it’s more possible for me to enjoy the proceedings. As such, I can ignore concerns with this narrative and concentrate on the seminal metric by which all of Martin should be judged — how well it showcases Martin Lawrence and his intoxicating sense of humor. With that as a singular, guiding interest, I can confirm that I think there’s no funnier 23-minutes of this season, thanks in large part to the New Jack City parody (with a fake dog) where the entire “hangout” ensemble — which also gets strengthened because of their usage here — is trying not to bust with laughter. Indeed, Martin’s over-the-top behavior is so ridiculous — beyond the pale of a normal character — and yet so indicative of Lawrence’s own ethos, that it’s an iconic example of Martin at its most Martin… not a great sitcom, but one of the funniest half hour shows in the sitcom format. That’s exactly what this outing exhibits — and why it deserves to represent this season as MVE.
10) Episode 48: “Guard Your Grill” (Aired: 02/27/94)
Martin challenges a professional boxer to a match.
Written by Martin Lawrence | Directed by Gerren Keith
As with the two above, this installment — penned by the series’ star — is not one I’d ordinarily cite when looking for excursions that best reflect the sitcom genre. But since the best way to enjoy Martin is to celebrate when it emphasizes its leading man and uses his personal sense of humor to exert its comic superiority (boosted, of course, by as much help from the “situation” as there can be), this segment is another tour de force for Martin Lawrence, putting him in the boxing ring (one of this star’s passions) with Tommy Hearns for some physical comedy that, as usual, exemplifies the series’ comedic identity — a primary element I seek to highlight. So, though not a favorite, I do think this is a great sample of Martin here in Two. Don’t miss the gag of Martin’s busted face (which is ultimately what bumped this one up for me).
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Crunchy Drawers,” which was closest to the list, courtesy of a story predicated on the known antagonism between Martin and Pam, along with both the first half of the aforementioned “Hollywood Swingin'” and “I Don’t Have The Heart,” another solid Pam show, plus three affable outings that help explore the Martin/Gina relationship this season, “Workin’ Day And Night,” which is simple but to the point, “Whoop! There It Ain’t,” where the two stars are especially terrific, and “Yours, Mine, And Ours,” which treats them surprisingly sincere. Then, I’ll also cite mediocre entries with some very funny centerpieces, like “To Kill A Talking Bird,” where Mama Payne has a fit after her beloved parrot dies in Gina’s care, “Fat Like Dat,” where Martin tries aerobics, and “No Love Lost,” which guest stars Snoop Dogg and is the year’s best showing for Jerome.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Martin goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!