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, TISHA CAMPBELL, CARL ANTHONY PAYNE II, THOMAS MIKAL FORD and TICHINA ARNOLD.
Season Three is another great year for Martin — it’s not as wild and free-spirited as its predecessor, offering less of its star in sketch-like centerpieces where he plays a variety of roles and gets to clown in accordance with his natural comic ethos, but it maintains enough of this sensibility to remain enjoyable, while also embracing more elements associated with its chosen genre: the situation comedy. That is, Three cultivates a more traditional association with weekly story, emphasizing character dynamics and narrative arcs that better tether plot to a “situation.” This trend really began at the end of Two, with the central couple’s engagement and then Martin’s departure from a weak (not story-providing) job. But Three — which claims a new executive producer in Samm-Art Williams — opens with several scripts that finish this retooling, ultimately leading Martin to a TV station, from which it’s even easier to derive episodic ideas and allow for stunt casting gimmicks, which significantly increase. Additionally, the aforementioned engagement unfolds so that Martin and Gina not only move in together, but also get married by the end of the year, with many scripts dealing with their upcoming nuptials — a narrative focus connected to the series’ premised emotional core, and therefore welcome. What’s more, Three also decides to create a secondary couple in Tommy and Pam — a development that’s very “Singles in the City” and feels directly inspired by Living Single, another “hangout” series with a loud rom-com engine. All these developments strengthen Martin’s bona fides as a situation comedy by providing more details to include in story, and because there’s both enough of Martin Lawrence’s own series-defining humor carried over from the previous year, along with a premise-approved relationship bent that will sadly fade in the years ahead, said sitcom elements are much more supportive, and better supported, than they ever will be again… Now, I still personally think Two is more reflective of Martin’s unique charms overall — for the more this show becomes a mediocre sitcom, the less I can genuinely praise it — but there are plenty of classics here as well, and it was tough to narrow down ten that I feel best embody Three’s special balance of sitcom and Martin-com, for this is another “peak” collection.
01) Episode 60: “The Closer I Get To You” (Aired: 10/06/94)
Martin gives romantic advice to Tommy, not knowing it’ll be used on Pam.
Written by Kenny Buford | Directed by Gerren Keith
After a handful of try-hard episodes that must reinstate a new status quo following Martin’s cliffhanger disappearance, Three has settled into its groove by this installment, which follows up on a suggestion from a few weeks prior about the possible growing attraction between Pam and Tommy. This entry’s choice to have Martin’s advice be the official catalyst for the pair’s coupling is hilarious, given that he’s essentially played Cupid for his best friend and his enemy — a notion that reminds us of the well-established comic rapport between Martin and Pam. Now, the emergence of this secondary couple doesn’t necessarily add any definition to their characters (especially the still-vague Tommy), but by embracing this “hangout” structure’s natural capacity to reflect the trendy “Singles in the City” aesthetic, along with a premise-validating rom-com engine, Martin’s credentials as a sitcom increase — there’s more tangible “givens” for future plot. (Guests in this half hour include Jazsmin Lewis and Ellia English.)
02) Episode 62: “Momma’s Baby, Martin’s Maybe” (Aired: 11/03/94)
A kid shows up claiming to be Martin’s son.
Written by Samm-Art Williams | Directed by Gerren Keith
Although I’m not crazy about this story being driven by a random kid (Marcus T. Paulk) who shows up on Martin’s figurative doorstep — as that’s not really inspired by these characters or their relationships — I wanted to highlight this otherwise popular offering because it’s got a script credited to Samm-Art Williams (Frank’s Place, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air), who became an Executive Producer in Three and would shepherd the show to become a more “traditional” situation comedy, moving away from the sketch-like hijinks of the previous years (led by John Bowman, whose prior credits had included Garry Shandling, Saturday Night Live, and In Living Color). We can see Williams’ influence, I think, in stories like this… which maybe are mediocre because they don’t use the leads well, but still seek to provide a grounding emotional realism that’s more reflective of this genre’s collective standards. As for this outing, I can ultimately feature it here because, while I prefer others, the laughs do elevate it, and I appreciate how it incorporates Gina’s recurring mom (Judyann Elder) as an added font of tension.
03) Episode 64: “Get A Job” (Aired: 11/17/94)
Martin and Gina attempt to find out what Tommy does for a living.
Written by Cheryl Holliday | Directed by Gerren Keith
What’s great about this installment is that it deliberately capitalizes on Tommy’s relative lack of definition, transferring the show’s unawareness about his profession to the characters, as they themselves seek to uncover what he does for a living. Yes, long before Chandler Bing’s boring and somewhat mysterious job became a running gag on another “Singles in the City” hangout sitcom, Tommy Strawn gave this series the exact same comedic thought — essentially commenting upon his missing characterization and turning it into a source of both comedy and story. Again, Tommy doesn’t really emerge from this entry with more dimension that can then be applied in future episodic plots as a result, but at least the show is twisting one of its weaknesses into a temporary strength — and earning big laughs in the process: a hallmark of peak era Martin. (Of note — Tracy Morgan’s recurring “Hustle Man” debuts.)
04) Episode 66: “Lockin’ Boots” (Aired: 12/08/94)
Martin tries to get back at Gina when she lies to him about a parking ticket.
Written by Teri Schaffer | Directed by Gerren Keith
This is a fun offering because the reason for its comic problem is not Martin, but Gina, as she secretly takes money out of the couple’s joint checking account to pay for a parking ticket. Her dishonesty then spurs Martin into retaliatory action — a common plotting for the situation comedy genre, which Martin continues to embrace — and many of the laughs then come from Martin’s efforts to push Gina over the edge, as she struggles to maintain her charade. Again, what works best is this reversal of the series’ usual dynamic, affording the funny Tisha Campbell another opportunity to prove herself a worthy partner for Martin Lawrence, matching his high-octane energy with a somewhat grounded persona that can also go off the “deep end,” thereby keeping Martin in a happy medium between its sketch-like and sitcom sensibilities, the latter of which are particularly well-featured here. A good ambassador for Season Three.
05) Episode 70: “Nuttin’ Goin’ On But The Rent” [a.k.a. “Ain’t Nuttin’ Goin’ On But The Rent”] (Aired: 02/02/95)
Martin’s fight with his landlord ends up with the heat turned off during a blizzard.
Written by Doreen Spicer | Directed by Gerren Keith
I’m reminded of The Honeymooners by this familiar sketch-like story about Martin’s fight with his landlord, who turns off his apartment’s heat ahead of a devastating Detroit blizzard. And that’s an appropriate comparison for this series, because this low-concept narrative is incredibly theatrical, like a good old-fashioned multi-cam, as most of its action takes place with the core fivesome stuck in Martin’s freezing apartment — a setup for gags related to the episodic scenario, and more importantly, basic character interactions between members of this “hangout” ensemble. As evidenced here, their collective chemistry has improved a lot as a result of the year’s elevated tendencies as a situation comedy, for their bonds continue to feel more and more solidified, both in and out of story… Additionally, in terms of comedy, this one’s also a winner, with a series-validating boldness, both from the leads, and recurring folks on the periphery, like Hustle Man (Tracy Morgan) and Bruh-Man (Reginald Ballard).
06) Episode 71: “The Ex-Files” (Aired: 02/09/95)
Martin and Gina double date with their exes to prove who is more jealous.
Written by Jacque Edmonds | Directed by Gerren Keith
This is the portion of the year where scripts really start taking advantage of the central couple’s upcoming wedding, utilizing stories that deal with the natural encroachment of that forthcoming development — a very “traditional” understanding of how to plot sitcom seasons, especially in the mid-’90s, where “Singles in the City” rom-coms were all the rage. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of segment that feels right at home in a sitcom from this era, as the main lovers each invite an ex to dinner in an experiment to see who is going to get jealous faster. Built on relationships tinged with romance, and a heavy capacity for comic conflict because of said romance, this plot (and the Pam/Tommy subplot) is Martin at its most like Living Single, and I mean that as a compliment, for Living Single is a much sturdier sitcom by way of character, and as long as Martin can remain as funny as it is here, striving to be a bit more like Living Single in story is, well, smart! (Joseph C. Phillips, Angelle Brooks, and Vivica A. Fox guest.)
07) Episode 76: “C.R.E.A.M.” (Aired: 04/06/95)
Martin goes into the restaurant business with his old boss Stan.
Written by Kenny Buford | Directed by Gerren Keith
Apparently, this is one of the series’ most popular, deploying an old sitcom trope — not even I Love Lucy or Frasier were immune from indulging it — in which the lead characters temporarily open up a restaurant. Although no sitcom that traffics in this idea will gain points for originality — and seldom can it be well-inspired by a “situation,” since it’s so episodically predicated — the best shows tailor this cliché to the charms of their specific setups. And Martin‘s take is a perfect showcase for this series, offering the return of Garrett Morris’ funny but underused Stan, along with one of the most hilarious bits of the entire run — “Rent ’em spoons!” — which sort of defines this entry’s appeal for me, emphasizing the show’s wacky, improvisational, trivial comedy, and the kinetic big energy that both makes it special, and in this instance, binds the ensemble: the force that sells this excursion as a winner. (MC Hammer also guests.)
08) Episode 77: “Girlfriend” (Aired: 04/13/95)
Martin and Pam team up to expose Gina’s snobby friend.
Written by Darice Rollins & Teri Schaffer | Directed by Gerren Keith
Merrin Dungey (later of The King Of Queens and Malcolm In The Middle) guest stars in this outing as Gina’s obnoxious and snooty friend, who manages to annoy both Martin and his rival Pam. Their mutual disdain for this annoying lady turns enemies into temporary allies as they unite to take her down on Martin’s TV show. That yields a lot of great fun, for it’s situated on our well-established understanding of Martin and Pam’s dynamic, which is always defined by an antagonistic banter. To see the two of them conspire to destroy a mutual foe, then, is incredibly satisfying, for it forces them to be together, with comedy then derived simply by the unusualness of the narrative pairing, and by their proximity, which sparks intrinsic friction. In that regard, this story is enlivened by a precise relational construct from the ensemble — one of the ways that Martin is strengthening its credentials as a situation comedy in otherwise so-so plots.
09) Episode 78: “The Romantic Weekend” (Aired: 04/27/95)
Martin takes Gina to a cheap vacation resort.
Written by Matt Diamond & Guy Torry | Directed by Gerren Keith
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode, “The Romantic Weekend” — colloquially known as “Chilligan’s Island,” named after the shoddy resort where both couples in this ensemble wind up during their separate vacations — is up there with last week’s “Suspicious Minds” for me as the funniest half hour of this significantly funny series. The highlight, undoubtedly, is the extended physical centerpiece where Martin and Gina, after arriving in their terribly run-down room, fend off a giant rodent that has invaded their bungalow. It’s a totally ridiculous bit of physical comedy that Martin Lawrence milks for all its worth, and yet it’s screamingly guffaw-inducing — so indicative of how his unique talents not only shape the sensibilities of Martin as a whole, but also most contribute to the series’ one-of-a-kind watchability, for I simply don’t think that any other sitcom in this era could pull off this routine so sublimely, with the kind of frenetic mania that always catches me off guard (no matter how many times I’ve watched it). It’s truly one of the most laugh-out-loud enjoyable things I’ve ever seen… Now, of course, that’s just a minor gag (which recurs) — not really representative of this entry’s use of character or story — so I can’t claim it’s an example of excellent sitcommery. But the script itself does boast a premised focus on Martin and Gina’s relationship — the series’ grounding emotional core — and in being one of the few stories to actually utilize Pam/Tommy as the secondary couple they positionally are, their very inclusion reinforces Season Three’s specific ethos as more of a cultivated “Singles in the City”-like sitcom… one nevertheless still dominated by the thing that Martin does best and most needs: his rambunctious, one-of-a-kind sense of humor. So, ultimately, there was no other choice. The funniest segment of this season is its best ambassador — and that’s, easily, this one.
10) Episode 80: “Wedding Bell Blues” (Aired: 05/11/95)
Mama Payne invites the entire crazy family to Martin and Gina’s wedding.
Written by Phil Kellard & Tom Moore | Directed by Gerren Keith
Martin and Gina end up eloping in a mediocre season finale that doesn’t have as many laughs as the series’ baseline because it’s also trying to play into the sentimentality of its rom-com elements and its built-up sitcom trappings (even though, as always, its leads remain fairly thin and sketch-like). I much prefer this, the year’s penultimate outing, where Mama Payne — in one of her funniest showings — causes trouble by inviting the entire Payne family to the wedding, allowing for all kinds of kooks and outrageous characters to appear, in the spirit of the series’ wild and uncontrolled brand of comedy, best embodied by Martin Lawrence (who plays many roles here… Jerome, Sheneneh, Roscoe, etc.). Indeed, his portrayal of Mama’s reaction to the elopement is worth “the price of admission,” even as this story is also commendable as both a sample of how Three’s main narrative arc is being used in story, and how the clash of families around Martin and Gina represents elemental sitcommery that has often provided a nice foundation for the big comedy Martin has to offer… (Guests include Judyann Elder and J.A. Preston, David Alan Grier, Yo-Yo, J. Anthony Brown, Reno Wilson, and Simbi Khali.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include the two closest to the above list — “Feast Or Famine,” a wonderful “hangout” installment with a Thanksgiving “battle of the sexes” (and a hysterical turn by Martin Lawrence as Mama Payne), and “Whole Lotto Trouble,” which claims a popular comic idea that I wish was just a little better attached to some premised or character-based notion. I also really like “Movin’ On In,” which examines the shifting ensemble dynamics once Martin/Gina cohabitate and Pam/Tommy are coupled (leaving Cole to go find Big Shirley), and “The Bachelor Party,” a solid “Singles in the City” entry with decent fantasy scenes. Lastly, I’d also like to cite these memorable outings: “Sophisticated Ladies,” which offers the year’s most prominent usage of the always hilarious Sheneneh, “All The Players Came,” which is an affable 1970’s themed gimmick fest, “High Noon,” which is built only around the climactic reveal of Gary Coleman as a released convict, and “Mother Of The Bride,” which boasts one of the best uses of Tracy Morgan in his recurring role of Hustle Man. Oh, and I can’t end this post without mentioning the ridiculously amusing toenail gag in “Best And Bester,” which is better than the half hour itself.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Martin goes to…
“The Romantic Weekend”
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tomorrow for a new Wildcard!
THIS is actually my fav season of the show and one of my favs from this TV Season. Unpopular opinion though…The Romantic Weekend I always felt slightly overrated as I felt the rodent scene pretty much heightened the episode and felt it was pretty standard in the 1st act.. Im more of a Aint Nothin Goin On But The Rent guy. This season represented a nice middle ground for the show.
I have a lot to say about the next two
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I appreciate this season for its less light and therefore more genre-reflective storytelling (particularly when it affirms aspects of the premise) and I agree it’s a peak-era collection, but I miss the total comic abandon of the sophomore year, and in particular, all the other roles that Martin Lawrence would play. None of them are as present here as they were before, and I accordingly don’t think this season is *as* good a showcase for him, specifically. (Also, as the show becomes more of a sitcom, I am forced to become more critical of its character work; that starts here…)
As for “The Romantic Weekend,” we’ll have to agree to disagree — I don’t think there’s anything funnier, and on that metric (MARTIN’s most important), there was no other choice in my mind for MVE, especially with support from the year’s premise-validating two-couple setup as a bonus.
True but good review as always
My pleasure — glad you enjoyed!
To preface: I’m black and even though I like Martin,Jamie Fox, Wayan Brothers etc, I can’t help but bemoan the scarcity of truly GREAT black sitcoms. I wish we could get shows on par with the writing of a Frasier, Cheers, and Golden Girls. What annoys me most about some black sitcoms is how overly broad and cartoony the shows can be; they lack brains and logic and feel like they harken back to the buffoonery of minstrel shows at times. Spike Lee made a similar critique, but it was mostly aimed at Tyler Perry. I really love Frasier and I yearn for a black sitcom with that much intelligence and polished writing. I always wonder why black shows get saddled with middling to inferior writing.
Hi, Issa! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think you raise two different issues here — and I want to make sure to separate them.
The first is whether there are any “Black sitcoms” whose quality of writing indeed matches this genre’s best – meaning, per our definition, sitcoms that brilliantly use the primary elements of their “situation,” particularly their characters, to inspire both their episodic storytelling and their regular pursuit of comedy. Personally, I think it depends on what we decide to call a “Black sitcom,” but typically I see this term referring mostly to multi-cams from the 1980s, ’90s, and early ‘00s that were entirely written/produced/starring Black talent — and in that context, I would unfortunately have to agree that I’ve not yet found a show that I think flatters my definition of the sitcom enough to be on par with the classics you mentioned (FRASIER, CHEERS, and THE GOLDEN GIRLS). I think a lot of this era’s “Black” comedies — including the upcoming LIVING SINGLE — mostly meet my definition, but have limitations that keep them from *greatness* with well-defined characters consistently motivating big laughs and unique story. (Stay tuned…)
As for wanting more sitcoms like FRASIER, I have to parse this out and say that FRASIER is a great sitcom because it’s entirely rooted in character and satisfies the terms of this genre — it really is drenched in its “situation.” To that point, the fact that it’s often celebrated as intelligent is interesting to me ONLY because this ethos is a deliberate reflection of Frasier’s (and Niles’) characterization. So, as I agree with you about yearning for smarter Black sitcoms, I think there’s actually two things to want: smarter Black leads, and then sitcoms that are character-driven enough to have those smart Black leads define the very style of their writing. With regard to the former, I *do* think the 1990s and 2000s actually have a few Black Frasier-like characters (including Kyle in LIVING SINGLE), but they’re rare, and there’s not a lot of variety in the shows themselves, meaning fewer chances for a Frasier-like character to be the singular star. And then, well, I also go back to point one: none of that era’s “Black sitcoms” had a strong enough bond between their characters — their “situation” — and story, so they likely wouldn’t have been great in the same way that FRASIER was great anyway, even if they did have leads that we’d similarly call intelligent.
You asked why; I would say it’s either a reflection of the collective limitations of the scribes behind those shows (perhaps a lack of experience) and/or a reflection of their limiting (condescending) view of what they believed their specific audience wanted. Either way, I think I’m at risk of insulting somebody while making sweeping generalizations, so I’ll say there’s probably no simple answer — it’s nuanced. At the same time, I would also add that these shows tend to get extra scrutiny because of the burden of representation, and that’s tricky because it asks them to be held to a social, moral standard most sitcoms aren’t. That is, will every exaggerated comic attribute afforded to a Black person on a sitcom be viewed in the context of racist stereotypes that date back to minstrelsy? If so, then Black characters (and writers) can never win — for we’re asking these comedic figures to be funny, just not too much. Again, that’s nuanced — and while, sure, we’re asking most sitcoms to find some happy medium therein, it’s always easier said than done. I mean, it’s not even easy for “white” shows to be consistent with believable characters, so perhaps the sample size of “Black sitcoms” is just too small, and that’s one of the reasons you’re left wanting a gem from this period.
And yet, with all that noted, I think there’s still a lot to enjoy. As you know, I have a cultivated framework for how I judge sitcoms here, but in order to maximize enjoyment, I try to meet each show where it wants to be met — where it alone aims to be great. Remember: not every sitcom wants to be logical/believable in accordance with “literal realism.” This is perfectly fine; as long as that intent is communicated to us so we know what to expect, and the genre’s needs — characters inspiring laughs/story — are still met, a sitcom can still be top-tier. In the case of MARTIN, I believe this series derives its greatness from showcasing the genius comedy of Martin Lawrence, and on those terms, I think it’s incredibly successful for over half its run, during which time I’m a little less bothered by its shoddy storytelling and its relatively thin characterizations (and I’m never anticipating it to be more logical than it ever endeavors to be). What’s more, in a genre where the successful pursuit of laugh-out-loud humor is also key to being considered a classic, I really appreciate that MARTIN regularly makes me guffaw — that’s not a minor accomplishment. I point all this out because, while I agree with you about where these shows — including MARTIN — stand within the genre as a whole (it’s not top-tier), I am also able to find a lot to sincerely enjoy, sometimes with more enthusiasm than I get from sitcoms that more formally adhere to my definition. Every show is different.
Lastly, I’ll add that I think the sitcom genre has evolved in a lot of unfavorable ways over the last twenty years, but among the few positives is more diversity in the (albeit shrunken) mainstream. One sample I consistently like to highlight is the 2010s’ THE CARMICHAEL SHOW, an idea-led triumph in the Norman Lear vein that certainly isn’t a great character piece like MARY TYLER MOORE (and its descendants), but is just as funny and topical as ALL IN THE FAMILY was nearly fifty years prior — in alignment with our understanding of what makes a great “idea-led” sitcom: supporting premise-validating narrative notions through characters, relationships, and strong, comedic writing. In fact, if I were crafting a list of ten favorite sitcoms from that decade, it would easily make my list. And in said list, I would praise the text for reflecting its smart lead — Jerrod Carmichael, who also wrote and co-created the show.
Now, I’m not sure the current fragmentation of our media landscape can allow any new or recent comedy to become truly analogous with any of those aforementioned classics you (and I) love, but had THE CARMICHAEL SHOW been afforded a longer run, I think I’d be citing it even more often as a modern gem. And though it’s not a multi-cam, ABBOTT ELEMENTARY has certainly caught my eye as one of the funniest network sitcoms I’ve seen in years… So, I’d guess this all is to say: keep the faith — there’s reasons to be optimistic, about stuff back then and stuff right now.
I loved Carmichael and Abbott
You like Atlanta?
Not as much, no. I think ATLANTA is a prime example of how the 21st century has infected the sitcom form with interests counter to its unique success via the adoption of traits from other genres — in this case, the prestige drama. Accordingly, I think the show relishes in not being consistently comedic (under the false belief that drama is more valuable than comedy), and it’s therefore not as funny as the other shows we’ve mentioned: THE CARMICHAEL SHOW and ABBOTT ELEMENTARY, which are — first and foremost — dedicated to making us laugh out loud.
Have you checked out Frank’s Place or Roc Issa?
I think both FRANK’S PLACE and ROC have a reputation for intelligence because they more readily embrace elements of the drama genre. I don’t think they’re top-tier examples of sitcoms that use the established elements of their “situation” — primarily, their characters — for comedy. As such, I couldn’t put them on par with the shows Issa mentioned: CHEERS, THE GOLDEN GIRLS, and FRASIER.
The Chilligan’s island episode is my favorite too. I love the way Tisha Campbell and Martin work well together. They have good chemistry
Hi, Eboni! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, they have great chemistry! I wish they were paired more often in story in the final years. Stay tuned…