Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re starting 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.
I love Martin. I think Martin Lawrence is one of the funniest people we’ve ever covered on this blog, and I often find myself guffawing at the outrageous comedy offered in a dozen or so terrific episodes of his self-titled sitcom — episodes that I’m thrilled to be adding to this blog’s figurative rolodex. But in order to appreciate this series, I want to be clear about its strengths. For starters, I can’t pretend to consider Martin the paragon of an ideal sitcom. Although it has a classic design and embraces the conventions of the multi-camera format, indeed developing into a more traditional sample of this genre as its run progresses, I neither think it compares favorably to other situation comedies from this era based on the definition we’ve established, nor do I think the elements that create its sitcom status are what make it so hilarious. Oh, said elements are helpful, yes, in the same way that any basic structure helps focus material, but if I’m being honest, Martin is funny because it embodies the wild and free-spirited comedy of its star Martin Lawrence, a standup comic for whom FOX built this sitcom. And as a series on a network still willing to experiment, Martin — mainly in its first few years — has a sense of imagination and abandon that grants it a uniquely comic ethos, one that renders its “situation comedy” aspects relatively thin and sketch-like, distinguishing the show from other contemporaneous sitcoms via uproarious laughs that reflect the sensibilities of its star, but with limitations that can’t be disguised both narratively and by way of character. That is to say, Martin isn’t a sitcom worth watching because it’s a textbook example of the form — it just doesn’t have the excellent character work of Frasier or the influential storytelling of Seinfeld, for instance — but rather, it’s a sitcom worth watching because it’s hysterical and satisfies its own terms, as a vehicle for a great star and his one-of-a-kind comedy, which paired well with a network once upon a time willing to take risks with shows that were genuinely different, and on talent (like this entire cast of incredible Black performers) who maybe wouldn’t get a chance elsewhere.
Of course, while Martin Lawrence’s style is the thing that most makes Martin novel, its premised setup is actually rather conventional and suggestive of dominating trends from this era in network comedy. Even structurally, I’d like to point out that Martin, regardless of how much it wants to be a classic sitcom, at least models itself as a classically designed one — following a central character at both his workplace and his home, in the grand tradition of Mary Tyler Moore, or even The Dick Van Dyke Show before it. I especially like referencing the latter, for Martin’s character similarly has a job in entertainment (first radio, then TV), and yet his profession quickly becomes secondary in plots to his domestic life, where he is one half of a committed couple… Only, since this is the early 1990s and not the early 1960s, instead of being married with a kid in suburbia (like Robert Petrie), Martin Payne lives in a big city where he’s in a relationship with his girlfriend Gina, and his “family” consists of their group of single friends. This is both in accordance with demographic changes at the time — Gen Xers delaying marriage compared to their predecessors — and also in evidence of the soon-to-explode “hangout” subgenre of sitcom, which definitely had some pre-1992 forebears (you can go back to the late ‘60s frankly and say He & She had a “hangout” ensemble) but really blossomed in the early ‘90s, as Seinfeld took-off and the next few years saw the debuts of Living Single, Ellen, Friends, and many lackluster derivatives. Now, we will talk more about this subgenre next month with Living Single, but in the meantime, let’s already note that no ’90s sitcom singularly invented this style of show… nor the rom-com genre, to which Martin also belongs, for while it doesn’t have one of those will-they/won’t-they engines, it’s got an anchoring couple (à la Dick Van Dyke or He & She or Mad About You), whose relationship serves as the series’ grounding dramatic focus, with its smartest and most narratively satisfying entries therefore dealing specifically with their dynamic — supported by the peripheral bonds within the “hangout” ensemble.
From there, that smart and traditional design passes the metaphorical baton to its characters, who now must thrive in what’s been established, and this is where, on the terms shared by all the great sitcoms we’ve covered, I have to be honest and say that Martin is average. This is because Martin’s regulars lack the strong attention to detail and sense of dramatic continuity that made exploring/evolving characters in story so richly possible in the many iconic sitcoms mentioned above (even the idea-led Seinfeld, which was nevertheless built on its attention to detail). That is, Martin’s characters have less dimension — this is both reflected in and because of their utilization in episodic plots — and they always appear somewhat shallow and surfacy, with elemental personas and relational dynamics that define their existence enough for us to recognize some comic attributes, even though not all their dialogue, and certainly not all the storytelling, is as individualized. I would describe the character work, then, as sketch-like — these are characters who sound like they reside in an extended sketch, with basic personalities, but a lack of nuance as a result of not totally needing to push believable story. So, while I could pinpoint some traits for these leads — Martin is an impulsive schemer willing to take risks in pursuit of his episodic wants, Gina is his mostly understanding but often hot-tempered mate, Pam is her even more hot-tempered best friend who has a more specifically insult-based rapport with Martin, Cole is his doofus best friend with unrequited feelings for Pam, and Tommy is the latter’s more logical “straight man” counterpoint — it’s all very rudimentary compared, in particular, to the other “hangout” sitcoms from this era, like Living Single and Friends, where the storytelling both enhances and takes advantage of stronger, richer characterizations. And, incidentally, the two leads at Martin’s radio station — primarily the underused Garrett Morris as Stan — are even less developed, so their departure at the end of Season Two does not feel like a loss, for they were not bringing much… (Fortunately, this cast is better than their characters — in addition to Lawrence, Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold are especially hilarious, matching his energy.)
Speaking of “sketch-like,” however, that description also applies to Martin’s single best attribute: its rowdy sense of humor, personified by the standup comic at its center. His vibrantly unpredictable and unflinchingly bold sensibilities inform this entire series’ tone, not to mention its actual stories, many of which include appearances by a roster of recurring kooks also played by Martin Lawrence — including Mrs. Payne (Martin’s mom), aged pimp Jerome, and Martin’s “ghetto” neighbor Sheneneh. These “characters” — and I put that in quotes because they’re more like caricatures — offer Lawrence the chance to more fully exhibit his comedic genius, and they contribute immensely to the show’s free-wheeling spontaneity and reputation for infectious improvisational rebellion, making it distinct not only among sitcoms, but sitcoms of this era, which, aside from a handful of other courageous FOX outliers, were in a more conformist period, at least to the bounds of literal realism. To that point, when the leading man dresses up in outrageous costumes and plays cartoony jesters whom the other leads treat genuinely (despite viewers’ recognizing the truth), the audience’s collective “suspension of disbelief” is strained — even, as, again, this non-conformist, burlesque style of comedy is a vital aspect of the series’ defining charm. So, although less realistic than most sitcoms of the early ’90s for trafficking in regular gags and gimmicks that undermine elements of narrative/drama that otherwise would make the rest of this series, like its leading characters, more utilizable in comic story (less sketch-like), Martin’s sketch-like elements do add to the show’s special quality and increase its yuks, showcasing its leading man in a way that reiterates his brilliance and gives us what we came for, and can only get here. Accordingly, Martin may be a lot like a variety sketch show in terms of comic style and rhythm, but that’s okay, for the laughs are abundant and the support from this premise’s reliable low-concept structure and most of its characters, however thin, is constant, giving the comedy some balancing situation-based weight.
This notion of a contrast between the series’ “sitcom elements” (mostly its leads) and its “sketch-like elements” (mostly its comedy) is seminal to our study of Martin, for while the two are not entirely exclusive, the show does move away from the latter as time goes on, likely in an effort to reinforce the former (in tandem with the FOX network becoming less and less “alternative”). In fact, by mid-Season Four, Lawrence is playing very few characters other than the titular Martin, and the weekly plots continue to become even more traditional, with fewer surprises beyond just the basic gimmickry of big ideas and gaudy guest star cameos… which, mind you, are common within mediocre sitcoms where leading characters aren’t fully equipped to handle the entirety of the narrative burden. Thus, Martin itself puts these two aesthetics in contrast, for as it becomes more like a sitcom, it sheds more of its sketch-like humor, emphasizing the series’ relative mediocrity with regard to its characters and story in the process. For that reason, I can’t actually praise the show’s trajectory of downplaying its “sketch-like elements” in favor of its “sitcom elements” — the results just don’t make that a viable argument, as Martin can’t handle either exclusively, and on those metrics alone, it’s decidedly par (or subpar). Remember, this series is excellent for its “sketch-like” comedy — namely, Lawrence’s sensibilities — and support from character and this premised format is valuable because it enhances and focuses these strengths in narrative. As such, we’re really looking for a balance, and this should be familiar, for when we typically find a sitcom at its best, it’s when there’s an intersection of “novelty” of premise/identity and “knowingness” of characters in story. For Martin, that means we’re looking for the moment where this show is still free to be as wacky and anti-sitcom as it wants to be… while also having enough help from the elements of its genuine sitcom design (mostly its leads) to both balance out those other aspects and reveal a simultaneous embracement of the form that narratively deepens the laughs.
What we’ll find is that this intersection can only occur during two seasons: the second and third, for the first is still settling into itself (it’s not as comedically wacky or as character-knowing), and the fourth and fifth have lost too much of the series’ defining comic spark. Two and Three will each prove to be worthwhile then, as Two is the most fun and indicative of what makes this series so charming (with, of course, enough weight from the sitcom elements that we’re not grasping at straws), and Three is the most desirable collection in evidence of Martin as a sitcom, for it still has enough of its sense of humor and free spirit to be enjoyable, even as it’s also becoming more committed to its situational givens via an increase in narrative arcs and a more deliberate utilization of its now better-defined regulars in story. Two is probably my personal favorite, but we’ll talk more about them both ahead (including how Martin becomes more like Living Single in Three), along with the middling Four, and the disappointing final year, which took a huge hit because of behind-the-scenes drama that led to Tisha Campbell missing the last half, thereby removing this sitcom’s nucleus — its central couple — from story, and totally unmooring the weekly happenings from its anchoring focus. This will be devastating, for despite a workplace/home design, Martin is ultimately a “hangout” series with a couple at its core… and stories that most honor this setup do the best job of reflecting Martin’s happy affinity for its subgenre, while also providing a decent (if not stellar) bedrock for all the lunacy of Jerome, Sheneneh, and Martin himself… In the meantime, though I can only ever call Martin a mediocre sitcom by our standards, I can also call it a delight to watch and discuss on comedic standards, particularly during its first three years, where the brilliance of its unpredictable star is on full display. So, I’m eager to be looking now at the best of Season One — finding the moments where this still-developing series’ comedy is supported and enhanced by its sitcom elements, yielding stories about the main relationship, the “hangout” ensemble, and in general, the leads’ growing dynamics, all the while showcasing Martin Lawrence’s rare genius…
01) Episode 4: “Boyz ‘R Us” (Aired: 09/17/92)
Martin is upset when he realizes Gina makes more money than he does.
Written by Bennie R. Richburg, Jr. | Directed by Tony Singletary
Following a solid premiere that illustrated Martin’s relationship focus, these next few episodes follow suit with stories centered on Martin and his girlfriend Gina. But this is the best of that very early lot, for it’s the first conflict that starts to get specific with their characterizations and how they can regularly clash in plot, as Martin’s ego is bruised upon learning that Gina technically makes more money (despite his more glamorous job). This is a somewhat familiar sitcom notion predicated on gender roles, but drama over power dynamics at least tells me something about these characters and how they exist with one another, as opposed to most of their other fights, which are incredibly trivial and not well-rooted in distinct, continuity-backed traits. Also, this is an early example of a premise-reflective “hangout” entry — where the friend ensemble helps the storytelling — and, what’s more, it’s always fun to see Mama Payne with Laura Hayes (Cole’s mom) and Sanford And Son’s LaWanda Page, who recurs in this first season.
02) Episode 5: “Dead Men Don’t Flush” (Aired: 09/24/92)
A plumber passes out while fixing Martin’s toilet.
Written by David Wyatt | Directed by Chuck Vinson
One of the most popular offerings in the entire series, this early segment employs a rather standard sitcom story — the guest who unexpectedly “dies” — and I can’t give it any credit for originality because it’s basically a naturally funny idea that’s neither attached to Martin’s “situation” nor driven by its characters. However, I think this outing is an excellent display of the series’ unique sense of humor, with so many hysterical moments — starting with Martin using the plunger as a mock defibrillator when trying to revive the plumber (Mike Hagerty), the hilarious bit where Martin pretends to be white when calling 9-1-1, and then the group’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” — and because it’s truly the first great ensemble show, with the fivesome working together as a collective unit, à la the casts of Living Single and Friends, I see so many aspects of Martin’s identity validated that I can sincerely celebrate it as one of the year’s best. (And, frankly, this may be the funniest iteration of this clichéd story!)
03) Episode 6: “Forever Sheneneh” (Aired: 10/01/92)
Sheneneh wins a date with Kid by calling into Martin’s radio show.
Written by Bentley Kyle Evans | Directed by Chuck Vinson
Although I like most of the ridiculous recurring characters that Martin Lawrence plays outside of his central role, Sheneneh is my favorite, mostly because she has the most defined relationship with the regulars — an antagonism that makes it easier for story to develop based on something we know about her… Now, it’s still too early in the run for the show to be settled in its usage of her, but this is her first true showcase, and it’s a testament to everything I wrote above in my commentary, for this doesn’t reveal Martin to be a great sitcom, as its story is built around both a caricature for whom we can’t really suspend our disbelief and in whom our investment is limited, along with a gimmicky guest star (Kid, or Christopher Reid), rather than the core principals and their relationships. And yet, Sheneneh is so evocative of Lawrence’s comedy and this series’ charms that I gladly highlight this excursion here as an example of why Martin, if not a great sitcom, is a reliably uproarious half hour of television.
04) Episode 7: “The Parents Are Coming, The Parents Are Coming” (Aired: 10/08/92)
Martin is nervous to meet Gina’s parents for the first time.
Written by Jane Milmore & Billy Van Zandt | Directed by Chuck Vinson
What I like best about this installment is that its narrative is naturally poised to balance the series’ “sitcom” elements and its “sketch-like” elements, or rather, aspects of the show’s narrative givens with its star’s trademark humor, for this script engages a routine story among these “hangout” and “Singles in the City” shows — the boyfriend meeting the parents — that’s no, not original, but at least reflective of the type of series Martin is built to be. And by leaning into the expected trope of having said parents (Judyann Elder and J.A. Preston) be incredibly conservative and well-mannered, this episode then gets to have fun playing up Martin Lawrence’s own outrageous comedy against forces that are inherently rigid and shockable… And not only that, they’re satellites of their daughter, whose relationship with Martin ultimately grounds the story as its narrative focus — in reinforcement of the series’ own design.
05) Episode 14: “I’ve Got A Secret” (Aired: 12/03/92)
Martin and Gina are forced to hang out with Stan after Martin insults all their other friends.
Written by Diane Burroughs & Joey Gutierrez | Directed by Tony Singletary
This terrific ensemble show boasts the series’ best incorporation of the otherwise painfully underutilized Garrett Morris as Martin’s boss Stan, who shows up with his lady friend Myra (Bebe Drake) for a double date in a rented hearse after Martin has alienated all of his usual friends and there’s no one left with whom he and Gina can hang out. It’s an amusing idea that allows the show to really have fun with the hysterical Stan and Myra, but it’s also supported by some decent and commendable character work as well, for while I’m typically not crazy about stories where leads tell secrets about each other — I think characters telling us about who they are is never as effective as showing us through story — Martin is the type of series where every little bit of character information matters because it’s not overflowing. So, the kind of details we learn here about the leads are revealing. What’s more, this entry goes a long way in building the cast’s collective camaraderie, which I appreciate, because this “hangout” aspect of the series’ design is crucial — and one of the things that most links Martin to its time and place in the early 1990s. An MVE contender — one of the most haha-filled segments ever.
06) Episode 17: “Blackboard Jungle Fever” (Aired: 01/21/93)
Martin’s old teacher makes a romantic play for him.
Written by Jane Milmore & Billy Van Zandt | Directed by Gerren Keith
Another one of the season’s most popular, “Blackboard Jungle Fever” made my list by the skin of its teeth. It’s an uninspired outing that engages a classic “jealousy” plot — common for sitcoms, especially those with a centralized couple — as Gina sees Martin in a compromising position with his old teacher, Mrs. Trinidad (Beverly Johnson)… not knowing she was the one who initiated the pass. You see, this is another familiar story that doesn’t make the series’ sitcom chops look well-cultivated, for the conflict isn’t really unique to these characters, and it doesn’t reveal the great imagination and experimental spontaneity that acquits Martin as so special. However, what I do like about this episode is — no, not Gina’s rage — the surprising continuity of utilizing the previously referenced Miss Trinidad and the sense of history afforded to Martin’s character, which is rare for this series, as it allows him to feel more like a solid, reliable, true-to-life presence (which then allows him to be more conducive for story).
07) Episode 19: “The Break Up (II)” (Aired: 02/11/93)
Martin and Gina both date other people.
Written by Jane Milmore & Billy Van Zandt | Directed by Gerren Keith
This memorable three-parter is wildly uneven, but the idea of Martin and Gina temporarily breaking up is an exciting prospect, because even though it’s “schmuck bait,” these entries can justify their own existence by genuinely exploring the leads in a story predicated on their relationship, which is a vital piece of the premise and something that we want to evolve. Fortunately, I think Martin and Gina’s bond does feel stronger after having gone through this arc, so I consider it a positive… although that’s not necessarily a credit to the narrative mechanics that get them there, mainly because Part I contrives a terribly trivial and inconsequential reason for their split that is neither revealing for character nor well-motivated. And Part III, which gets them back together, is similarly formulaic — delivering a guest appearance by Billy Dee Williams that’s just a stunt (as is Part I’s Richard Pryor cameo). That leaves Part II in the middle — it’s easily the best of this trio because it doesn’t have to deal with these strained plot points, instead getting to enjoy the established “situation” of its two leads now single and seeing other people, which yields a lot of laughs… many from David Alan Grier as the lecherous Reverend Leon Lonnie Love, who really “makes” this half hour and is so entertaining that he’ll be brought back a few more times… even later this season. (Lark Voorhies also guests.)
08) Episode 23: “Jerome’s In The House” (Aired: 04/01/93)
Pam goes out on a date with Jerome.
Written by David Wyatt | Directed by Gerren Keith
If “Forever Sheneneh” is the year’s best outing for Martin Lawrence’s Sheneneh, then “Jerome’s In The House” is the year’s best for one of the star’s other prominent side characters, Jerome, the aged pimp — a flamboyant presence who, like Sheneneh, always brings silly laughs that exemplify why Martin is one of a kind, for even though its character work may be mediocre, it otherwise provides an incredibly entertaining display of its leading man’s comic sensibilities, and consequently, it’s one of the funniest shows on their air (at least at this point in its life). However, beyond just Jerome and what he adds to the series’ projection of its comic identity, I really appreciate this installment for utilizing other members of the “hangout” ensemble too, namely Tichina Arnold’s Pam, one of the cast’s breakout characters and someone who’ll be more capably deployed for story in later years, and Cole, whose unrequited crush on her is a fine bit of character-defining continuity in this first season. So, aside from being a comical Jerome-led excursion, this is an ensemble show first and foremost, revealing key aspects of Martin’s sitcom design and how structural character support only makes this series funnier.
09) Episode 26: “Baby, You Can Drive My Car” (Aired: 05/06/93)
Martin and his friends share an SUV they all won from a raffle.
Written by Diane Burroughs & Joey Gutierrez | Directed by Gerren Keith
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Baby, You Can Drive My Car” is simply the best showcase for Martin Lawrence’s brilliant comedy — the very thing that makes Martin a sitcom worth watching. Its story setup is ideally uncomplicated, with the five friends going in on a raffle ticket that eventually earns them an SUV, which they decide to split. That is a nice foundation for plot because it emphasizes the “hangout” ensemble aspect of the premise, which focuses narrative and flatters the series’ sitcom DNA. Then the story essentially becomes a string of vignettes — or sketches, if you will — all related to the eventual destruction of the car. And each of these little vignettes, or sketches, features Martin Lawrence as one of his strikingly funny peripheral caricatures, as Gina gets harassed by Jerome, Tommy bears witness to a fight started by Sheneneh and her equally kooky friends (including one played by Living Single’s Kim Coles and another by Yo-Yo), Pam runs afoul of ol’ Otis the security guard, and Tommy is forced to drive around with Mama Payne and her pals (including, again, LaWanda Page and Laura Hayes). As the car endures continual damage, the entry ends with the five friends going out together and experiencing the final destruction of their shared property — an expected but pitch perfect conclusion to a story designed solely to spotlight Lawrence and the sense of humor that renders Martin such a dynamically unique, exciting sitcom. And because its storytelling (and character work) doesn’t try to be more than the series can handle, this winds up being an entirely enjoyable half hour — the best this show has to offer here in its first season, which is quite hilarious, but still has room in Two and Three to become even more hilarious.
10) Episode 27: “Checks, Lies, And Videotape” (Aired: 05/13/93)
Martin and Gina try to expose a crooked preacher who conned his mother.
Written by Bill Braunstein | Directed by Terri McCoy
I could probably say that this is the first season’s best show featuring Martin Lawrence as Mama Payne — and I like the symmetry of having already singled out the best for both Sheneneh and Jerome — but truthfully, this is an outing that I think works best because it calls back one of the year’s other guest characters, the horny Reverend Leon Lonnie Love from the aforementioned “Break Up” trilogy. By bringing him back here, the series is asserting another nice (and relatively rare) display of continuity, taking advantage of one of its funniest creations. Now, as usual, the story itself won’t gain any points for originality, but by utilizing a known aspect of Martin’s world — its “situation” — I can also credit this installment for not only being riotously funny in evidence of the series’ comic ethos, but also boasting a form of “situation comedy” that can be genuinely celebrated within the context of this show’s developing first season.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Beauty And The Beast,” the series’ focus-revealing premiere, “Baby It’s Cole’d In Here,” which better fleshes out Cole’s character, “The Night He Came Home,” a popular but predictable Halloween entry that’s nevertheless a chance for the ensemble to gel, “Do The Fight Thing,” which nobly tries to bridge Martin’s personal and professional worlds, and “Your Arms Are Too Short To Box With Martin,” which offers some fine physical comedy and an amusing story where Martin finds himself at odds with a group of little people. All of these are funny!
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Martin goes to…
“Baby, You Can Drive My Car”
Come back next week for Season Two and a new Wildcard Wednesday!