Reigning comedy king Martin Lawrence reflects on the 30th anniversary of his iconic sitcom, his trailblazing career in standup, tv and film, and that long overdue star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Story by Ronda Racha Penrice

Photography by Keith Major

The catchphrases—you so crazy, you go girl, talk to the hand and wazzup—are just a few that the 90s hit show Martin popularized. When the series debuted August 27, 1992, on FOX, no one, not even Martin Lawrence himself, predicted it would become one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. Thirty years later, the show is still widely watched on BET—where it airs every weeknight—as well as on other networks and streamers.

The Martin: The Reunion special hosted by comedian Affion Crockett—which debuted on BET+ on June 16—is receiving mainstream love from venerable, global publications such as The Washington Post, The Guardian and Forbes, proving how universal the show’s genius has been. Yet, speaking with EBONY, the 57-year old funnyman admits to not realizing how classic the show was until recently. “I think I’m just finding that out because we’re still on the air,” he marvels. “We’re still running after all these years.”

To achieve the level of success that he did before the age of 30, he reveals that he used Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy as his blueprint. “As a kid, I just always gravitated towards comedy,” explains Lawrence. “I was always watching television, watching Richard Pryor, watching Eddie Murphy. I always wanted to act and so I thought comedy, stand-up comedy, [like they did] was the way to get into acting.”

Back in 1992, he was on fire. That March, he kicked off the widely successful Def Comedy Jam as its first host; and then in July, he co-starred with Murphy, one of his idols, in Boomerang, a big-screen classic. Not only was comedy the way, it also became the vehicle for Lawrence to tap into his own greatness. Although he had appeared on Star Search, a precursor to America’s Got Talent and American Idol, as well as become a series regular on the short-lived What’s Happening spinoff What’s Happening Now!, Lawrence feels his role as Cee in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was very crucial to launching his Hollywood takeover. “It was just one of the biggest opportunities for me and I was so excited because I was doing this movie with Spike Lee and I just couldn’t believe it,” he shares.

Martin wears a Tom Ford jacket and Givenchy sunglasses.

Even more special, his big opportunity came cosigned by a comedy legend. “Spike was actually in town to see [the comedian] Robin Harris and he had a meeting with him at a hotel. I went with Robin to the meeting,” reveals Lawrence. “Spike was talking to Robin about the movie, and Robin said ‘Spike you should take a look at Martin. He’s kind of funny.’” Lee asked if the young king was performing that night and Lawrence replied that he was. “‘Spike said ‘I’ll take a look,’ and the rest is history,” reports the comedic actor.

From there, he appeared on-screen alongside the rap duo Kid ‘n Play in Reginald Hudlin’s hip-hop House Party films, as well as on his own successful HBO One Night Stand comedy special. Even with all the incredible things that happened for him in 1992 solidifying him as a star in his own right, working with Murphy on Boomerang was still a personal highlight.

“It was special to do because it was my first time getting to work with Eddie Murphy. Imagine me as a young comic, and this is my first big break to have an opportunity to work with somebody that I look up to. For me, it was a dream come true.” But even more of Lawrence’s dreams were coming true as his show Martin became an instant hit, regularly attracting over 11 million viewers.

As a kid, I was always watching television, watching Richard Pryor, watching Eddie Murphy. I wanted to act, so I thought comedy—stand-up comedy, like they did—was the way to get into acting.

Martin wears an Ermengildo Zegna jacket and pants, and a Calvin Klein t-shirt. His own glasses.

The show about Martin Payne, a DJ at a radio station, and his girlfriend Gina Waters—a young Black couple trying to navigate love while kicking it with their good friends Tommy, Cole and Pam—resonated instantly. Instinctively, Lawrence knew who his Gina was. “Tisha Campbell was the first person that I went to cast for the show because I knew from working with her in House Party and everything, [that] if I could get her, everything else would fall into place.”

And it did. Campbell’s real-life best friend Tichina Arnold would play her character’s bestie Pam. Carl Anthony Payne II, whom the two women knew from the teen audition circuit back in the day, played Cole, Martin’s dense friend. Thomas Mikal Ford, who had TV and movie roles dating back to the late 1980s, rounded out the cast as Martin’s other best mate Tommy. Sadly, Ford passed away at age 52 in 2016. During the reunion show, the whole cast honors him, pointing to the spiritual guidance Ford gave them.

For Lawrence, representing Black brotherhood with Ford and Payne II “was just fun.” “Their comedic timing was impeccable. The way we played off each other; the way we would break during scenes, and laugh—cracking each other up and everything. We just had so much fun. It just resonated on-screen, and that’s the way we were off-screen,” he continues. 

Still, the show’s success or failure was squarely on Lawrence’s shoulders. He admits to there being “lots of pressure,” but says that it just drove him to work that much harder and become closer with the cast. In addition, to ”add extra zest” to the series, he played multiple characters on the show, which would become some of the most beloved to ever grace the screen.

“Sheneneh is one of my most favorite characters because she’s so relatable,” divulges the comedian. There’s also a personal significance to her, he discloses. “She’s an extension of my sisters and my nieces so I am really close to [her].” But he also enjoys many of the other characters that he played on the show as well, like Jerome, the pimp. ”He’s so funny, so cool [and] one of the players,” shares Lawrence. Or Otis, the cranky, old security guard. “He’s a strong old man. He believes in what he believes in, and he fights for it,” continues the funnyman. While “the martial artist” Dragon Fly Jones’ physical antics, he adds, had viewers cut up in laughter.

Martin wears an Ermengildo Zegna jacket, Calvin Klein t-shirt and his own glasses.

The way we played off each other; the way we would break during scenes, and laugh—cracking each other up was everything. We just had so much fun. It just resonated on-screen, and that’s the way we were off-screen.

Martin wears a Tom Ford jacket, Emporio Armani sweater and his own glasses.

However, even with great ratings, it wasn’t always smooth sailing creatively. “I got push back for a lot of things that I wanted to do,” reveals Lawrence. “A young Black man being in that position—running his own show and everything— I got pushed back on a lot of things; but I stood my ground on what I believed in, and, for the most part, things went okay.”

He also never took his eye off the big picture. With the security of being a king of the small screen, Lawrence teamed up with Will Smith—who had a successful sitcom with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—for the 1995 buddy cop film Bad Boys. Lawrence, who plays the straight-laced cop, Marcus Burnett, to Smith’s break-all-the-rules detective, Mike Lowrey, recalls their then atypical teaming as two Black male leads in a studio action film being a bit risky.

   “It was big,” he says of the move. “For us to come together and prove that we can deliver, and we can pull people into the box office—that two Black stars, two sitcom stars, could make money at the box office [was huge].” It also was an important pivot for him personally and professionally. “I didn’t go to college, so I felt TV was my college years,” explains Lawrence. “I felt with movies, I had graduated; it was just different.”

A young Black man being in that position—running his own show and everything— I got pushed back on a lot of things; but I stood my ground on what I believed in.

That first Bad Boys film grossed over $141 million worldwide. Its two sequels—Bad Boys II (2003) and Bad Boys for Life (2020)—have grossed over $273 million and $426 million, respectively, putting the franchise net total at over $840 million—with the last sequel grossing more than the first two combined. Nearly 30 years later, the public still rallies around the blockbusters’ leads going after the bad guys with high-speed chases and all the dazzle that made the franchise sparkle.

Lawrence dismisses speculation that the franchise’s fourth installment would be canceled as a result of Smith’s shocking slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars “We got one more at least,” he says.

Because he too had his own stumbles in stardom, Lawrence presumably empathizes with his longtime co-star. In 1996, on the heels of the success of A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Lawrence made headlines, reportedly running into the middle of traffic on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, CA—in a frantic mental state—raising concerns that he would harm himself. Exhaustion and dehydration were given as the official cause for the unexpected breakdown. The following year, Campbell, his Martin costar, filed a lawsuit against him and the series’ producers. The case was later settled out of court and the cast finished filming the show’s fifth and final season.

Martin wears a Tom Ford jacket, Emporio Armani sweater, Sandro pants and his own glasses.

I want my legacy to be that I was one of the funniest brothers to ever grace the mic, that I was one of the funniest comics to ever walk this earth, and that people really enjoyed my work.

Martin wears a Berluti jacket, Calvin Klein t-shirt, Ermenegildo Zegna pants, and his own glasses.

While Lawrence makes no specific reference to these incidents in his interview, his statement about doing Life, his second film with Murphy, seems tied to them. “It was a tough time in my life at that time, and Eddie called and had Life ready for me,” reveals the comedian. “He wouldn’t do the movie with anybody else but me. So, I really love him for that.”

Released in 1999, Life, which also starred Bernie Mac, helped relaunch his career. His follow-up films, Blue Streak and Big Momma’s House, with its two sequels, put him back in the $100 million club at the box office. Also, interestingly, Lawrence’s daughter Jasmin and Murphy’s son Eric went Instagram official with their relationship over a year ago but the girl dad of three, who “lets them do them,” isn’t pushing anything.

Looking back on it all, the funnyman, who just released his edition of the Creative Thinking Journal, says “I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve gotten and what they have led me to. I have no regrets. They all were learning experiences.” Moreover, he is also basking in the overflowing appreciation for his talent and contributions. He will soon receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and he takes it back to his roots. “I feel the flowers surrounding all this Martin reunion stuff. I feel the love.” And that’s a “You go boy!” that’s been well-earned.

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter about the historic series celebrating its 20th anniversary.



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