Backstage at New York’s Academy Theater, I find comedian-actor Martin Lawrence maxin’ between tapings of “The Russel Simmons Def Comedy Jam”. He’s flanked by several tall, beefy brothers watching his back. We’re all packed in his fan-proof dressing room watching an Atlanta Hawks game. Besides the TV, lies a lavish spread of fruits, veggies and a variety of other eats. The walls are covered with streakless mirrors and a striking black and white Herb Ritts print of a bare-chested beauty. A cool grin slips across Martin’s mug. Laughing heartily with his boys, he plans new jokes for the next taping and gets a shape-up from a lean kid with clippers in hand.
All the while, more of Martin’s extended East Coast posse pile into the private space to chill. We’re joined by New York Knicks’ Charles Smith mink-clad wife Lisa. Noting their entrance and Lisa’s obvious fondness of fur, Martin quips. “Wazz-up Lisa! Where you get that dog?” An embarrassed Lisa just laughs, as do we all.
This is typical Martin.
Off camera, Martin, the man himself, enjoys a lifestyle of absolute realness. Employing various childhood partners as security, Martin credits his close-knit crew of friends, family and management for keeping him levelheaded. “If anything has truly helped me it’s having good people around me that are not afraid to say what they feel about me. If my friends disagree they’ll let you know in a minute and say, ‘Hey. I think we need to talk about this.'”
When Martin arrives on stage to a standing ovation of cheers and laughter, the crowd inside the theater is hyped. His timing as the show’s host is precise, almost rhythmic. When he’s at the mic, no one is safe from his razor-sharp audience inclusive monologues, including gays, virgins, nerds nymphs, and oh yes, the less-endowed crowd. “No one is immune to a joke,” he confesses. “When you look at laughter, you look at hurt. With a smile comes a frown. So if something happens that is terrible, I can take it and find a way to make you laugh at it and say, ‘Hey, yeah it is f****d up, but let’s try to laugh while we’re up here.”
Earlier that day, I met up with Martin in the Soho offices of The Source. Surrounded by his own backup, he sits comfortably in our makeup chair, sporting a brown pulllover and a Cheshire Cat smile as he prepares for an extensive photo shoot. The brother is still on a high from his Fox show “Martin” having just won the coveted NAACP Image Award for Best New Television Series. We’re grooving to Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic—especially the cut, “Lil’ Ghetto Boy”—as Martin strikes a few poses for our cameraman. Martin is dancing and laughing, appearing as he is. A natural.
After the shoot, he easily confides, “When I accepted the Image Award I couldn’t believe I was up there.” His surprise stemmed largely from the fact that it was only mid-season when “Martin” won its nomination and later its award. “To be doing a show a show the way you want to do it was lettin’ me know I’m followin’ my instincts all them years have finally paid off.” Long gone are the days of his youth in Landover, Maryland where trying to get discovered meant buffing floors at the local K-Mart by day and doing the stand-up comedy thing by night.
In high school, Martin was the class clown who electrified the classroom when things got boring. “I was always a hyper kid and could never stay still,” he boasts. ” I’d much rather be up in front of the class makin’ them laugh, so it became practice for me.” Today viewers can see the results of that same practice weekly on “Martin,” in which he portrays an assertive Detroit radio talk show host and a number of other eccentric characters. Among them is Sheneneh, television’s only real “around the way girl.” Despite this season’s explosion of new sitcoms featuring Black casts, “Martin” is perhaps the only one that successfully portrays a slice of urban reality. The show tends to exemplify the comedian’s own beliefs in love, cultural pride and the Black family unit. And the onscreen love thang between Martin and upscale girlfriend Gina (Tisha Campbell) is a true-to-heart depiction of a ’90s brotherman, his woman and their relationship.
Couch potatoes may recall Martin back in the day as the smart-ass busboy in Raj and Shirley’s diner in the TV series “What’s Happening Now?” His raw candor and bawdy comedy style earned him his first film role in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which led to memorable roles in House Party, House Party II, and last year’s smash summer hit Boomerang with co-star Eddie Murphy. At age 27, Martin has carved out an incredible career that continues to make him hip-hop’s favorite flavor in comedy entertainment.
In person, Martin doesn’t appear to be suped, despite having so often been compared to Eddie, “To finally work with Eddie Murphy was a dream come true for me,” he says. Although he may have aspired to be as successful as his heroes, Murphy and Richard Pryor, Martin quickly points out that the comparison ends there. “It’s a compliment in one sense, but I know I’m not Eddie Murphy. I can’t be Eddie Murphy. I can only be Martin Lawrence. I had to adopt my own style. I had to go for it and that’s what I did. I constantly worked on bein’ myself and now I’m gettin’ the respect of my peers.”
At one point during our interview, Martin seems distracted. I look up, and he is blowing kisses and smiles to the hungry wails and shout outs of onlookers who spotted us from an adjacent window. “I think success has made me more aware of my value in the business,” he says. “It’s made me more business-oriented and look at life more seriously. You can get so caught up in the success of things that you don’t stop to take a look at the big picture.” For Martin, “family values and stability with the right woman” are the things that really matter in his life.
The source: You appear so at ease. Are you a very spiritual person?
Martin Lawrence: Most definitely. I’m not perfect. I’m only a man. I have my faults, but I know without God none of this is possible.
What was your childhood like, growing us as an army brat?
Well, you know, what can I say? My father was in the service and I was born in Germany, but that’s all I remember about the service. Once he and my mother split up, you know hey, I’m like every other kid without a father. Mom’s playin’ a mother and a father.
What about your family? How have they responded to your success?
They are very happy. I wouldn’t say surprised, because when they found out this is what I wanted to do, they always told me, ‘You can make it, you can do it, you have to keep pushing.’ My family is very supportive of me. I’m the only one that’s in the entertainment business. They’re like, ‘Wow! We thought you could be successful, but wow! Things are really happening for you.'”
Do you see yourself giving back to the community? How are you paying your dues today?
I give back to the community in ways that I don’t have to talk about. I think when you got to talk about it or point the finger at what you did and what you give to, and you want to call a conference ’cause you’re giving money to this charity…I mean yo, who you want to know you’re doin’ good is God and yourself. That’s all that matters, and the people you’re giving to. So the things I do for people I don’t need to talk about. They know.
Do a lot of people challenge your input as one of the creative consultants behind your TV show?
How do you deal with that?
I just stand my ground. But most definitely I have input. If it’s something I don’t believe in, you can’t pimp me in the game. I will not submit to what you want me to do. I have to do it my way and I have to feel good about it or I won’t do it at all. You see, I love what I do and what makes it easier for me to do these things is that I am doing what I want to do. All coming up in the business I had people telling me what I could say, what I couldn’t say, what I could do, what I couldn’t do. Now I’m doing things the way I want to do them. So when I go out on the road and thousands of people come to see me perform, I am doing exactly what I want to do, and I try to give them a helluva show.
Do you miss having a private life?
I still have a private life because I’m constantly around my friends and family that allow me to have private time. If I want private time I go on vacation. If you say private time as in walking down the street and people calling your name and stuff like that—hey, when you choose to get in this business you choose to accept all of that. So yeah, when you’re out in the street your private time is your fan’s private time, you gotta respect that. You can’t get pissed off at them.
So do you feel you have ‘arrived?’
Yeah, I feel like I have ‘arrived’ any time Michael Jackson asks to meet me.
What was that like?
That was a trip because I never thought in a million years Michael Jackson would send somebody to get me and want to meet me. So yeah, but I don’t go ‘I have arrived’ in the sense where I could just sit back or whatever. I don’t feel that I have peaked yet. I think the best is yet to come for me, especially in movies, as long as the fans continue to support me and what I’m doin’. In ’93 I will be shooting my concert movie, which I am very excited about. I’ve always wanted to give people a quality concert movie and to hopefully bring concert movies back on the map. Oh, most definitely, the best is yet to come.