Martin at 30: celebrating the hit sitcom that broke boundaries

<span>Photograph: Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP</span>
Photograph: Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP

In the early-90s, Tisha Campbell’s on-screen career was about to blow up. A part in the kiddie Greek chorus of Little Shop of Horrors had led to more mature work in Spike Lee’s School Daze and the Reggie Hudlin-directed comedy franchise, House Party.

Campbell was convinced she’d caught her biggest break yet, a meaty role in an ABC drama that was slated for a mid-season pickup when Martin Lawrence, the outrageous stand-up comedian and Def Comedy Jam host who also featured in those two films, approached her about playing his girlfriend in a sitcom pilot he was developing with HBO. And after she boldly said yes, her management’s stunned reaction could be summed up in a single Lawrence catchphrase: You so crazy. “I don’t always do things for traditional reasons,” she told the Guardian. “Sometimes I will do things for friends. Martin had come over to my apartment to convince me to do it, and he would not leave until I committed.”

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It’s just one of the many ways Lawrence’s persistence and vision shaped Martin, the mould-breaking hit sitcom that has since become a treasured article of Black Americana in syndication. “We’re very proud and a little shocked that people still embrace it as if it were The Brady Bunch or I Love Lucy,” Campbell says. “We’re humbled and happy that there are so many euphemisms and phrases – and the fashion! The millennials and Gen-Zs are obsessed with everything 90s.”

After 25 years of clamouring from fans, the cast finally reunited for Martin: The Reunion, which premieres Thursday on BET+. Like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion, the 90-plus minute Martin special unfolds like a Black family gathering – with pop-ins from people who haven’t been seen for ages, a little church and heaps of reminiscing about the good ol’ days.

Martin debuted on Fox in August 1992, three months before The Cosby Show signed off NBC. “It’s fresh, and we comin at you,” Lawrence warned in an appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show. Set in Detroit, the series focused on the bombastic radio host Martin Payne and his inevitable clashes with girlfriend Gina (Campbell), her bestie Pam (Tichina Arnold) and his two mates Cole (Carl Antony Payne and the late Thomas Mikal Ford) on and off mic. On top of that, Lawrence played other characters on the show, and years before his pal Eddie Murphy was doing it in The Nutty Professor. From the unbeweaveably nosy neighbour Sheneneh to the geriatric security guard Otis to even one of Gina’s white coworkers, Bob from marketing, Lawrence said he strived to create a show that straddled the line between sitcom and sketch comedy. That he only ended up winning three NAACP Image Awards while Ted Danson and Kelsey Grammer cleaned up at the Emmys remains one of Hollywood’s greatest heists. “Martin doesn’t get enough credit for being our Milton Berle,” Campbell said.

With the Simpsons as a Thursday night lead-in, Martin averaged 11 million viewers in its first season and rankled the sensibilities of many more. Newsweek panned the series as “the apotheosis of the sex-obsessed homeboy shucking his way to nowhere”. Network censors took issue with the show’s liberal use of words like damn, hell and ass – which could only be said once an episode. “How many times has the punchline been about genitalia or big breasts?” Bill Cosby moaned in a broad swipe at Martin.

But where critics found controversy, young viewers connected with the show’s portrayal of young Black life and familiar neighbourhood eccentrics like elderly rabble rouser Ms Geri (Jeri Gray) and Bruh-Man (Reginald Ballard) – the fifth-floor neighbour who was constantly crashing in on Martin and Gina and raiding their fridge. “We would watch the show more than we would make music,” Snoop Dogg reveals in The Reunion. “Even to have somebody like Bruh-Man. We always had someone like that in the studio who would just show up. It was so parallel to the way we were living.”

Martin not only featured Snoop, the Notorious BIG and OutKast at a time when cable TV was barely trying to showcase Black music stars but it also launched the careers of multi platinum-selling R&B crooner Brian McKnight and the comedian Tracy Morgan (both of whom give thanks in The Reunion), while creating playspace for boxing champion Tommy Hearns, the pioneering NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham and the US Women’s National Basketball team. All the while Lawrence’s elastic physical comedy, the sly fourth-wall shoutouts (“The night is young, and I’m getting restless,” one character says to Y&R superstar Kristoff St John), and that “Chilligan’s Island” trip where Martin eats up a quarter of the episode fighting a fake rodent are still fresh as ever.

But aside from those bits and the fount of catchphrases, the thing that still resonates most for me is how audacious Martin was about spotlighting paramours in cohabitation (remember: Three’s Company’s whole gimmick was about swerving away from this), and how diligent the series was about bringing viewers along for that Black love journey – from meeting the parents to opening joint checking accounts through the day Martin and Gina said I do in Jamaica under a Babyface serenade. Where The Cosby Show was engineered as a portrayal of Black life that would be palatable to the white gaze, Martin was trying to make Black audiences at home and in studio laugh hard enough to literally make them stomp. “It’s not a syrupy, saccharine-type of show,” Campbell says. “We were doing this thing based on Martin’s standup, about his real life and his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. That’s why people relate to it so much.” That Martin’s success and audience was largely responsible for transforming Fox from ‘the Black network’ into a mainstream institution couldn’t be more ironic.

Really, the worst thing about Martin is the way it ended, with Campbell filing suit against Lawrence and the show’s producers for sexual harassment and physical assault – which was partly settled with her filming scenes apart from Lawrence for most of the show’s fifth and final season. And even after the two stars parted ways – with Campbell going on to crossover stardom on ABC’s My Wife and Kids and Dr Ken, and Lawrence emerging as a box office colossus – they endured as an on-screen couple in the popular imagination. It took Campbell’s divorce and the sudden 2016 death of Ford (the spiritual ballast who rightly earns an extended funereal sendoff in The Reunion) and Lawrence surviving his own health and legal troubles to bury the hatchet. “We worked really hard to forgive and forget,” Campbell told CBS’s Gayle King earlier this week.

Seeing the cast fall back into their familiar rhythm inside Martin’s old apartment set, it was hard not to look ahead to a possible reboot. But Lawrence was quick to put that idea to rest, saying it wouldn’t be possible without Ford. Sad as it is to learn that Martin and Gina’s love story won’t go on, The Reunion at least delivers the next best thing: real closure.