Whether on TV or the big screen, Martin Lawrence has always been a gifted comedian. Although Lawrence’s roots are in stand-up comedy, most people recognize him from his hit show Martin and his starring roles in Blue Streak, Bad Boys and Bad Boys II, Life, and Big Momma’s House. Others might remember him for the various controversies surrounding his personal life. Regardless of how people perceive the comedian and film star, Lawrence’s talents are undeniable. Despite a dry spell in the 21st century, Martin Lawrence established a prolific career during his golden years in the 1990s.
Before Lawrence ever embarked on a career in comedy, his first passion was boxing. He boxed in junior high school, but he soon discovered that it wasn’t exactly his forte. “I think I was good, I was all right,” Lawrence told online music publication Contact Music. “My coach had a good saying: ‘One thing about Martin, he ain’t gonna get hit and he ain’t gonna hit nobody!’” Fortunately for Lawrence, he cultivated a more viable talent: comedy. Lawrence, appropriately, was a class clown in school. He was so preoccupied with comedy that his art teacher allowed him to perform stand-up comedy during the last five minutes of class just so he would stop disrupting the classroom. That same teacher also encouraged him to do stand-up comedy at an open mic night at a local club, which ignited Lawrence’s comedic career.
After appearing as a contestant on the talent show Star Search, Lawrence made his foray into television and film. He made guest appearances on the sitcom What’s Happening Now!! and had a minor role in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Lawrence landed his first major gig as the host of Def Comedy Jam on HBO for two seasons.
He was well-received as a host, and became more driven as a comedian. One of Lawrence’s biggest influences is Eddie Murphy. When Lawrence saw Murphy perform stand-up live, he was awestruck, but also motivated to improve his own comedy. “I remember the first time I ever seen Eddie in concert. He was at the Richmond Coliseum, and I was living in Maryland. I was a young comic, I thought I was hot, I just knew I was doing my thing,” Lawrence explained in Spike TV’s 2012 special, Eddie Murphy: One Night Only. “I drove two hours by myself to see Eddie Murphy perform at Richmond Coliseum and once I seen him, I said, ‘Oh sh**, I got work to do!’ […] This has got to be the baddest man I ever seen.”
Lawrence later met Murphy at a club and introduced himself. At the time, Lawrence was simply a fan of Murphy’s work, but he eventually got the chance work alongside his idol. In 1992, he appeared in Murphy’s film Boomerang. Although Lawrence had a supporting role, he left a lasting impression with his hilarious performance as a racial conspiracy theorist who was also a friend of Murphy’s character, Marcus. Lawrence was able to showcase his comedic chops which ultimately led to his own TV series, Martin, which ran from 1992-1997 on FOX. The show was highly successful and cemented Lawrence’s role as a comedic icon. On the show, Lawrence starred as Martin Payne, a disc jockey for the WZUP radio station. He also played multiple recurring roles including Ol’ Otis, Jerome, Roscoe, Dragonfly Jenkins, Elroy Preston, King Beef, Mama Payne, and most famously, Sheneneh Jenkins. The show won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite TV New Comedy Series in 1993 and Lawrence won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 1995 and 1996. Lawrence landed one of his biggest film roles when he co-starred with Will Smith in Bad Boys in 1995. The following year, he directed and co-wrote the film, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. Even though the movie was panned by critics, it was a financial success, earning over four times its $8 million budget.
While Lawrence has had a number of successes, he’s also had his share of controversy. In 1994, he was permanently banned from Saturday Night Live for making risqué jokes about feminine hygiene during his opening monologue. In 1996 he was arrested for brandishing a pistol and allegedly shouting, “They’re trying to kill me!” and “Fight the establishment!” at motorists. Martin ended in 1997 under tumultuous circumstances when Lawrence’s co-star Tisha Campbell filed a lawsuit against him and the show’s producers for sexual harassment. In 1999, Lawrence was jogging while wearing multiple layers of clothing in order to lose weight for his upcoming role in Big Momma’s House. Subsequently, he was in a three-day coma after he collapsed from heat exhaustion. From that point onward, Lawrence’s career plateaued. With the exception of the financially successful Bad Boys II in 2003, Lawrence appeared in a string of terrible films including What’s the Worst That Could Happen? National Security, Wild Hogs, and two sequels to Big Momma’s House.
In recent years, Lawrence has worked towards reviving his career. In 2014, Lawrence co-starred with Kelsey Grammer on the short-lived FX series Partners. The series only lasted ten episodes, but Lawrence was happy to be back on television. As he enters his 50s, Lawrence is reflective and has a mature perspective on his life. Even the negative aspects of his life have helped him become a wiser individual. In an interview with the New York Times, he explained how he’s adopted an optimistic outlook. “Going through the coma and getting arrested and things like that. Troubles that I had never gotten in before. That changed my life. All I wanted was to right the ship. But when you’re young growing up, you think you got it all figured out.”
In August 2015, Lawrence made his return to stand-up comedy for the first time since 2011 with his Doin’ Time tour. Demand for tickets was so high that a second day had to be added to the tour. Lawrence has performed at venues across the nation including Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, Caesars Atlantic City in New Jersey, and most recently at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California from January 21-22, 2016. His routine features many of his classic jokes as well as references to Bill Cosby, President Barack Obama, and other current events. The Doin’ Time tour has been well-received by fans, which has rekindled Lawrence’s passion for performing. As a veteran comedian, he’s appreciative of the opportunity to return to the stand-up scene.
Regardless of his past tribulations, Martin Lawrence is still going strong and providing audiences with the gift of laughter. As he explained to San Jose Mercury News, “I wanted to get out and have fun. It gives me something to do when I’m not doing movies or television. I’m blessed to make people laugh. I don’t want to sit around playing golf all day, and I love to get out there, have a good time, and connect with my fans.”