*It’s been 25 years since “Martin” gave folks something to laugh about when it first hit TV screens on the Fox network on August 27, 1992.
And the classic sitcom – which starred Martin Lawrence as local DJ turned public access talk show host Martin Payne, Tisha Campbell-Martin as Payne’s girlfriend turned wife Gina Waters, Tichina Arnold as Gina’s BFF Pamela “Pam” James and Carl Payne and Thomas Mikal Ford as Martin’s best friends Cole Brown and Tommy Strawn – shows no signs of fading into the sunset as memorable characters, a talented cast and a consistent stream of syndicated reruns on BET have kept “Martin” on the public’s radar, despite officially signing off decades ago with the airing of its final episode on May 1, 1997.
Thank goodness for those reruns. Syndication is a helluva drug. When it comes to “Martin,” the drug remains potent with each episode a guaranteed high from endless laughs. “Never get high off your own supply” was one of Biggie’s “10 Crack Commandments” and Arnold and Bruh Man himself, Reginald Ballard, clearly violated that rule with EURweb while sharing memories of their time on “Martin” as well as everything from how hard it was to stay in character amidst all the laughs on and off set to Martin Payne and Gina putting black love on blast for the mainstream to the comedic genius and vision of Martin Lawrence.
Workday Laughs, ‘Organic’ Chemistry and Invading Black Pop Culture
“Just good times, laughing basically. Just coming to work to literally laugh everyday and to create and to learn something new and to watch other people laugh. Literally, we came to work to laugh everyday,” Arnold recalled about a regular workday on the “Martin” set. “We had a blast. We had a good schedule. We worked hard, but because Martin, he did not like to run his comedy in the ground. And that’s kind of like how I am. You do a few takes and then you’re done. You don’t need to run it in the ground. You get what you want the first two takes. You got it and that’s kind of how we operated. So very rarely did we get out of work after 7:30 at night. The latest we got out of [taping] ‘Martin’ was 10:30 p.m.”
With the work put in, each workday became a “live play” type of situation when taping in front of an audience.
“We got what we needed. We would tape during the day. We would get the show in the can during the day and then at night for the audience,” Arnold added. “We would do it a few times for the audience, but we already got it in the can. It was like doing a live play every night. It was a great schedule.”
A great schedule that only heightened the chemistry of a cast that was already familiar with one another before they became household names on “Martin.” Ballard and Arnold can testify to how viewers picked up on the dynamic among the “Martin” cast, which contributed to the series’ long run on the small screen.
“In every show, any good show has to have good chemistry. And between the chemistry that we had with each other, because we all knew each other in a sense. That was the first time I was ever working with Tommy, but I knew Carl from school and growing up, going on auditions together. Then, of course, I knew Tisha since we were 11 and 12. And then Martin, I knew him, met him once before when Tisha did ‘House Party.’ So we all were connected in some way. And once we got there and we started working with each other and saw how we made each other laugh and just the chemistry from the time we sat and did the table read, everything was organic from that moment on,” Arnold stated.
The chemistry on set proved to be a contagious thing, with the “Martin” crew catching and benefiting from the positive vibe. The cast and crew got along so well that it ultimately influenced the life of jokes used on “Martin.”
“Everything was just organic, down to our writers, down to the cameramen, our crew. We had a great crew of people because even with the crew, that was our audience when we didn’t have an audience. So if the crew didn’t laugh, we would change the joke,” Arnold shared. “They were our live audience everyday. So you had a chemistry on and off set that was undeniably one of the major reasons why ‘Martin’ is successful and enjoyed by so many to this day.”
“Working with that cat, it was just so smooth, so easy. It was like we had been knowing each other for years. It was like soul mates working together. It wasn’t hard bouncing off of him at all,” Ballard said of Lawrence. “I mean, it was just so smooth. Everybody there had a theater background, pretty much. And the movements and the timing. Everybody was so professional. It was almost like you were having a schoolyard conversation around the merry-go-round. [Laughs] It was that simple. It wasn’t hard work. Whatever Martin do or whatever he say, if he surprise you with something, you just kept going. And it worked out.”
And worked out it did. “Martin” not only struck a chord with viewers, but outrageous characters portrayed by Lawrence (nine in all, including Martin’s neighbor Sheneneh Jenkins, Detroit’s “Player of the Year” Jerome, security guard ‘Ol Otis and martial arts “expert” Dragonfly Jones) and catch phrases (“You go, girl!” and “Get to steppin’!,” among others) eventually found it’s way into black pop culture and casual conversation, a fact Arnold can’t deny.
“I’m humbled. I’m actually kind of not surprised or shocked, but none of us saw this coming,” said the “Everybody Hates Chris” actress, who credits the power of syndication as a factor in the success of “Martin.”
“I kind of knew once we got into syndication, that we would get more recognition,” Arnold said. “But to actually see people enjoy it, literally after watching it 50 million times, the generations of children and grandmothers and grandfathers and kids and young adults and millennials. Watching people walk up to me and just repeat things on the show. We did not know that it would still be revered this long. I had no idea, but it happened. It’s one of those things.”
The effect of “Martin” on fans is something Ballard is just starting to realize. In his eyes, the show ranks as high as one of his favorite sitcoms, the ‘70’s classic “Sanford and Son,” which starred legendary comedian Redd Foxx.
“People are just starting to really tell me and show me, ‘Hey man, you know you an icon and a legend in the hood,’ the entertainer said. “I ain’t never looked at it like that. To me, that’s how I look at ‘Sanford & Son.’ ‘Sanford & Son’ is a cult classic in my house. I still watch ‘Sanford & Son.’ I got all of ‘em on DVR right now.
“And it’s funny when people say that about [“Martin”]. I’m like, ‘wow,’ that we did something in history that people will remember. I’ve did a lot of things, but this is something that I can lay my hat on and say, ‘You know, this is a character [Bruh Man] that people remember and people embraced and they enjoyed and they loved.’ I feel real good about that. I feel real happy and pleased about something that I was able to accomplish,” continued Ballard, who is not annoyed when fans recognize him for his most popular role.
“I don’t get upset when they call me Bruh Man in the streets. I know Jimmie Walker, he gets upset if you say JJ, you know. He gets real mad about that. I’m like Bruh Man is a cool name. It ain’t like I’m being called Urkel. [Laughs] I embrace it. I love it, man. I love it.”
The path for the success of “Martin” is not lost on Arnold, who credits Keenen Ivory Wayans for “laying the groundwork for us” with his popular sketch comedy series, “In Living Color.” In her opinion, Wayans’ long-running show was the catalyst for Fox’s lineup of iconic ‘90’s shows, which included “In Living Color,” “Martin,” “Living Single” and “New York Undercover.”
“I always say if it wasn’t for Keenen Ivory Wayans, he laid the groundwork for us so by the time ‘Martin’ got on the air, Fox was ready. It’s like OK. And we called ourselves ‘Black on the Block’ because we were in that little block of time where all the black shows came on Fox. We really did not know what we had then, but we knew we enjoyed it. And I can’t speak for everybody else, but I can speak for myself. I had no idea that “Martin” would be still watched and liked and enjoyed to this day,” a grateful Arnold said while reminiscing how “Martin” got away with pushing the envelope, despite the presence of a personal censor.
“I loved that our comedy wasn’t censored. We weren’t censored. We had a guy that came on and he was the censor of the show. So he would count the ‘damns’, count the ‘hells’ and stuff. So it would be a bit frustrating for Martin, but everything we did was from the heart. It was stuff that we developed, like on the sidelines, just waiting for the cameras to roll. You never knew what Martin was gonna do. So you had to be ready to roll. That’s why I always say, comedically, he’s just brilliant. The cameras would roll and just never stop. That’s why we didn’t have to do a lot of takes. He gave so much in one take. We didn’t need 50 takes.”
Needless to say, neither Lawrence nor his cast mates were fans of the “Martin” censor when their creative zone was at its most funny and creative. But with “Martin” airing at the start of prime time, the restrictions were understood.
“You don’t want to censor comedy, but we were on a major network during a block of time where you can only say ‘damn’ but so many times,” said Arnold. We understood there’s rules, which we didn’t have the censorship that they don’t have these days. I mean, Jesus, I was looking at the major networks. I was like, ‘Lord, I thought I was watching cable.’ [Laughs] So I mean, we’ve come a long way in terms of just things that they put out. Things are a lot more racy, a little more edgy, but back then, it was real strict.”
Martin vs. Pam, Black Love and the Funny Challenge of Staying in Character
No matter how crazy things got with Martin Payne and his cohorts, the heart of “Martin” was always the relationship the WZUP radio host shared with his better half, Gina Waters.
Viewers had a vested interest in the pair as their ups and downs mirrored real-life issues and situations many couples experience. As much as “Martin” delivered laughs in spades, as the show’s co-creator, Lawrence made sure to fill a noticeable void in the TV landscape with putting black love on full display, courtesy of Martin and Gina.
“He was very adamant about that. He was very adamant about showing black love. He wanted to show a positive relationship. He was very adamant about that and that’s what they did the whole time,” Arnold said. “You saw their weaknesses. You saw their ups and downs, but you saw moments that the average black couple would go through. One having a better job than the other, that’s what the ‘Martin’ show was about. It was about him and his relationship and everything that surrounded that relationship. That’s why he stayed true to what he wanted…these were stories and moments and things being told by people that really went through it. Everything came from a real place. Everything.”
Ballard agrees, saying Martin and Gina’s “funny relationship” was like “a real young couple.”
“Trials and tribulations. It was like real time. It was like happening in real time in people’s life. Some of the things that you dealt with as a couple, Martin and them touched on it. So people could say, ‘Hey man, he was just talking about that today. We was just talking about you spending money on a CD player and you need to be putting this money on this and put this money on this bill or that bill,’ said Ballard. “It was real tight young couples that was starting out, trying to make it. That was our audience. It was like real young couples trying to kick it off. Having fun and when you confront problems, you confront them together. I think that’s what people like, you in it together. You in it to win it.”
It may have been all love between Martin and Gina, but it was anything but with Martin and Pam. An episode of “Martin” wasn’t complete without verbal shots Martin and Pam threw at each other on everything from how they looked to how they dealt with situations to whatever else they could think of to get a reaction.
According to Arnold, she and Lawrence had mutual input in working with the writers to come up with the funniest insults for Pam and Martin Payne. Compared to how the writers originally pictured Pam, Arnold’s take on the character was a winning shift that was fully embraced from the first put down onward.
“We definitely all had input. We would leave it up to the writers. We wouldn’t tell the writers what to do, but the writers would throw us ideas and stuff and we would say yay or nay, you know. You never had to do anything that was uncomfortable for you or you didn’t want to do,” the “Survivor’s Remorse” fixture said.
“Originally Pam was written for a heavy-set woman. All of the jokes were fat girl jokes. But when I auditioned and I got the role, obviously they changed it because back then my body was kinda bangin.’ So they changed all the jokes, but they didn’t realize that I could snap back. And when I started snapping back with him [Lawrence] off camera, that’s when they started incorporating it more into the show because a lot of it happened off camera with me and him, just on the humbug.”
And the rest, they say, is a history full of name-calling and other hijinks that made it hard for the “Martin” cast to stay in character while filming the show. Ultimately, staying serious proved hard to overcome on a set full of laughable moments. Ballard and Arnold knew this well. So it wasn’t hard for Arnold to sum up the task in two words.
“Extremely hard. Extremely hard,” she stated. “We would have competitions with each other. That’s why if you listen, if you watch the show and just listen to the people laughing, don’t listen to our dialogue. You would hear me and Tommy and all of us laughing because we used to watch these other scenes. So you’ll hear us laughing at each other, cracking up at each other because when we get [the episode] in the can during the day, we would watch each other’s scenes and it would just be us. We would show each other moral support, even if we’re not in the scene. We’ll come and watch each other’s scenes and sit there and laugh hysterically. We enjoyed watching each other.
“Every time we would do it, we would just have whoever would break first,” Arnold continued. “Tommy would always break first because he could never hold his laughter. Carl would be the next one and then I would be the next one. Tisha always held out pretty good because she had to work with him [Lawrence] the most. So she got used to hiding her laughter. I did pretty good too, hiding my laughter.” [Laughs]
Despite his best efforts, Payne was no match for Lawrence.
“He would break, Carl would break,” said Arnold, who threw in Payne’s technique to avoid being caught laughing. “See, Carl would cheat. He would cheat and he’ll walk away. If you watched some of the episodes, you’ll see him in a scene and he’ll go ‘Umm, umm’ and walk away, walk out of the scene. He’s laughing, but he’s not allowing us to see that he’s laughing. He was crackin’ up. He just knew how to do it.”
In Ballard’s case, letting the laughter work for you was the best route to take while in character. With a little help from his wife, the funnyman’s first appearance as Bruh Man was something neither he nor Lawrence would ever forget.
“Sometimes you would just break. I remember one time I broke character. I just bust out laughing. You have to really look close to catch it. That was the first episode, when I took my shoe off and I had my shoe on,” Ballard recalled. “And it’s funny because my wife told me. She said, ‘You know what, you oughta smell your hand after you take your shoe off since you’re messing with your toes.’ And I did that, man, and Martin was just like, Martin had his head back and I tried to cover my mouth and you heard me break out that (makes stifled laughing sound) [Laughs]. But the audience kind of laughed over it and we just kept going. But if you really look at the show, you can hear me do the little break, man.” [Laughs]
“Martin” Fan Love and a True Vision
Behind every great show is a great set of fans. Fans who express their appreciation for “Martin” in ways the cast never saw coming. In Arnold’s case, “it’s an encounter that really touched my heart and I never forgot it.
“I remember when we were on the show, ‘Martin,’ we didn’t get recognized then. We got more of our recognition once we hit syndication. And I kept sayin’ to myself, ‘You know what, I wonder if people will know this show once it goes into syndication, if we make it into syndication’ because I never had been on a show that made it to syndication,” the entertainer said. “I had this little five-year-old Indian boy walk up to me and say, ‘You are Pam. You are Pam.’ I was like, ‘Yep, we made it.’ [Laughs] ‘Martin’ was more of a young adult humor, you know. Kids were not watching ‘Martin.’ Children were not watching ‘Martin.’ Parents were not letting kids watch ‘Martin,’ but when we went in to syndication, it’s crazy. I mean, I had little kids running up to me. ‘You’re Pam. You’re Pam.’ I’m like, ‘Wow. You’re mother lets you watch the show?’ [Laughs]
“And I had a friend who was a corrections officer in Rikers Island,” Arnold continued about “Martin” resonating with viewers. “She said that the only time that the prison would be quiet and they never fought over the TV was when ‘Martin’ was on. I was like, ‘Wow.’ You never think about stuff like that.”
His fan moments may not be as telling, but Ballard’s face-to-face with an enthusiastic viewer came as a wake up call to how big Bruh Man was with the “Martin” faithful. To hear Ballard tell it, his parking lot encounter was a funny one that literally left him on the run.
“Another I didn’t know how big the character was moment was when me and my wife and my cousin were walking to the parking lot after the show, after we taped in front of the audience. And I’m walking to the parking lot because I wasn’t no main cast member. I had to walk in the parking lot with the fans,” said Ballard. “So I go a little early. I’m walking to my car and this girl spots me. She was a big girl. She was like, ‘Hey Brutha Man!’ and I’m like, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’’ But then, man, she just started running at me. And my cousin said, ‘Uh, I think you better run.’ I say, ‘Naw, it’s gonna be alright.’ Then he said, ‘No, she’s not gonna stop.’ And man, so I started walking a little faster. And then I had to start trotting. [Laughs]
So the question is … did the fan get her Bruh Man?
“Naw man, She ain’t catch me. [Laughs],” Ballard confessed as it hit him that Bruh Man was a force he couldn’t ignore. “She was coming full psychopath. I thought I was lookin’ at ‘The Exorcist,’ man. [Laughs] Yeaah, that was the moment dude.”
A quarter century after it’s ‘90’s debut and it’s clear Lawrence and fellow “Martin” creators Topper Carew, Bentley Kyle Evans and John Leanne Bowman, were on to something. Not every TV show can vouch for positively changing the lives of all parties involved while landing firmly in the hearts of those looking for laughs, love and a little bit of hip-hop to keep it all together. As a healthy springboard, Lawrence, Campbell-Martin, Arnold and Ford saw their stock rise with “Martin” as they went on to find success in television, movies, music and theater after the show’s run on Fox.
Years later, tragedy would unexpectedly come for fans and the cast when Ford died last year from a ruptured aneurysm in his abdomen. Remembering her late co-star, Arnold holds nothing but love for the man she labeled as “just an overall amazing guy.”
“Good guy, big heart, helped everybody. Always laughed, always had a smile on his face and never had an attitude. Just a good guy,” Arnold shared about Ford, who passed away at the age of 52. “Most of all, he was a great father and that’s what hurt the most. He didn’t expect to die. We didn’t expect him to die. His passing was very devastating, but it happened. You can’t change it, but honor his memory.”
Although many fans yearn for a “Martin” reunion with Arnold and her castmates, the “Everybody Hates Chris” star admits it would be hard to do without Ford.
”Even if we did make a ‘Martin’ reunion, it wouldn’t be the same without Tommy,” Arnold said.
In its final year, scandal plagued “Martin” with Campbell-Martin bringing allegations of sexual harassment and verbal and physical assaults to light in a lawsuit she filed against Lawrence and “Martin” producers in 1997. The lawsuit was eventually settled, but it was clear the off-screen tension between Campbell-Martin and Lawrence reflected onscreen with Gina rarely seen in the final season of “Martin.” Despite the drama, viewers stayed faithful right up to the show’s final episode, which saw Campbell-Martin featured, but no scenes with her and Lawrence.
Legalities aside, the pair did provide viewers with a couple who were there for each other, no matter what. Martin and Gina are within a group of iconic soulmates like George and Louise Jefferson (“The Jeffersons”), Duane Wayne and Whitley Gilbert (“A Different World”) and Teri Joseph and Damon Carter (“Soul Food”) as the standard for black love on the small screen.
With more introductions to come for future generations, Lawrence, Arnold and Ballard can rest easy, knowing “Martin’s” place in TV history and with viewers is secure. In October, the show was honored at the 2017 Vh1 Hip Hop Honors, with Arnold, Affion Crockett, Regina Hall and Lamorne Morris doing an comedic tribute to Lawrence and the characters he played on “Martin.” Lawrence the stage soon after the tribute to accept the honor and thank his co-stars, the fans and the rappers who appeared on his self-titled show.
In Ballard’s eyes, “the longevity and lasting impact among new and old fans is reason enough to put “Martin” among the best classic sitcoms of all time.
“It’s like ‘Sanford & Son,’ man. Staying power, it’s like ‘Sanford & Son’,” Ballard stated. “New generations come up to me on the streets man, 6-,7- year-old kids. ‘Hey, there go Bruh Man’… I remember when I was in college in the ‘80’s, you ain’t see to many blacks on MTV. It’s an institution now,” stated Ballard, who graduated to another hit show with his role as W.B. on “The Bernie Mac Show.” “‘Martin’ was so easy to do. I only did 12 episodes of ‘Martin’ and I did like four years on ‘Bernie Mac,’ but everybody remembers the ‘Martin’ thing. I tell people I got a masters degree from ‘Martin’ and a Ph.D from ‘Bernie.'”
As an original cast member, Arnold saw firsthand how Lawrence’s vision went from idea to overall sensation and can vouch for the excitement she felt in knowing how good “Martin” was. The cast’s work on the show paid off and we’re all the better for it.
“Martin had a true vision and he had an amazing gift and talent and it was a perfect storm. The ‘Martin’ show was his talent and his vision and his gift and meant to be. This is what happens when you work hard and you’re able to see your vision actually manifest itself,” Arnold expressed. “I remember the first day at work, he was excited. We were all just excited because we felt it. We felt like we had a good show. It felt good. Everything felt good about it. And when you can feel that in a lifetime, you just always remember that and you always keep it in high regard. And I guess because we loved doing what we did and put it in high regard, people still watch it to this day. You see the fruits of our labor.”
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