Martin Lawrence has landed in tall clover.
He's in Los Angeles, filming a new situation comedy series that's named after him, no less, just like the heavy hitters -- Jerry Seinfeld and Bob Newhart and Roseanne Arnold. "Martin" will run on the Fox network on Thursday nights, beginning this week, following one of its biggest hits, "The Simpsons." He's come a long way from Landover.
Anyone who's caught his "One Night Stand" HBO special or seen him host HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" may wonder how he'll come off on a broadcast network in prime time. What's he going to do about all that blue language?
"I'm truly blessed and happy about all the people who support me at the shows," said Lawrence. "There are those out there who put emphasis on the language, but I think when people come to see me they come to hear what I have to say ... I don't get off on that, if you're just using language for the shock value. True comedy material has to have meaning to it."
In his standup routine, and in his series, Lawrence's emphasis is on relationships between men and women. He's talked in his standup about falling out with a recent girlfriend -- he heard she was seeing a married man. In "Martin," his steady is Gina, played by Tisha Campbell (she's appeared in "Little Shop of Horrors," "School Daze," "Another 48 Hours" and "Boomerang").
The series is a bit of a blend of "Home Improvement" and "Seinfeld." Lawrence plays a radio talk show host, with the talk topics, executive producer John Bowman noted, serving as a way to raise a topic or theme for the episode. In the pilot at least, it would appear that the image Martin projects on the radio and in front of his buddies (Tommy Ford and Carl Payne) requires a bit of refocusing when he's back in the company of Gina. The series is from HBO Independent Productions, with Topper Carew, Lawrence's manager, also serving as executive producer.
To see Lawrence emerge at 27 as a comic holding down his own sitcom might not surprise anyone who knew him during his growing-up years in Landover.
Lawrence, an Air Force brat born in Germany, lived briefly in Queens, New York, but from third grade on, Landover was home.
Those Landover days seem to have been largely about what Lawrence would do next to channel his energy. He wrestled. He boxed. He was such an irrepressible class clown, he recalls an art teacher who gave him the last few minutes of an art class to entertain his fellow students.
Lawrence went to Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt and was graduated in 1984. In 10th grade, he took a drama class at Friendly High School and began to take stand-up comedy seriously after graduation, not to discount his work in art class.
"While I was trying to get my standup comedy thing going, I hooked with a traveling theater group called Ten Point Musical Theater Group," he recalled. "I did a couple of plays with them, not many. After that I concentrated on standup."
Lawrence is an admirer of Eddie Murphy, appreciating for obvious reasons the way he's made the transition from standup comedian to bona fide movie star.
But the inspiration for his standup came from Richard Pryor, whose work he had enjoyed late at night and on the sly.
"I've always been a big fan of Richard Pryor," he said. "I'd stay up late at night whenever he was on. Cable television at the time was Super TV, remember that? I remember watching him 'Live on the Sunset Strip.' I was supposed to be getting ready for school. I'd be up at 2 or 3 in the morning without my mother knowing it, watching Pryor. I wanted to make people laugh like that. I was always the class clown, running around making people laugh in school and my friends on the street."
Lawrence also recalled an adolescence that was not a lot of laughs. During his Landover years, his father and mother had gone separate ways. There were six children in the family, and his mother, Chlora Lawrence, worked as a cashier at Hecht's in Landover Mall and at a drug store in the Pentagon. Meanwhile, Martin Lawrence channeled his energy, and not just to the stage.
"I used to box in the area, at 15 years old, 90 pounds," he said. "I used to train at Peppermill Recreation Center at Round One. I was a Golden Gloves runner-up at 90 pounds. I had a nice time doing it. I was always interested in sports, and a lot of the energy I had -- boxing, wrestling at Goddard Junior High, along with taking drama at Friendly -- by me keeping myself busy in physical sports, I think that's one of the things that kept me out of the stores stealing.
"I put a lot of energy in the sports. You learn unity in organized sports. If you're a kid from the ghetto, if your mother's out there busting her ass on two jobs, and your father you don't know where he is, you don't have anyone to tell you about unity. Sports coaches are often the ones who teach you. How can teachers be so underpaid? They're giving knowledge to kids and teaching unity in the classroom."
Lawrence left the Washington area in 1988 but returns occasionally. And even though he's been gone a short time, he says he's amazed by the changes he sees when he comes back.
"I remember you could get in an argument, square off against another kid with your hands and the worst you could get was a bloody nose," he said. "Now you might get shot. That is a truly scary situation."
When he's in town, he might be seen at Rhythms in Landover, a club that he remembers as a movie theater, where he used to help clean up.
Lawrence's mother has left Landover, too. She has retired to North Carolina. Son Martin praised her for coping with a sizable family on limited means. "If we didn't have a sandwich, we had love," he said. "She dealt with everything she had to deal with."
He also recalled her reaction the first time she caught his R-rated standup routine. "When she saw 'One Night Stand,' she said, 'Ooooh, boy, listen to your mouth! But I've got to admit, it's funny.' She admitted to both of them."
Lawrence has even found an unusual, sly way to pay tribute to Chlora Lawrence in "Martin": He plays his own mother, in drag. "Who can play my mother better than I can?" he said. "I grew up with her." There is, of course, one glaring flaw in his portrayal: "She doesn't have a mustache," he said, "but in the show, she will."