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A New Low on the Taste Meter : Television: That Fox cleared Sunday’s sex-crazy episode of ‘Martin’ is bad enough. That it aired at 8 p.m. is worse.

It’s always dicey for a white guy to unload on below-the-belt vulgarity and racial stereotyping in a black series that received an NAACP Image Award. As a member of a minority myself, I know something about instinctively circling the wagons when reproached by outsiders.

But here goes anyway.

Sunday’s world-class crude episode of the Fox comedy “Martin” was repulsive on several counts. And a Fox executive agreed Tuesday that the show went too far.

One of the network’s more popular programs, “Martin” is a series about the adventures (many of them sexual) of a clowning bachelor who regularly puts on a macho front to hide his supposedly sensitive nature. The cast of “Martin” is black. The star (and co-executive producer with the white John Bowman) is Martin Lawrence, whose pivotal character here has a robust sex life with his careerist girlfriend, Gina (Tisha Campbell). So be it.

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On Sunday, though:

When Gina wore a body hugging, open-backed dress to a party, Martin’s biological urges soared to 10 on the Richter scale. Bumping, grinding and pawing, he was all over her in public--his body pumping like a piston, his tongue thrusting lewdly--acting generally like an animal: “I’m telling you, baby, I gots to have it!”

Driven totally by his sexual hunger to the point of panic, he was absolutely relentless. “Baby, baby,” he gasped at one point, “we’ll only be gone five minutes. They won’t even notice.”

Finally, after Gina gave in, they ditched the party and had their “quickie.”

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Afterward, when Martin was challenged by Gina and a friend to distinguish between love and sex, and was unable to do it, he agreed to a test. To prove that love was more important to him, he and Gina would “go without sex for two weeks.”

TWO WEEKS???? Was it humanly possible? It was time for further lowjinks.

After a commercial break, cut to an overhead shot of Martin and Gina lying side by side in bed a week later, coming out of their skins while attempting to ignore their imploding sexual frustrations. When Gina discovered Martin was wearing an ice pack on his penis, he insisted that he’d “pulled a thigh muscle” and limped from the room.

Now cut to Martin with his male pals, complaining: “I can’t take it no more. The ice ain’t workin’, brother. It’s making things numb down there.”

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Not that anyone would have known from his picturesque, sex-simulating body gyrations.

The upshot was that Martin and Gina could barely brush against each other without becoming near orgasmic, and they were unable to hold out for the two weeks.

Three points need to be made.

First: As “In Living Color” and “Married . . . With Children” affirmed even before the existence of “Martin” and this season’s oppressively gross “Daddy Dearest,” Fox will never win anyone’s good-taste award. It’s done quite well for itself, in fact, as a relatively bawdy alternative network with a reputation for dropping its pants to earn an extra ratings point.

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Yet “Martin” this time was primitive even for Fox.

Second: That the half hour was endorsed by Fox’s standards and practices department for airing at all was bad enough. That it was on at 8 p.m.--and thus potentially available to young kids galore--made it an even greater abomination.

Third: Although Sunday’s premise would have been just as inane had the characters been white, Asian or whatever, the show’s blackness ensured an especially noxious twist. It was little more than two years ago, after all, that Anita Faye Hill made her allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. Some African Americans were among those who loudly accused Hill then of evoking an ugly stereotype about black males being oversexed and definable by their sexual prowess and genitalia.

Whether you agreed or disagreed with it being tied to Hill’s testimony, the stereotype itself was no fantasy, having roots in the centuries-old anti-black bias and ignorance from which much of this nation’s history has evolved. As Thomas himself said at the time, “This plays into the most bigoted, racist stereotypes that any black man will face.”

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A stereotype nourished by “Martin.”

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Written by co-producer Cheryl Holliday, Sunday’s episode defined its sexually out-of-control protagonist entirely by his powerful libido. Although Gina lusted for the sack herself, she was a relatively slow simmer compared to Martin’s mushrooming cloud of sexual heat.

So now we’ve nixed the rules, making it all right to single out black males as mindless sex machines?

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It’s a given that Italians can mock Italians without offense, Jews can do it to Jews, African Americans to African Americans and so on and so on. This pattern of self-ridicule even has a way of strengthening ethnic pride and togetherness.

“But on television, with its vast and heterogeneous audience,” astute industry observer Les Brown once argued in another context, “the honest kidding of ethnic types becomes something else, tending to validate the stereotype as a true representative of a whole people and in that way contributing to prejudice.”

Following protests from civil rights groups, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was yanked by CBS years ago, in part because there were then virtually no balancing depictions of African Americans on television. In the last decade, at least in comedy, there have been many. Thus, if this were 1963 instead of 1993, the “Martin” episode would be even more damaging. Yet that does not excuse the series and Fox from exercising sensitivity and hormonal restraint.

Perhaps the bottom line here is the bottom line, that anything goes on Fox when it comes to making a buck, that the network is heavy on practices, low on standards.

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“In retrospect, it was over the top,” said David Grant, Fox’s executive vice president for business operations, calling the episode “probably a struggle all along” for the network’s standards and practices department, which he oversees. He noted that NBC’s “Seinfeld” and ABC’s “NYPD Blue” also “pushed the envelope” sexually, but acknowledged that they pushed it later in the evening, at 9 and 10 respectively.

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Grant said that Fox waited until last Sunday to air the episode in question because “we were running against ‘E.T.’ (on NBC), and if there were ever a night when kids were watching something else, this was it.”

Actually, “Martin” ran opposite “Jetsons: The Movie” on NBC, which did not schedule “E.T.” until 8:30. And Fox promoted the episode last Thursday during “The Simpsons,” a series that is heavily watched by children.

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As for stereotyping, Grant said, “We don’t tell them what to write, but we do think the show was balanced according to the male-female sexual urge.” He added that no advertisers complained about or withdrew from Sunday’s “Martin.”


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