Martin Lawrence: Dr. Dirt or Mr. Clean? : Barred by NBC, He’s Generally Blue on Stage but Not on TV


Call it raunchy, filthy, vulgar and indecent if you must. Comedian Martin Lawrence says that his outrageous humor seeks simply to entertain, not offend. He also believes that a dirty mind can be a healthier mind.

“If I don’t know anything else, I know what it takes to make a person laugh,” the 28-year-old star of Fox-TV’s “Martin” explains. “People have to have the right to laugh, or else you’re going to have a lot more of us going crazy. If you can get past the language and have fun with what I’m talking about, I’m going to help keep you mentally healthy.”

Recently, some have found it difficult to get past Lawrence’s language. He’s been barred from NBC programming for the time being because of the salacious monologue he delivered as host of “Saturday Night Live” two weeks ago. He’s lost an appeal to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which has deemed his concert film, “You So Crazy,” raunchy enough to require an NC-17 rating. His concert album, “Talkin’ S---,” has been stamped with a Parental Advisory sticker.


But Lawrence doesn’t appear to be angry or embittered over the attempts to quiet him down. Taking a break in his office near the set of “Martin,” he is relaxed, friendly and quite happy with his career.


“I feel good. I’m getting all this publicity, and I didn’t even hurt anybody,” he laughs. “I haven’t done anything wrong, so I don’t need to apologize to anybody. I’m a comedian, and I make people laugh. My fans know me, and they’re not surprised by anything I say. And right now, a lot more people are asking ‘Who is Martin Lawrence?’ ”

There are at least two answers to that question. As a stand-up working the concert circuit, and as the host of HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” Lawrence has taken the stage as a quintessential blue comic--earning laughs as a lively relayer of the bawdiest observations. On his sitcom--where innuendo must replace graphic vulgarity--Lawrence has scored tremendous success by tempering his stage persona for prime-time consumption and working relatively cleanly. Lawrence says he didn’t think “Saturday Night Live” wanted the clean Martin hosting the show.

“People know I can be clean every Sunday at 8. On ‘Saturday Night Live,’ it’s 11:30, and things get a little more risque. In my monologue, I made sure to ask if people had their kids in bed yet. Maybe I misjudged my material, but the people at the show said, ‘You’re the host. Do what you do and have a good time.’ That’s what I did.”

Lawrence’s freewheeling monologue made light of oral sex and also offered women some very specific hygiene tips. He claims he used the same observations at a run-through of the show and heard no complaints. The network says he drifted into unscripted and unapproved material.

His monologue was broadcast live on the East Coast, but was heavily edited when it aired in the West. NBC quickly received almost 200 complaints from irate Eastern viewers.

The comic says that he understands some people being upset by his material, but doesn’t think it was any stronger than what’s been on the show previously. “I saw Alec Baldwin playing a camp counselor and licking a little boy’s fingers. That seems worse to me than what I had to say. Let’s be clear about what’s in bad taste. What I said wasn’t any harsher than what you’d hear on a douche commercial. But I’m not mad at NBC. I laugh and take my lumps. They made the decision they thought they had to, and I’ll live with it.”

Following the program, executive producer Lorne Michaels released a statement that “sometimes live television is full of surprises.” NBC’s reaction was more pointed, and Lawrence’s planned appearance on Wednesday’s “Tonight Show” was immediately canceled, over the objections of host Jay Leno. Before the trouble on “Saturday Night Live,” Lawrence had worked the late-night talk-show circuit, appearing on the “Tonight Show,” Letterman, Arsenio and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” without incident.

“He’s funny, and people want to see him again,” says Leno. “He’s one of the people on the list of guests you really want to get. I’m annoyed that I’m not getting the chance to let him talk about this on ‘The Tonight Show.’ If we can edit out Ross Perot giving a phone number, we can certainly bleep out anything inappropriate Martin might say.”

Leno adds that the network response to an act like Lawrence’s may change as his popularity increases. “There’s a certain hypocrisy in this business, in that it all has to do with ratings. If someone is offensive and the ratings are just OK, there’s moral indignation and outrage. If someone’s offensive and the ratings go through the roof, suddenly it’s a triumph of free speech.”

Bill Maher, the host of Comedy Central’s “Politically Incorrect,” has been appearing on the “Tonight Show” recently as a remote correspondent who brings a touch of naughty humor to the program. He says there’s a temporary chill on any comic outrageousness in the wake of Lawrence’s “SNL” appearance.

“I asked Jay if I should tone my material down and he said it would be a good idea. Things are a little tense right now, and it’s better to go for the subtle joke rather than the graphic one.” Maher limited himself to one slightly lewd Michael Jackson joke when he reported from the Grammy show last week.

Comedian Thea Vidale has a split comedy career similar to Lawrence’s. As a stand-up comic in the midst of a “Down and Dirty” tour, she specializes in raucous, sexually explicit material, but as the star of ABC’s “Thea,” she has proven that she can work network-clean. “I take pride in my blue act,” she says, “and I love Martin and support him as a blue act, even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says. In that monologue, he did what any comic would do--he went with material he knew would work.”

Although Lawrence’s stand-up material is strictly adult, with the success of “Martin” he’s become a popular figure with children. Lawrence believes his expanding fan base may have something to do with his film’s NC-17 rating.

“I guess the board figures that through my language the kids will get a bad impression. They need to rethink that, because I’m not inciting violence or racism or anything negative. I’m just making you laugh.”

Stand-up Andrew Dice Clay, no stranger to controversy, feels that Lawrence is going to have to get used to the criticism that comes his way. “He’s a great stand-up, he’s got a hit show, and he doesn’t need this aggravation. But you create controversy when you’re an edgy comic, and you have to roll with it.”

Leno says that the people who don’t find Lawrence funny are simply watching the wrong comic. “Every comic gives the audience what they want to hear. Martin’s audience isn’t offended by what he does because they know what he does. If you wander into a place with a big ‘X’ outside, and you’re offended, you’re the one who’s in the wrong place.”

Maher says that even with the actions taken against Lawrence, his “SNL” monologue will shift the standards of what is acceptable on television. “I’ve heard that I was the first guy on TV to say that something ‘sucks.’ It was a shock for a moment and then people got used to the word. The next guy who goes on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and uses slightly raunchy material is going to look tame compared to Martin. What he said did go out over the air, and despite the controversy, the nation didn’t fall.”

Lawrence says he isn’t particularly concerned with setting new parameters for comedy, and doesn’t see himself as an avenging combatant in the battle for freedom of speech. But he will continue to speak freely: “I was put here to be a comedian and to entertain people across the spectrum. But I’m not taking any political stands. I’m here to make people laugh, and I’ll make them laugh by any means necessary.”