Stand-up comedian-actor Martin Lawrence headlined a benefit show at the Comedy Store Sunday night, a performance that for Lawrence had the added benefit of fulfilling his sentence of community service for a battery charge last year.
But while "Martin Lawrence and Friends" raised money for a few worthy causes and gave some lesser-known comics--including Cedric the Entertainer, Guy Torry and Ray Chapman--a chance to share a bill with a star, it's hard to know for which community the show did a service.
Indeed, Lawrence probably shouldn't play the tape of his show to anyone in a robe wondering whether he's cleaned up his act. If the idea was for the star to display an awakened self-awareness about his past transgressions, there was little of that in evidence in an hour-plus show that saw Lawrence distancing himself from anything like responsibility for his actions--or from a comedian's responsibility to tell intelligent jokes.
To be fair, Lawrence has been away from the stand-up game for some time, so you wouldn't expect him to have a polished set at the ready.
That didn't seem to bother the audience, which was simply seemed thrilled that Lawrence was performing for the first time in two years, transporting them back to his raunchy, raucous days at the forefront of the "Def Comedy Jam" movement and to his 1994 concert film, "You So Crazy."
For Lawrence, this was a rare club date booked, in effect, by a judge. As the comedian himself said shortly after taking the stage: "The judge said, 'If you don't do this show, you goin' back to jail.' " (Proceeds from the show went to the Hollywood Beautification Project and several other charities.)
While Lawrence's career has blossomed in the '90s (he had a hit TV series, "Martin," on Fox, and just wrapped work on the film "Life," in which he co-stars with Eddie Murphy), the comedian has also had a penchant for running afoul of the law. In the last five years, he has been detained by Sherman Oaks police for wandering into traffic and cursing at motorists, been arrested twice, once at Burbank Airport on charges that he had a gun in his travel bag and once after a nightclub brawl. The last incident resulted in Lawrence pleading no contest to misdemeanor battery charges. He was sentenced to two years' probation and ordered to perform community service and organize a charity fund-raiser. He was also the target of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by his "Martin" co-star, Tisha Campbell. (The suit was subsequently dropped.)
Given this police blotter, Lawrence started his show promisingly, facing with evident candor the incidents that had brought him back to the stand-up stage after a two-year absence.
He wittily admitted to having smoked a little marijuana before wandering into Valley traffic, and later said, "If you wanna fight me, meet me on 'Jerry Springer,' " a reference to his part in a brawl at the Gate Club.
But instead of turning the arrests into self-deprecating material, Lawrence generally chose a less humorous path--blaming his ex-wife for much of his troubles. He then quickly moved into a rambling, X-rated monologue that repeatedly evoked violent--and, more importantly for a comic, unfunny--attitudes toward women.
"I didn't have a police record before I got married, but after [I got married] I had a police album," he said, one of the few relatively kind and printable jokes of the evening.
Yes, his raw sexual material was occasionally funny, calling to mind the rich tradition of comics (Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Murphy) to whom Lawrence owes a debt of gratitude. But unlike those legends, Lawrence didn't use the blue material to get at some larger truth, he simply spewed.
He spewed because he can, because he's a bankable film star ("Bad Boys," "Nothing to Lose") and a talented actor whose success earns him the kind of behavioral license typically afforded celebrities.
Lawrence no doubt realizes this, knowing that as long as he continues to turn out funny performances in hit movies, few are likely to care about his off-screen behavior. True, he had to do some roadside cleanup as part of his probation, but when Lawrence equates that experience with the era of slavery in America, he isn't kidding anybody but himself.