When Comedy Boils Over
Exactly two weeks before a severe case of heat exhaustion landed him in a three-day coma, Martin Lawrence was in a climate-controlled hotel suite talking to reporters about the pressures of showbiz. "I think you always have pressures," said the actor, his slow speech and quavering voice helping to prove his point. "This is just such a big industry, a major industry, and it's been going on since the beginning of time. So yeah, it puts pressure on you. But that's part of growing, learning how to deal with those pressures, and having the right outlets." One writer delicately inquired whether things were "back to normal" for the 34-year-old comedian, following a pair of gun-possession charges, some well-publicized erratic behavior, and reports of domestic abuse and sexual harassment. "No doubt," replied Lawrence, nodding his head toward the table. "I'm just enjoying learning how not to take certain things so seriously. I'm trying to respect myself as well as others."
That Lawrence's latest performance in Blue Streak flaunts his great flair for physical comedy only accentuates his utter lethargy with the press. Looking bleary-eyed and shaky, at one point wearily raising his hand to shoo a fly that was a good ten feet away, Lawrence hardly resembled the high-strung, endearingly arrogant Martin who bounced around his eponymous Fox sitcom for five seasons--nor the stage-stalking vulgarian of his sprightly concert film You So Crazy, nor the quick wit that turns the formulaic Blue Streak into a tour de force. Still, it would have been hard to predict the events of August 22, when Lawrence, jogging in heat-wave conditions and several layers of heavy clothing in an attempt to lose weight for an upcoming role in Big Momma's House, collapsed on his North Ranch doorstep with a body temperature of 107. "I'm just going to try to keep getting better in my work and in my personal life," he optimistically told reporters on August 8, "and, you know, hopefully I'll get better at dealing with you guys."
The fact that Lawrence was reportedly trying to get in shape to play a portly Southern grandma under thick prosthetics is plenty odd, but in the end it's not nearly as notable as the actor's miraculous recovery from the brink of death to the point of being announced as a tentative guest at the L.A. premiere of Blue Streak this week. If the film winds up benefiting at the box office from the star's recent trauma, the success won't be undeserved. Easily the comedian's big-screen high point (compared to such lazy Lawrence vehicles as Bad Boys and Nothing to Lose), the crudely entertaining Blue Streak features Lawrence as a crafty jewel thief who, in the midst of a failed heist, is forced to hide a $20 million diamond in an air duct--only to discover after a two-year prison term that his hiding place has become part of a newly built police precinct. The ingeniousness of this simple scenario is in drawing on the star's talent for impersonation, as Lawrence's character poses as a detective to infiltrate the LAPD, but not before hamming it up as Ghetto Buck, a bucktoothed pizza delivery man-cum-contortionist in a blue velvet jogging suit, bug-eye spectacles, and Technicolor cornrows.
By contrast, the alarmingly inanimate Lawrence who appeared for interviews needed a little prodding even to admit that Ghetto Buck was his own invention. After repeated queries about his well-known gift for comedic improv, the actor eventually deferred to his entourage. "I've got a team of people that I can go to and bounce stuff off," said Lawrence. "I can talk to them and go, 'What do you think about this?' and 'What's the look on this?' and we come up with a look or whatever, and then I start trying out voices and then the next thing you know we've got Ghetto Buck"--at which point Lawrence began a languid rendition of the character's atonal whine. And who are these collaborators? a reporter asked. "That team, if I told you [who they are], I'd have to, you know," insinuated Lawrence, jokingly pounding his fist and eyeing his interlocutors in the most animated gesture he'd make during the session. (A joke it was, no doubt, although, of the two associates who accompanied Lawrence into the suite, one walked with a crutch and the other wore a patch over her eye.)
In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud wrote that "Jokes allow a momentary suspension of the repressions which bind the emotions of forbidden sexuality and aggression, a discharge of the energy of the counter-cathexis which maintains the repressions, and the feeling of pleasure which accompanies this discharge." So--might pain be a crucial element of comedy?
"I think even if you walk the street or ride the freeway, you see that life sometimes is cruelty," said Lawrence, who seriously considered becoming a professional fighter before a winning appearance on Star Search in 1987 made his name with a different kind of punch line. (Lawrence's fascination with boxing and its associated weight-loss regimen surfaces repeatedly on his standup record Talkin' Shit--and perhaps helps to explain the fitness mishap that led to his collapse.) "In life," said Lawrence, "people don't speak to each other--they're very nasty, they bump into each other, or whatever. And I think we [comedians] find a way to make light of things that bother us, and things that we sometimes don't understand. If you laugh, it doesn't push you to rage."
With that, the comedian rose from the table and returned to the sweltering pressure of being Martin Lawrence.
Blue Streak starts Friday at area theaters.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.