The Fresh Prince vs. Martin. Who’s the king?
“Wzup, wzup, WZUPPPP!?” What can be said about The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the Martin show from the immortal 90’s other than that both sitcoms were and still are monumental shows and not just in terms of shows with predominant black casts but just the sitcom genre as a whole. But which one is king? Welp, that’s what we’re here to find out. Let’s get into this!
The Fresh Prince was a fish out of water sitcom about young Philly born and raised street kid Will Smith who after getting into trouble back in his hometown is sent by his single mother to live with his wealthy uncle Phil (James Avery), aunt Viv (Janet Hubert Whitten then Daphne Maxwell Reid) , cousins Carlton, Hilary and Ashley(Alfonso Ribeiro, Karyn Parsons and Tatyana M. Ali) and sassy butler Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell) in Bel Air, California. The show did many episodes about Will being a fish out of water in this glamorous world of his family and struggling to adjust to the glitzy lifestyle but he not only adjusts, he ends up turning Bel Air inside out with his own charming fresh prince ways.
The Martin show was the television vehicle for superstar comic Martin Lawrence set in Detroit, Michigan. The show is about local talk radio DJ Martin Payne whose brash, macho nature is usually the thorn in the side of his long suffering but loving and gorgeous girlfriend Gina Waters(Tisha Campbell) who was devoted to and loved Martin no matter what. His two best friends the smart and cool yet no job having Tommy Strawn(Thomas Mikal Ford) and dimwitted mama’s boy Cole Brown(Carl Anthony Payne), Gina’s best friend Pamela “Pam” James who served as Martin’s greatest foe who constantly traded insults with him and on quite a few occasions came to blows with him. The show was just simply about a guy, his girl and his friends just living life as young black people in their late twenties and early thirties.
Both of these shows have very distinctive legacies in television history: Fresh Prince paved the way for hip hop\rap on network television and was the first sitcom starring a rapper. It also dealt with quite a few heavy topics that were big at the time and still today such as class, racial profiling, drugs, teen sex, death, the dangers of over drinking, sell out vs. keeping it real etc. though the show never got maudlin or preachy it always handled these subjects with a light touch and was just plain funny, hysterically so. It provided many iconic tv comedy moments including “The Carlton Dance”, Uncle Phil throwing Jazz out with the same shirt every single time, Aunt Viv’s classic ballet dance scene and the snap in the face that was heard around the world, the classic Trevor bungee jump accident and many more.
Martin, however, was just pure unadulterated comedy and it excelled at it with classic insults between Martin and Pam, physical comedy akin to The Three Stooges, Carol Burnett etc. and the large list of characters Martin played himself(Sheneneh, Mama Payne, Jerome “Romey rome”, Otis the security guard, Roscoe the literal snot nosed 10 year old etc.) But where Martin most succeeded was really putting black love at the forefront with the iconic relationship between Martin and Gina. At the time Martin came out there were quite a few black couples on television like George and Weezy from The Jeffersons, James and Florida Evans from Good Times, Mary and Lester Jenkins from 227 but these were all married couples over 40 and with children. Martin and Gina along with Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne from A Different World represented young black love at it’s finest. Although I personally love me some Dwayne and Whitley (“Baby, please! Please!”) there’s not a couple that just sizzled with heat from the chemistry like Martin and Gina.
Now we’re talking two very different shows yet what they had in common was that obviously both were shows with all black casts, both were set and ended in the 90’s and both starred two dudes that would star in the Bad Boys movies together. They also are two sitcoms that are as popular if not even more so thanks to endless reruns, DVDs and almost a bajillion clips and long videos on Youtube. Both series have only grown in their fanbases over the years which is proof positive that true staying power is the result of timelessness of the products and although both shows were very much 90’s shows with the culture of the decade just apart of the shows and their charm, they’re both also timelessly funny and still resonate with their relatable characters and storylines that we all regardless of race or gender or whatever can see ourselves in them.
Now…. which one is the king? Well, both had certain higher points than the other. While Martin was a laugh riot, Fresh Prince while also hilarious would take the time to do deeper stories dealing with reality that were well done and needed to be addressed as well as unlike Martin, stayed really strong up to the very end even with a major cast change (Aunt Viv) and six years worth of storytelling The Fresh Prince only got funnier as time went on and honestly had Will not chose to do movies could’ve lasted at least two more seasons before running out of gas. Unlike Martin which did suffer a bit when Tisha Campbell left mid way through the fifth season, although Martin, Tichina, Tommy and Carl still did their thing and the show was still mostly funny without the core of the show, the Martin and Gina relationship that is, the show lost a big chunk of what made it such a classic show and frankly without Gina the heart of the show was missing. And then the worst sin of all they really didn’t have Martin and Gina interact in the FINAL EPISODE of the show. They never even appeared onscreen together once. We all know Martin and Tisha had their offscreen issues at the time, but, man, I wish they could’ve worked out these issues before the finale so that this iconic show could’ve went out as strong as it came in.
On the other hand, though, Martin certainly gave Fresh Prince a run for their money with no major cast changes unlike Fresh Prince which also had their share of offscreen difficulties with Will Smith and Janet Hubert Whitten due to Janet not being happy with the show and her role and it turned into an incredibly long feud between the two until they finally buried the hatchet as evidenced by her participation in the Fresh Prince reunion special streaming on HBO Max sometime around Thanksgiving 2020. Although Daphne Maxwell Reid is a very good actress in her own right and obviously gelled better with the cast offscreen than Janet, it was just impossible for anyone to replace Janet in the role of Aunt Viv that she brought to life so vividly and the chemistry she had with James Avery in particular just couldn’t be replicated. At least on Martin with Tisha leaving mid way through the final season we didn’t have to endure some other actress trying to play that role that Tisha owned completely. Also there’s something great about how Martin didn’t bother to deal with real world issues or try to be dramatic. It knew what it was, it wasn’t trying to do anything but make you laugh which it did so very well and for that it makes it the more go to show then others when you just want to laugh and not think about anything crazy in the real world.
Then there’s the theme songs…. This one’s tough because both themes are so memorable and iconic…. I gotta give it to Fresh Prince on that one. As great as Martin’s various themes were, it says a lot how Fresh Prince never changed their intro in six years which shows how perfect it really was.
The Take 6 version of Martin, however, is one of the greatest themes ever in my humble opinion so don’t even argue with me on that you’ll lose. Also gotta love how animated Martin looks like my dude Steve Harvey.
So now we finally get to the dirty business at hand. Which show is the king of the black sitcom crown?…. I’m just keeping it real when I say that this is going to have to be a tie. Both were such hilarious shows that were at times boldly politically incorrect and represented 90’s excellence better than any other show at the time… Well, now that I say that I’d be remiss not to mention Married with Children which might knock both of them out but that’s another article for another day. At the end of the day both of these shows helped usher African American focused sitcoms of the period and both still seem to influence current shows although the imitators aren’t nearly as good or funny but at least they’re trying. So I guess it’s up to every person to make this incredibly hard choice… Good luck.