BACK IN 1987, THEN AMATEUR STAND-UP comic Martin Lawrence landed a coveted spot on Star Search, hound for glory. "I thought I'd made it!" he says. But instead of taking meetings in Burbank, Lawrence found himself back al his old job—buffing floors. "I had these pictures that I'd take out and show people and say, 'See, I was on Star Search,' and they'd say, 'If you was on Star Search, then what are you doing here?' "

It's easier to laugh from where the hyperkinetic Lawrence, 27, sits now—in his hedge-surrounded two-story North Hollywood house, replete with minigym, pool and tennis court. Today he is the star and cowriter of Fox's first-year sitcom Martin. Centered on Lawrence's role as the "Insane Martin Paine," a Detroit-based, talk-radio jock, the series also showcases Lawrence as such other personae as Martin's mother and his dilzy female neighbor, Shenehneh.

Martin has emerged as one of the few new hits of the TV season, and in January it won the NAACP Image Award as Outstanding Series despite the complaints of Bill Cosby, who criticized the show (among others) for indulging in crass black stereotypes. Ironically Cosby (along with Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy) is one of Lawrence's idols. "He should he happy for the young talent," Martin argued at the time. "We're not always going to put out the best message, but we put out what we know about." (Mum now, Lawrence hopes to let the skirmish drop.) Besides, his amiably amorous image on the sitcom is squeaky clean compared to the stand-up routines he offers on concert stages and as host of HBO's raunchy Def Comedy Jam.

Amid the trappings of his success. Laurence is trying—even struggling—to slay "your basic brother." Says his friend Martin writer Bentley Evans: "He knows where he came from, and he doesn't want to forge! it.

Born in Frankfurt, where his father, John, was stationed with the Air Force, Lawrence relocated with his mother, Chlora, and live siblings to suburban Landover, Md., outside Washington, after his parents' 1967 divorce. When Chlora look cashier and department-store jobs to pay the bills. Martin started flexing his co-medic muscles at her feet—literally. "She'd come home from work tired," he says. "I would lie on the end of her bed. trying to make her laugh. I knew when I made my mother laugh. I had something."

The knack was later parlayed into several terms as Eleanor Roosevelt High's self-designated jester. Recalls his younger sister. Ursula Woodland: "He became the kid on the fence. Everyone would gather around him, and he told jokes and made fun of other people as they passed by."

After graduation in 1984, Lawrence worked as a janitor at a five-and-dime by night and tried out his stand-up routines in clubs around Washington and Maryland. At first, he says, "I bombed so bad I thought I would never go onstage again. But then I thought, 'No, I know I'm funny.' " The Star Search stint brought him to L.A., where alter his initial disappointment he landed a supporting part on the syndicated sitcom What's Happening Now!! Then he was spotted by Spike Lee at a comedy club, who gave him a small role in 1989's Do the Right Thing. That led to appearances in both House Party movies and a small role as one of Eddie Murphy's buddies in last year's Boomerang.

The shift to the West Coast allowed Lawrence to indulge his main avocation: sports. As a teenager he was a 90-lb. Golden (doves contender, and today he pounds the speedbag in his gym. He also jet-skis and is pondering the purchase of a motorboat. A regular spectator at Los Angeles Clippers basketball games, he became friends with former (dipper forward (diaries Smith, now with the New York Knicks, and introduced Smith to Black Entertainment Television's Lisa Thompson. Martin was best man at their wedding in 1992. One jock to another, Smith admires Lawrence's discipline. "He treats his job like he's an athlete," says Smith. "He doesn't drink on the road, and he's careful about what he eats, so he can run around and sweat onstage."

Although currently between romances, Lawrence says he is eager to marry and have a family. "It would steal my heart," he says, "to see a little Martin running around." His ideal woman? "If you can cook, make love and you're smart, you're the complete package," he says.

While he waits for this vision to materialize, Lawrence, who regularly thanks God for his bounty, is content to muse on the temporal nature of his plush surroundings. "In the big picture, I'm just renting all this stuff," he figures. Only now, somebody else does the floors.

TIM ALLIS
LYNN MORGAN in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lynn Morgan.