No one on television has a better smile than Martin Lawrence, whether he's mugging gleefully or grinning mischievously on the situation comedy Martin. Lawrence's smile conveys both pleasure and confidence, suggesting a man in such cool control that he can make simple silliness seem like a sign of strength.
Since its debut last August, Martin has evolved into one of the most consistently amusing sitcoms in prime time, but not because the show itself is particularly original or well written. Martin showcases Lawrence as a Detroit radio talk-show host whose geni-al greeting to callers is a screeched, ''Wasss-up?!'' Like a lot of sitcom bachelors, Martin has a posse of goofy pals (played by Carl Payne and Thomas Mikal Ford), a cranky boss (Garrett Morris, formerly of Saturday Night Live), and a steady girlfriend, Gina (Boomerang's Tisha Campbell).
Any given week's plot is nothing special; Lawrence, however, is. He doesn't just give trite jokes a spin, he turns ordinary words into laugh getters the way, for example, he wishes his friends ''peace'' with such aggressive vehemence (''payce!''), or calls Gina his baby (''muh bay-bay''), or begs for a kiss with frowning mock severity (''You give me my sugar, girl!''). The best humor on Martin seems, whether it's true or not, to have been improvised by Lawrence and his costars, a quality which gives the show an enjoyably loose, anything-can-happen feel. In fact, with its studied spontaneity, love of inventive street slang, and the jittery rhythm of its scenes, Martin is the closest a sitcom has come to being the TV version of hip-hop music, the comic equivalent to the artful raunch of Bobby Brown or Wreckx-N-Effect.
Yet, distinctive as it is, Martin has frequently been lumped in with the other sitcoms featuring predominantly black casts that premiered last fall, like NBC's quick-to-flop Rhythm & Blues and Out All Night. They've all been derided as shows that reduce African-Americans to dumb cartoon characters. An October Newsweek story was headlined ''Must Blacks Be Buffoons?''; in it, Bill Cosby took a broad swipe at Martin and other shows for their vulgarity (''How many times has the punch line been about genitalia or big breasts?'').
The thing is, some vulgarity is really funny; witness Richard Pryor, who in his best stand-up routines worked out roiling, complicated ideas and emotions about sexual explicitness. (When Pryor made a cameo appearance on Martin last month, Lawrence who also gets mighty racy as the regular host of HBO's Def Comedy Jam acknowledged the older comedian's influence by saying, ''There's no me without you.'')
But disapproving souls like Cosby refuse to make such distinctions. Where they continue to believe that African-Americans must act with a deliberate show of dignity to command respect, Lawrence insists that blacks don't have to put on any sort of act anymore, even an act of dignity. He feels free to giggle, to speak any way he likes, to be as wacky as he wants.
Certainly, leering stupidity was standard for Out All Night, which featured a character whose trademark joke was to go bug-eyed and yell, ''Pow!'' whenever an attractive woman walked by. When vulgarity surfaces in Martin, however, it arises from a human context, from characters talking to one another as adults as friends or as lovers. And because it's freely acknowledged that Martin and Gina are Doing It, the jokes about sex have none of the rib-poking coyness that makes other less straightforward sitcoms so annoying.
The strengths of this approach were made clear during a three-episode Martin story line in February. The trio of shows over the course of which Martin and Gina fought, broke up, and got back together was designed as a ratings-boosting stunt: Viewers were encouraged to call a 900 number (profits were donated to charity) and vote on who should apologize first, Martin or Gina. The gimmick was a success more than 250,000 Martin watchers phoned in, and the three episodes' ratings beat those of the other major networks' shows in that time slot.
But beyond that, these episodes showed how solid Martin's characters have become and provided Lawrence with one great scene: Anguished over the breakup but too proud to beg, Martin sat in the dark, singing along to the Chi-Lites' great, heartbreaking oldie ''Have You Seen Her.'' With Lawrence's voice quavering wildly away from the melody, the moment was at once hilarious and genuinely touching here was emotionalism and romance from an African-American man, qualities that television almost never depicts. How could Bill Cosby possibly disapprove? As a vital pop-culture figure, Martin Lawrence rates an A, and his television vehicle is getting there. B+