One of television’s greatest tropes is introducing a maternal character who cares nothing for her child’s significant other. Mama Payne was part Southern Baptist, part firebrand with a tight gray wig. Only two things concerned Martin about his mother — the care of her pet bird, Ruby, and her biscuits. Being the overbearing, overly dramatic woman in Martin’s life was routine. It’s no wonder he turned out to be just as dramatic, overbearing and ridiculous in his own way too.
The best moments of Mama Payne’s visits occurred when Gina had to test herself. Taking care of Ruby, the parrot who called her everything but a child of God, was work. But dealing with Mama Payne at Thanksgiving? The actions of a saint in training. It’s one thing to meet your future mother-in-law and have her be rude. It’s another for her to walk in the door and have her call you a chickenhead. Let us never forget how Mama Payne lost her mind the moment she found out Martin and Gina eloped rather than have a traditional wedding among family and friends. Beware Mama Payne always. She’s liable to use some old-woman strength to tear something up whenever she’s upset.
Once upon a time, our lexicon was filled with the colorful language of 1970s pimps. They spoke often in rhyme; a twisted Shakespeare that probably gave birth to E-40’s linguistics. Then came Jerome. And on that fateful day he came along proudly sporting gold teeth and faded fashion, he still had enough game to try to win over all of Detroit. Even if that included trying to win over Pam time and time again, Jerome kept up appearances the way you would every first and the 15th.
Jerome’s existence in Martin serves the idea that Detroit was full of players and pimps. And there was no bigger player than Jerome, who probably is responsible for more “Himalaya” references in rap between 1993 and 1996 than anybody else. Unlike everyone else on this list, he actually got a proper send-off as a character with “Uptown Friday Night.” Jerome was always in the house, always.
Without the assistance of our No. 1, we wouldn’t know what floor Martin lived on. However, you knew where Bruh-Man stayed, even if he held up four fingers for reasons only he understood. You knew why he decided to come around and be a presence. You also knew that he essentially embodied the great parts of Hustle Man and, in the future, The Most Interesting Man In The World. No one knew what Bruh-Man did for work. Nobody truly cared. Because he was around. A fight party? Check. The all-time classic “Suspicious Minds” episode? Check.
Reginald Ballard, the man who played Bruh-Man, is from Galveston, so he immediately vaults up this list just for that. But again, absurdity. Why would such a large man with a slow, deliberate drawl and walk want to wear Martin’s clothes? Why would he always venture out into the world via a fire escape? Why was he such a kleptomaniac that the only place he loved to venture out into was Martin’s apartment? Better question — why, after all the instances, whether it be Bruh-Man taking his shoes off in the apartment, randomly rummaging in the refrigerator and “borrowing” things, did Martin trust him on a business venture?
Perhaps the most telling moment of Bruh-Man’s amazing existence was the Whitney Houston world tour when Martin was out of a job. Selling T-shirts is a Hustle Man thing. Selling T-shirts for the 'Whitty Hutton Wurd Toor,' proving that he can’t spell? A Bruh-Man thing. And there is nothing quite like Bruh-Man.
When I first began combing through the list of potential Martin characters who could be No. 1, Sheneneh was the obvious answer. No other character found a way to antagonize not only Gina and Pam but nearly everyone else in the Martin universe. If not for Gina losing Martin’s Pistons tickets, we wouldn’t have the episode where Gina had to work in Sheneneh’s shop in order to pay them back. We wouldn’t have “Forever Sheneneh.” We wouldn’t have a large history of big-braid, gold-hoop-earring comebacks, putdowns and insults. The genesis for any outrageous and absurd character that ever came from Martin Lawrence’s mind is Sheneneh.
In regards to the other Martin characters he embodied, few carried their own episodes like she did. Whether it be as a love interest or a general foil for Pam and Gina’s ascent into society, Sheneneh existed primarily to stand her ground — always. Jerome was a pimp, a ‘70s caricature who carried eternally through playsuits, high socks and representing the Himalayas. Otis got some shine when he attempted to protect the ladies of Martin from threatening young punks, but ultimately was a security guard with a potbelly and slacks that seemed two sizes too small. Mama Payne embodied every TV mom with a superego, and the death of her bird is an all-timer.
But the world still revolves around Miss Jenkins. After all, she lived across the hall. And without Sheneneh, you don’t get the full grasp of how absurd Martin could be. Or how so many characters high and low could exist in one simple space.