The nostalgia for ‘90s Black sitcoms couldn’t be bigger than it is right now, with several favorites finally making their way onto various streaming platforms. And one of the biggest shows at the time was Martin, created by Martin Lawrence, who starred in it alongside Tisha Campbell as his onscreen girlfriend and eventual wife Gina Waters.
Thanks to starring in five seasons of one of Fox’s highest-rated sitcoms at the time and her Independent Spirit award-nominated performance as Sidney in House Party and its subsequent sequels, Campbell is one of ET’s Iconic Leading Ladies of the ’90s alongside Jane Seymour, Melissa Joan Hart, Suzanne Somers and Patricia Richardson.
After making her film debut in the cult film Little Shop of Horrors with friend and future Martin co-star Tichina Arnold, Campbell made the rounds, with appearances on A Different World and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, before landing in a promising pilot. While it was already promised seven episodes and Campbell was committed to do it, fate had another plan in mind.
That’s when Lawrence came to Campbell with a project of his own. “He was like, ‘Didn’t I tell you whatever I get — if it’s a movie or a TV show — you are going to be my leading lady?’” the actress recalls of Lawrence begging her to join his show while later learning that Arnold had been picked to play Gina’s best friend, Pam. “Even though something else was already picked up, in my soul, I knew that this was the thing I needed to do,” she says.
“I felt like it was the right thing and it turned out to be the right thing — much bigger than any of us could have imagined,” she continues, adding, “To see how it has stood the test of time, I never ever thought that we would be iconic.”
While iconic now for many reasons, it was revolutionary at the time for one of the few shows alongside In Living Color to help Fox become a major broadcast network and paved the way for more Black series, like Living Single, to follow.
And now, “it’s ingrained in the culture,” Campbell says.
But when it comes to creating Gina, who lives on decades later as the phrase “Damn Gina,” Campbell recalls everyone having a hand in establishing her character as a strong woman. “But then after a while I got to play with Martin. I learned so much,” she says. “I have learned everything about comedy from that man.”
Prior to that, Campbell says, “I was the drama girl. I was the girl who you would go to if you needed someone to cry in the scene.”
Over time, “Damn Gina” became a popular catchphrase that often is recited back to Campbell by fans. “It is the craziest thing,” the actress says. “I get that all the time but I don’t mind. I love it. I love that people revere it so much that all of the memes, they come from that and people love it and I appreciate it. We all do.”
Also making them realize just how popular Martin was were the number of Black celebrities that started showing up on set. “People would hang out all the time,” Campbell recalls. “I remember even the first time we had Snoop [Dogg] on the show. He said something right in front of me and Martin. He said, ‘I can’t believe we are in Gina’s house.’”
In addition to the rapper, who was one of several hip-hop and R&B acts to perform or appear on the show itself, Campbell says that Toni Braxton once sat in the audience. “Everybody in Black Hollywood [was there],” she says. “It was really cool [that] everyone stopped through. It was always a fun atmosphere.”
Looking back now, Campbell admits that she and the rest of the cast did not realize how important Martin was at the time. “There were so many Black shows going on at the time. What was important was that there were two young African American people who were in love,” she says. “Now, we had The Cosby Show representation. But we really [never] had two young people who were having fun, discovering each other, discovering life. I think that is [why] there are so many songs about Martin and Gina.”
While Martin and Gina would eventually get married and represent a type of relationship not often seen onscreen at the time, there was drama behind the scenes that ripped Martin and Campbell apart during the final season.
The two eventually reconciled after Campbell filed for divorce from her husband, Duane Martin, in February 2018. “I hadn’t seen him since the last day of the show, and I literally screamed,” she says of getting a call from her former co-star. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so happy to talk to you.’”
Campbell says the two “got to talk, apologize, love on one another. We were laughing at the end of it. We got to start appreciating everything that we’ve all been through. That’s what I think really life is all about. You go through these dark moments, and at the time you don’t really realize that is something that is needed to uplift you and make you bigger and better.”
In the time since, about a year and a half ago, the two as well as Arnold have had lunch together. What they talked about is “a private moment between me, Tichina and Martin,” Campbell says, adding, “That will always stay private. And all I know is that at the end of it, we are so good. We are just supportive of one another, supportive of each other’s families. We talked, it’s all good.”
The news of a reconciliation between the cast just gives further hope that there may be some sort of reboot or revival. So far, no major Black sitcom has gotten the same treatment as their white counterparts, including Full House, Mad About You, Roseanne and Will & Grace. The only version fans have gotten is a parody on Insecure season 3.
“We were like, ‘Look, if no one else is going to reboot a show about us — a Black show from the ‘90s — then we will. We’ll create our own reboot,’” showrunner Prentice Penny told ET, revealing that they came up with Kev’yn, an “original” series that is “very much a Martin, Living Single-type show” starring Bill Bellamy (How to Be a Player), Darryl M. Bell (A Different World) and Erika Alexander (Living Single), and then “rebooted” it for the HBO comedy starring Issa Rae.
In the meantime, Campbell says there’s interest in doing one, but things are stacked up against them. “We are trying to. It’s so hard to say,” the actress explains. “One, Tommy’s not here. [Ford died in 2016.] And the other thing is the schedule. It literally falls down to schedule. Every single one of us, thank God, is still working.”
While the chances for new episodes are slim, Campbell takes solace in the fact that “people are gravitating to the show even more,” she says, explaining that it’s just as popular as ever “because they just want levity. They wanna laugh.”
Campbell adds, “We made an impact and it was a big thing for us. And I do not take it lightly. I’m still grateful that I could ease and heal people with laughter.”
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