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New series review: Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Standup (Starz)

Martin Lawrence, frontman, and Doug Williams, host

PASADENA, Calif. -- Pre-Don Imus but post-Michael Richards, comedian Doug Williams stood tall for anyone's right to use the n-word. And he didn't mean nappy.

"This is America, man," he told a roomful of TV critics in mid-January. "I mean, this show says it all."

The show is Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Standup, which premieres Wednesday, April 18 on the Starz premium cable network (10:15 p.m. central, 11:15 eastern). Lawrence is the half-hour series' executive producer, but otherwise a non-participant. He's no stranger to working "blue," though, and this series takes his cue.

"You don't have to agree with what someone says," Williams said. "I thought what Michael Richards said was horrible, and I was offended and all of those things. But do we have the right here in America to start telling people what they can and cannot say? I think once you infringe upon the First Amendment, then we are almost becoming like a Communist country."

Joey Diaz, one of 31 comedians deployed during the series, said it's his party and he'll say what he wants to.

"I don't work clean, and I refuse to work clean. I'm R-rated from the jump. I don't use the n-word, but if I'm onstage and it comes out, it comes out. I don't mean it in a derogatory way."

He's not a big enough name to be held to the Imus test. Frankly, who really gives a damn what Diaz says onstage? For the most part it's about who you are, not what you say. And the comics on 1st Amendment Standup aren't exactly towers of power in the name recognition department.

Williams, who both hosts and throws out a few opening jokes, welcomes the very profane Donnell Rawlings, the less so Ian Edwards and the very profane Sheryl Underwood to Wednesday's opening show. On another half-hour sent for preview, it's the super-profane Marilyn Martinez, the less so A.J. Jamal and the prototypically embittered Paula Bel, who says, "I hate Eskimos. I don't know why."

The Eskimo lobby, if one exists, won't bother to reprimand her. And Underwood won't be excoriated for calling Monica Lewinsky an "amateur ho" and President Bush "an ignorant ass hillbilly" in what turns out to be a defense of him.

Nor are the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson likely to come after her for saying, "You want some (n-words) rioting in the streets? Take off The Price Is Right."

Not coincidentally, it's the four black comedians who use the n-word while the other two stick to insulting gays or Hispanics.

Ian Edwards, who's black, jokes about a Great White Shark having to apologize for using the n-word because, well, that's just not done.

But he feels free to lob a crude joke at one of the world's most prominent black persons: "Some people don't think Condoleezza Rice is ugly. But you're wrong."

The show's venue is The Improv in San Jose, CA, where an enthusiastic, multi-ethnic crowd responds to just about anything with raucous laughter.

It makes one wonder how they'd react to a now-soiled Michael Richards. And as for Don Imus, well, he wouldn't have a chance. For now at least.

Grade: C