Martin Lawrence producing comedy for black viewers

Cast member Martin Lawrence gestures at the premiere of "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins" at the Grauman’s Chinese theatre in Hollywood, California January 28, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Martin Lawrence is returning to TV, executive-producing an African-American comedy for cable network TV One.

“Love That Girl!” -- set to premiere January 19 -- is the latest effort by independent producers to serve an audience on cable that’s been largely neglected by studios and broadcasters since the merger of the WB and UPN.

Without so much as a pilot order, writer-director Bentley Kyle Evans (“Martin,” “The Jamie Foxx Show”) shot four episodes of “Love That Girl!” on a shoestring budget of $1.2 million.

Evans called in favors from friends and colleagues to shoot the episodes over five days in a converted warehouse. Although self-financing a pilot has become more common as producers struggle to break though an increasingly consolidated studio landscape, producing four entire episodes is rare.

“Girl!” is described as a sexy comedy following a young divorcee who returns home to Southern California and takes a job in her father’s real estate business and lives with her unemployed brother. It stars Tatyana Ali (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “TV One Access”).

“It’s great to be back in the television game and working with a network like TV One,” Evans said. “If executed properly, this will represent a whole new model for producing and delivering quality scripted series to the television market at a reasonable cost.”

TV One will show “Girl!” over a three-night period starting January 19. This will mark the first original scripted program to air on TV One, which is available in roughly 50 million homes and typically features specials and syndicated programing, including repeats of “Martin,” one of the network’s top-rated shows.

If the episodes hit a certain rating, the network will pick up 13-26 additional half-hours. In addition to Lawrence, Evans and Jeff Franklin (“Full House”) are executive producers, as are Raphael Saadiq and Trenten Gumbs. In recent years, black comedies have experienced a revival on cable, with TBS drawing large audiences from Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns.”

“Payne” likewise had a modest launch, first being tested on several local stations before moving to nationally distributed TBS.