“Sa da tay!” — Pootie Tang
Oh, to be a fly on the wall when writer-director Louis C.K. slouched into the cool, vaguely Asian-themed office space of some Paramount bigwig with the pitch for his film Pootie Tang. In 20 words or less: It’s Dolemite meets The Last Dragon meets the Zucker brothers meets Jean-Luc Godard, and everything the hero says is complete gibberish. What? Not sold yet? Try these other hooks on for size: The entire movie is supposedly one long clip from a biopic called Sine Your Pitty On The Runny Kine, as presented to Bob Costas. The source of Pootie’s power is a belt he uses to whup his adversaries, and the wisp of a plot involves the theft and attempted retrieval of said ass-whupping belt. And the scenes are mainly surreal non sequiturs stitched together by music-video interludes that evoke rap-video excess and Austin Powers-style camp psychedelics. Crack open your piggybank, Viacom! Or as Pootie might say, “Cole me down on the panny sty, my damie.” Whatever the hell that means.
Of course, Viacom actually did knock a hairline crack in its piggybank, and Pootie Tang is, in fact, an actual movie that got made, not something you hallucinated while watching a Rudy Ray Moore vehicle on ‘shrooms. It’s easily one of the strangest and most inexplicable projects green-lit by a studio in the last decade, yet it happened, and I doubt any killer Louis C.K. pitch had much to do with it. (Hats off to him if I’m wrong on that one.) Studios are forever on the hunt for the next big thing in comedy, yet executives are rarely in touch with what that thing is and why it’s so popular. The nifty irony of Pootie Tang—a movie in part about the incomprehensible trends and slang that whoosh through popular culture—is that it owes its existence to the very phenomenon it’s satirizing. When it comes to fringe comedy, studio executives spend frugally and take a few calculated stabs in the dark: For every four or five ill-advised experiments in anti-comedy, like Freddy Got Fingered or Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy or Run Ronnie Run, there may be a Borat-like phenomenon waiting around the corner.
Still, “thin” doesn’t even begin to describe the concept behind Pootie Tang. The Pootie Tang character appeared in five-minute bits on HBO’s The Chris Rock Show (on which C.K. was a writer), and even Pootie cultists weren’t exactly begging for an additional 75 minutes of screen time. Though many people hate Pootie Tang and write it off as a fiasco of It’s Pat-like proportions—it flopped hard, currently enjoys a less-than-robust 4.4 user rating on IMDb, and was championed by few critics outside The New York Times’ Elvis Mitchell and The Village Voice’s Dennis Lim—at least C.K. has the vision to fail with memorable élan. The flashes of genius in Pootie Tang are chased by stretches of hyperactive inanity, but it’s one heck of a wild ride—jagged, episodic, at times nonsensical, and funny in ways that are completely unexpected and wholly original.
So who is Pootie Tang? As played by Lance Crouther, he’s the personification of cool, at least by the high standards of ‘70s blaxploitation: He’s like a streamlined version of Rudy Ray Moore, replacing Moore’s masculine paunch with a cut physique, and his mush-mouthed line-readings with an indecipherable made-up language that’s “too cool for words.” Pootie stands up to The Man, in this case Dick Lecter (Robert Vaughn), head of an omnipresent corporation that pushes drug, cigarettes, malt liquor, and Tasty Heavy Pork Chunk cereal on America’s children. He also contends with the pimptastic Dirty Dee (Reg E. Cathey, of The Wire and Oz fame), who’s like the malevolent Pigpen of the inner city, comfortable only when trailed by clouds of filth. In this early scene, Dirty Dee works as the point man for Lecter Corp, pushing crack on “the dumbest kid in town.” Only Pootie’s belt can stop him:
That clip offers a good idea of Pootie Tang’s junky aesthetic, from the whip-pans and jump cuts to its arcane references (dodging bullets in black leather pants and an open shirt, Crouther resembles Leroy Green after he gets “The Glow” in The Last Dragon) to the dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks Master P music cue. There can be a fine line between smart-stupid and stupid-stupid, and C.K. toes along it unsteadily throughout the film’s slender running time; he’s keenly aware of the cultural ephemera he’s sending up, yet he’s not invulnerable to it, either. Pootie Tang exploits blaxploitation and hip-hop conventions with the obscure particularity with which Wet Hot American Summer tackles ‘80s comedies like Meatballs, but without the same sure-handedness.
Whenever the film sags, however, Wanda Sykes comes along to pick it up again. Naturally, Pootie is a ladies’ man—they’re both the ornaments of his masculinity and the Kryptonite that brings him to his knees—and Sykes as Biggie Shorty represents his bedrock, the fiercely devoted woman waiting to rehabilitate him when he inevitably hits bottom. In the meantime, she occupies street corners in short skirts and fishnets, perpetually grooving like Rosie Perez in the opening credits of Do The Right Thing. As a comedian, Sykes excels at the brusque, in-your-face cutdown—just ask Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm—and she’s a grounding force here, too. When a couple of guys cruising for hookers inquire about her asking price, Biggie Shorty shoots back, “You think that just ‘cuz a girl likes to dress fancy and stand on the corner next to some whores, that she’s hookin?!”
Other members of the ensemble fare less well—casting Chris Rock in multiple roles is never a wise idea—but the real star of Pootie Tang is the absurdism that pops up at random intervals. A few favorites: Pootie’s blue-collar father dies after getting attacked by a gorilla (“only the third time a man had been mauled by a gorilla at that steel mill”); a scene where Pootie, looking to placate a desperate groupie outside his door, leaves her a bowl of milk as if she were a stray cat; a closing-credit where-are-they-now caption that places Dick Lecter on the touring company of Wesley Snipes’ Murder At 1600: The Musical. And then there are weird self-referential moments like this one, when the voiceover narration and the dialogue suddenly merge in a redundant chorus:
Pootie Tang repelled mainstream critics and audiences, but it holds an exalted status among alt-comedians and fans of subversive anti-comedy in general, who responded to it—and to similar films—as if to a dog whistle. (Ditto C.K.’s short-lived HBO series Lucky Louie, a minimalist sitcom that plays like a vulgarized Honeymooners.) It’s a shame C.K. didn’t have a firmer handle on the quality-control button, and who knows whether the studio had anything to do with bringing the Cuisinart into the editing room. But a piece of guerilla art like Pootie Tang isn’t supposed to be smooth sailing; it’s probably no coincidence that the cinematographer, Willy Kurant, was Godard’s lensman on 1966’s Masculin Féminin, another playful film that shot a few holes in the medium for sport. There’s an illicit excitement to movies like Pootie Tang, a sense that the filmmakers stole off with The Man’s money and really got away with something. Pootie himself would no doubt approve.
Next week: Beetlejuice
August 6: Naked
August 13: Dead Ringers
August 20: Stuck