Thank God for Louis C.K. When he directed the 2001 film “Pootie Tang,” he was still an aspiring comedian, writer and director, not yet a household name, and certainly not the innovator on stage or behind the camera that we’re accustomed to today. Let’s just say no one was calling him a genius yet.
Chris Rock however imagined that C.K. one day could be a genius. C.K. wrote and directed on “The Chris Rock Show” and with Conan O’Brien on “Late Night,” and it was Rock who encouraged C.K. to start developing ideas for himself. But not before C.K. was tasked to adapt a successful sketch and character on “The Chris Rock Show” into a feature length film that would turn out to be the biggest failure of C.K.’s career: “Pootie Tang.”
The sketch is little more than Rock conducting an interview with a jive-talking pop star, and the film (barely qualifying as one at just 81 minutes) isn’t about much more. In fact, it’s a mess. “Pootie Tang” was such a disaster in 2001 that Roger Ebert wondered in his Half-Star review if it was even finished, imagining how such a wild mish-mash of a film could’ve possibly been made and released in this state. “Pootie Tang” is not bad so much as inexplicable,” he wrote. “How was this movie assembled out of such ill-fitting pieces?”
And yet if it weren’t for C.K.’s rise as a director, would anyone have given “Pootie Tang,” truly a cult classic that just had its 15th anniversary, the second look it deserves?In the original Pootie Tang sketches, Rock announces that his next guest Pootie Tang needed no introduction. Lance Crouther as Pootie, another writer on the show, would swagger out on stage dressed as a ridiculous assemblage of all the coolest black fashion quirks throughout generations. He’s got corn rows and a pony tail, thick black glasses, a fur vest, a necklace of shells, an open, hairy chest, leather pants, and a belt with a strange heart decal surrounded by yellow flower petals.
The audience is immediately in on the joke. No guy alive would look or dress like this, but if one did, he’d be the coolest cat on Earth. He’s so cool in fact that it wouldn’t matter if all he said was complete gibberish. “Sa da tay,” he says as he thanks Rock for having him on the show. It doesn’t mean a thing, but he says it with such laid back satisfaction that everyone gets it. And the bit always ends with Pootie taking his distinct slang a bit too far: “Cole me on the panny stye,” he says. When Rock calls him out on his gibberish, he corrects with the line, “Uh, Cole me down on the panny stye?”
Pootie doesn’t specifically belong to black culture or within any decade but could seemingly be an outrageous character and icon in all of them. So it’s easy to see how such a figure could be fleshed out into a folk hero for the purpose of the “Pootie Tang” film. In it, C.K. imagines Pootie as a movie star within a movie. The film opens with Pootie performing the same shtick with Bob Costas interviewing him about his new film, “Sine yo pitty on the runny kine.” In the fake film Pootie is previewing for Costas, he fights gangsters, has a controversial music career and serves as a role model for children. He’s so beloved, the evil businessman Dick Lecter wants to use Pootie’s image as a way to sell merchandise and plots a way for his wife Ireenie (Jennifer Coolidge) to seduce Pootie and steal his life rights.
On a plot level, there’s not a whole lot to see here. “Pootie Tang” really does play as a series of disconnected moments and gags that never add up to something greater. Wanda Sykes as Pootie’s love interest Biggie Shorty spends an awful lot of time dancing and gyrating on street corners. Vaughn’s evil businessman Dick Lecter is underutilized and adds up to a vague commentary on corporate America. And then for some reason Chris Rock dresses up as a stalk of corn.
But all those disjointed parts, all those “ill-fitting pieces” Ebert spoke of, they are what make “Pootie Tang” great. Unfinished or not, “Pootie Tang” demonstrates remarkable experimentation with form and subject. It’s messy, off the wall, ludicrous and feels patched together and incomplete, but that’s why it’s a cult gem.
C.K. didn’t get final cut on the film, and even if he did, it might be a stretch to think that it would be a cinematic masterpiece. Paramount’s then executive John Goldwyn berated C.K. in front of the entire MTV executive team, fearing a total fiasco. C.K. described to Howard Stern that to him it felt like he had ruined his one shot for success as a filmmaker. He got his foot in the door, and he blew his chance. To this day he looks back on “Pootie Tang” as a failure and a benchmark for what not to do on subsequent projects. “Surviving failure is a very great experience,” C.K. said. “I think my show now is succeeding because of “Pootie Tang.”
If C.K. really had his way, Pootie might look exactly the same yet exist in something of a dramedy, not unlike the mix of realism and surrealism found on “Louie”. Rather, “Pootie Tang” feels jokey, as though the studio added in J.B. Smoove’s narration after the fact. But the images themselves have a flatness to them, never sensationalized during Pootie’s childhood backstory or aiming for comic effect. There’s a woman in hysterics throwing Pootie’s big wheel trike out the window, or Pootie’s father (Rock, in one of several roles) getting attacked in a distant wide shot by what is clearly a man in a gorilla outfit (“It was only the third gorilla attack at the factory that month!”).
It’s absurd lunacy played with a straight face. The bit only works if you play along fully. On “The Chris Rock Show,” the ‘90s crowd whooping and reciting Pootie’s lines back to him do the job just fine. But separated from a live audience, C.K. faces an uphill battle.
As a result, C.K. plays with and breaks the film’s visual style at will. Suddenly he’ll incorporate intertitles, wipe cuts and dance breaks that could be recurring but never carry over into subsequent scenes or gags. At times the film has a music video aesthetic that looks like it could be a parody of the MTV culture of the day. At others it resembles a ‘70s Blaxploitation film, with intentionally half-baked, low budget production values complimenting the presence of characters like Dirty Dee (Reg E. Cathey), a gangster who dresses as though Pig Pen from Peanuts grew up to be a pimp. Then there’s a cold scene where after a performance, a woman clings to Pootie’s leg desperate to make love to him. He leaves her on the wrong side of a velvet door in a fluorescent-lit hallway. As she paws at the door like a lonely house cat, the camera ominously peering down from overhead, Pootie puts out a bowl of milk for her to lick up.
It’s as though C.K. was taking a page from David Lynch more so than “Saturday Night Live.” If you were a studio executive, with all the resources and production values in the world at your disposal, what would you make of a movie so under-produced and strange?
The studio wanted to make “Pootie Tang” work as a sketch film, and certain moments have that feel. There’s the scene when Pootie turns down all the levels in a recording studio and wails into the microphone, but makes no sound at all. The song becomes an outrageous, controversial hit with a parent screaming at his son, “Turn down that noise!” There’s a grossly hilarious moment where Pootie and a country-bumpkin, farmer’s daughter smother a pie over one another’s bodies. Or there’s a conversation in which Smoove’s narration echoes precisely what the character is about to say.
But most of the set pieces alone don’t work at all. It’s in the film’s editing and awkward flow that “Pootie Tang” finds its charm. In one scene near the end of the film, Pootie has a Western-style stand off with Dirty Dee. The two stare each other down, with fast jump cuts and close-ups making the two of them appear closer and closer to one another in Sergio Leone fashion. But the visual gag is that by the end of the sequence, they really are inching closer and closer, until their noses are pressed up together. Watching this on its own, it looks ridiculous, unnecessary and inscrutable even. But given the film’s pacing and its knack for absurd cinematic techniques, you begin to suspend disbelief to anything rational and accept it for the great visual gag it is.
None of this praise should suggest that C.K. hasn’t matured immensely as a filmmaker since “Pootie Tang.” On “Louie,” C.K. straddles the line between grittily personal melodrama and deadpan surrealism. He’s mastered his tone so that the individual parts stand on their own and serve the whole. “Pootie Tang” got released and marketed as a Chris Rock vehicle and a sketch movie in the vein of “The Ladies Man” or a black comedy like “Soul Plane,” but it works because it shows the promise of something greater. It’s just, like listening to Pootie speak, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the movie is trying to say. “Wa-da-tah.”