Lance Crouther’s Pootie Tang character first appeared in a skit on The Chris Rock Show before making his big screen debut in 2001 in the eponymous feature film written and directed by Louis C.K. The movie bombed with critics – Roger Ebert gave Pootie Tang a half-star rating and The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin said the movie “borders on audience abuse.” That said, movies haven’t lived and died in theaters in a long time. Ever since the early days of cable television and VCRs, lots of movies have been re-discovered long after their bad reviews and lackluster ticket sales were forgotten, and in today’s world of Blu-ray discs, on-demand television and streaming services, movies regularly get second chances to find their audience."
Pootie Tang is already a cult classic that’s seen its reputation transform from an incomprehensibly stupid movie into a groundbreaking, “ahead of its time” comedy gem. This month the movie started streaming on Amazon Prime where it will undoubtedly pick up even more fans with its thoroughly ridiculous title character and a cast and crew packed with some of contemporary comedy’s best and brightest.
Pootie Tang is a pop singer and a film star who speaks only in a made-up lingo that everyone in the movie can understand, but no one in the audience can – it’s explained that even when Pootie was a child he was simply “too cool for words.” Pootie’s mother dies when he’s just a kid, and when his father is mortally injured in a gorilla attack at the steel plant where he works, he passes on his magical belt to his young son, telling him that he can defeat any evil in the world as long as he has right on his side and he’s wearing his daddy’s belt.
Pootie Tang is a comedy, but one of the things that makes it so unique is the way Louis C.K. blends the tropes of other genres into the proceedings: Pootie Tang himself is a send-up of Blaxploitation-era movie heroes like Sweet Sweetback meets Dolemite. The fight scenes where Pootie takes on the bad guys borrow from the Bruce Lee kung fu movies of the 1970s. Pootie takes out his foes with his daddy’s belt, swinging it just like Lee did in the famous nunchaku duel in Game of Death with C.K. laying the Hong Kong combat sound effects on extra thick. Pootie is known for his fighting and for being a ladies’ man, but he’s also a role model for children and his PSAs against fast food, drinking and drugs are putting a beating on the bottom line of the evil Dick Lecter, CEO of the LecterCorp. Pootie gets tricked into signing a contract with LectorCorp who steals his identity to sell their unhealthy burgers and malt liquor, leaving our hero fighting back to redeem his reputation and protect the kids.
If you’re not at least a little confused yet, you should also know that Pootie Tang really offers up a movie-in-a-movie: the film opens with Pootie Tang being interviewed by Bob Costas before they cut away to a clip from Pootie’s new film. That “clip” turns out to be the nearly all of the rest of the movie. Technically, when you sit down to watch Pootie Tang, what you mostly watch is a movie made by the Pootie Tang character in the movie Pootie Tang. The name of the film-in-the-film is Sine Your Pitty on the Runny Kine. Pootie Tang plays himself.
If this all sounds completely absurd, that’s because it is. In 2001, Pootie Tang was mostly judged to be terrible as well. But that was before Louis C.K. was recognized as the crankiest genius in comedy television and one of the best stand-ups of his generation. Chris Rock will most definitely find himself vaulted up next to Pryor and Murphy and Carlin and Bruce when we look back on his legendary career, and actors like Wanda Sykes and J.B. Smoove have become stars in their own rights if only for their hilarious turns on Curb Your Enthusiasm. All of these talented funny people were hilarious in 2001, but Pootie Tang had to wait for the rest of us to catch up.
It’s true that Pootie Tang is a movie that’s bad on purpose, but, like Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Neil Hamburger or even Norm Macdonald’s best, most subversive anti-humor, Louis C.K. knows when really bad is really funny. Pootie Tang is really funny. As the man himself might say, “Wa Da Tah.”
Pootie Tang is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.