I have just come off the phone with a woman arguing about chickens. Chickens it seems are big again and I’m the man that everybody want so to speak to about this most glamorous of domesticated fowl.
Being big in chickens has made me realise that for too long I’ve been not been making the most of my talents. While people are out there selling books about chickens, documentaries about chickens, and even t-shirts about chickens, my own encyclopedic knowledge about chickens is going to waste. I am, you might say, somewhat chicken about the chicken.
Clive James writes some of the only poetry I tend to read these days. He writes some of the only prose I choose to read too. He wrote this beautiful verse for ‘The New Yorker’, which this morning led me to this cartoon about a chicken. I would suggest you go watch it except I don’t think it’s worth your time. I think my own chicken cartoon is funnier.
But, actually, if you look carefully, you'll see that my chicken cartoon is about a duck. I originally wrote it about a chicken but had drawn in a duck’s beak. Despite the cartoon working better with a chicken, I was too tired to change the beak. Which again proves that I don’t know my chickens. Or that I don’t understand other people’s chickens and my own ducks.
I don’t know if Clive James has ever written a poem about a chicken but I once wrote a novel about a duck. Ducks are like chickens but their comic effect is quite different. Simply saying the word ‘chicken’ can induce a smile. ‘Duck’ requires hard work. ‘Chicken’ has the proximity of the soft ‘c’ sound against the hard ‘k’ but its effect lies in that hard termination of the ‘n’. It is a laugh within seven letters. ‘Duck’ is a straightforward attack word and only works in the context of other words. The humour lies in using it to cut across a line that hints towards the eloquent. Comically, the ‘duck’ has to be timed just right. It terminates a sentence well. Almost too well. It is always funny to put it into a context where it does harm to the line: ‘shall I compare thee to a summer’s duck’. Though, in this example, you expect the ‘duck’ so it’s probably not that funny. It might have been better if I’d used a chicken instead.
I also suspect that more ducks appear in films than chickens, though I don’t recall if any ducks actually appear in ‘Duck Soup’ other than the opening shot of ducks swimming in a stewing pot. Ducks are comic props, to be passed between principals. They can also go ‘quack’. Chickens, on the other hand, are there to be kicked away or driven towards at high speed. Film chickens are the forgotten heroes of cinema. They are often reduced to squawking around the farmyard or thrown unceremoniously from a barn as a biplane goes crashing through the roof. I can think of no live action film in which a chicken has had a major role. Sylvester Stallone chases a chicken in ‘Rocky’ and Harpo Marx seems to have an endless supply of chickens to pull from his coat pockets. Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’ opens with chickens buried alive in the sand and having their heads blown off for target practice. (I’m tempted to make a joke about Pecking-pah but there’s nothing worse than a chicken pun.) But these are all bit parts, which seems rather sad given that chickens have played support for so long. After playing a supporting role in ‘Pat Garrett’, even Bob Dylan got a chance to star in his own film. The film was ‘Heart of Fire’. I can’t help but think that it would have been a better film if Dylan’s role had been played by a chicken.